Long Day's Journey into Night: Summary, Analysis and Characters

Long Day's Journey into Night: Summary, Analysis and Characters
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  • 1:04 Characters
  • 1:26 Act I
  • 3:09 Act II
  • 5:10 Act III
  • 5:47 Act IV
  • 7:01 Analysis
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jeff Calareso

Jeff teaches high school English, math and other subjects. He has a master's degree in writing and literature.

You may think that your family has issues, and maybe that's true, but few families are as tragic as the Tyrone family in Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece 'Long Day's Journey Into Night'.

Long Day's Journey into Night

Did you ever think about writing a story that exposes the ugliest aspects of your family? Maybe you worried about the reaction it would get.

If it's any consolation, Eugene O'Neill felt the same way. His masterpiece Long Day's Journey into Night is unquestionably autobiographic. It focuses on a single day in 1912 that encapsulates much of what had happened in O'Neill's life that same year.

When he wrote it in 1940, he was no first time author. He already had three Pulitzer Prizes and a Nobel Prize. Still, the subject matter of the play is so revealing and dark that he wanted the play to remain unpublished until 25 years after his death. His wife didn't listen though, and it premiered in 1956, just a few short years after he died. She must have known its greatness. It won O'Neill his fourth Pulitzer, albeit posthumously, in 1957.

Characters

There are four main characters in the play. First is James Tyrone, who is referred to as Tyrone. He's the patriarch. He's led a successful acting career, just like O'Neill's actual father. His wife is Mary. Their two grown sons are Jamie and Edmund. Jamie is in his early 30s, while Edmund is in his early 20s.

Act I

In the first act, we're getting to know the family. It's the summer of 1912 and we're at their summer home.

We start with Tyrone and Mary. Mary is pleased to be gaining weight. You see, she's battled a morphine addiction since being given the drug during Edmund's birth. She just returned from getting treated for the addiction. This parallels O'Neill's life, where his own mother long battled a morphine addiction that began at his birth.

When Edmund enters the room alongside his brother, it's clear that he's sick. He's coughing constantly and visibly unwell. Mary insists that it's just a bad cold, but the others seem to know more.

After Mary and Edmund leave, Tyrone and Jamie argue. They both think Edmund has tuberculosis. Jamie is upset that Tyrone, who is frugal to a fault, is using too cheap of a doctor. It comes out that Tyrone used a cheap doctor when Edmund was born, so his stinginess may have originally caused Mary's addiction.

Tyrone counters that his son wastes money on prostitutes and liquor. Tyrone also worries that Jamie's lifestyle sets a bad example for Edmund. Again, this parallels O'Neill's life. His older brother also led a frivolous life of prostitutes and booze.

Jamie and Tyrone both want the best for Mary. But they realize that if Edmund really has tuberculosis, he'll need to go to a sanatorium. Then they won't be able to hide it from Mary.

Mary enters and says she knows they're lying to her. They leave and in comes Edmund, still coughing. Mary lectures him a bit about hanging around with loose women. She's also convinced her sons are spying on her, suspicious of a relapse.

Act II

Act II begins with some pre-lunch whiskey for the Tyrone boys. Mary comes in and Edmund goes to get his father. While they're alone, Jamie insinuates that he knows Mary's using again. When Tyrone comes in, there's more drinking.

The drinking is important - there's a lot of drinking in this play. And this isn't a Mad Men, drink while you work kind of thing. This is serious alcoholism. Mary goes off on Tyrone about not providing a proper home for her. Her outburst makes it clear to Tyrone that she's back on morphine.

In the next scene, Mary is becoming increasingly aloof due to the morphine. Then Tyrone takes a call from the doctor to make an appointment with Edmund. When Mary steps out, the Tyrone men argue about religion. Tyrone wants the boys to be good Irish Catholics. Edmund adheres to Nietzsche's statement that 'God is dead.'

When Edmund leaves, Tyrone tells Jamie that the doctor confirmed over the phone that Edmund has tuberculosis and needs to go to a sanatorium. But Tyrone thinks the disease is fatal, so why bother spending money? Jamie notes that that's totally not true.

Now, I mentioned that this play is set in 1912. In real life, that was the year O'Neill did really get tuberculosis and did really have to spend a year in a sanatorium. When Jamie leaves, Mary returns. She and her husband argue over money, morphine and booze. It comes out that Mary had a baby before Edmund who caught measles from Jamie and died. She regrets having Edmund, thinking that he was destined to be sickly.

Okay, try to follow this. O'Neill's parents were named James and Mary, just like the parents in the play. And O'Neill's real life older brother was really named Jamie. There was also a middle brother who died as a baby. But in real life, that was Edmund. In the play, the dead brother is Eugene. So all O'Neill did was swap his own name with the middle brother he never knew.

Act III

Act III begins just before dinner. Mary, who is increasingly doped up, recalls how happy she was before she married Tyrone. Then Tyrone and Edmund arrive, both drunk. Jamie is still uptown drinking at a whorehouse. Tyrone says about Jamie, 'If he's ever had a loftier dream than whores and whiskey, he's never shown it.'

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