Eugene O’Neill’s ‘A Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ portrays Tyrone family’s hopeless review of their past -- the circumstances, choices and actions that have shaped the course of their lives and relationships to the present dismal realities troubling them. Closely based on his own life and presenting one of America’s favorite dramatic themes of the dysfunctional family, ‘A Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ is often hailed as O'Neill's greatest play. Written in the early 1940s the play was not performed until his death in 1953; when performed two years after his death it won O’Neill the Pulitzer Prize and gained him the reputation as America’s foremost playwright and a status of eminence among world’s greatest dramatists.
The Tyrones represent a typical dysfunctional American family– James Tyrone, the father, is purely materialistic and has all through his life cherished the Great American Dream of getting rich; but he is an alcoholic with no soft sentiments for his wife and children. Mary, the mother, who lives in the past is irreparably addicted to Morphine; Jamie, the elder son, is a dissolute alcoholic, taken to women, whisky and songs and fails miserably at everything; and Edmund the youngest is committed to a sanatorium for the treatment of tuberculosis. As the play advances the four characters slashes callously at each other for their misery, undergoes bitter revelations and through inevitable self-examination finally realize their roles in shaping their doomed-to- failure lives. The play ends as the family prepares to confront the stark realties through the cathartic cohesiveness of the familial bond and love that has held them together through their unruly past. [O’ Neill, 1989]
“Written in tears and blood,” O’Neill expounds “deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones.” [Cited Manheim, 1998; p. 89] Yet, the character of James Tyrone, at whom fingers point too often for the pathetic decay and disintegration of the family attract particular interest for his individuality and the powerful impact of O’Neill’s characterization. Even as the reader is inclined to defend Mary and to accuse James for the family’s’ ill fate, O’Neill sympathetically justifies James through his play aiding the reader to empathize with his character.
James Tyrone, the dramatic representation of O’Neill’s own father, is an aging actor of Irish origin, who had left his artistic aspirations and potentialities for commercial success. Yet his confession to Edmund, “I’ve never admitted this to anyone before, lad, but tonight I’m so heartsick I feel at the end of everything, and what’s the use of fake pride and pretense. That God-damned play I bought for a song and made such a great success in- a great money success- it ruined me with its promise of easy fortune,” [O’ Neill, 1989; p. 149] suggests his deep regrets over his choice, as the reader empathizes with James’ compulsions to renounce artistic pursuits in realizing the Great American Dream. As Shannon observes, his gifts have been “marred by the ordeal of immigration; he has borne the terrible strain of inventing himself as a new character in a new society” [Shannon, 1989; p. 278]
James is censured for his stinginess, in both money and human compassion, which according to his wife and sons is the main cause of the pathetic decay of the family members. As the conflicts between him, Mary and Jamie reveal, James is apparently responsible for Mary’s initial addiction – he had refused to pay the high costs for a good doctor during her delivery; the cheap quack who was hired solved Mary’s pain through morphine leading her into addiction. Embarking on long travels performing “the perfect play” for financial success, he had not cared enough for the family, putting them up in cheap hotels with bad food. Though now he is fairly rich and knows that Mary’s situation is hopeless, he refuses to spend money on their summerhouse to make it pleasant for her; and he commits Edmund to a state sanatorium for saving money.
James reluctantly acknowledges and traces the cause of his stinginess to his childhood poverty. Deserted by his father during his childhood, his family was poor and deprived in the most terrible sense: “[T] here was no damned romance in our poverty,” [O’ Neill, 1989; p. 110] he tells Edmund and Tyrone learned, as he frequently puts it, the value of a dollar: “A dollar was worth so much then. And once you’ve learned a lesson, it’s hard to unlearn it. [O’ Neill, 1989; p. 148] Although now reasonably rich, Tyrone is unable to escape his memories of poverty. He fears if his life would end in poverty, and tries to secure his future by investing in real estate. He considers it financial prudence — his pragmatism when analyzed in the backdrop of his deprived childhood appeals to human compassion as the reader begins to understand and identify with James’ materialism.
James derisive stance about his sons is one aspect that draws particular attention. James criticizes Jamie as being a lazy and ungrateful loafer, and a bad influence on his brother Edmund. He disapproves Edmund’s interest in poetry and philosophy, and denounces his favorite authors as atheists and degenerates. The religious predispositions of James Tyrone facilitate one to understand his despise for Jamie and Edmund. A staunch Irish Catholic, James despises his sons for rejecting the faith. “You have both flouted the faith you were born and brought up in – the one true faith of the Catholic Church and your denial has brought nothing but self-destruction,” [O’ Neill, 1989; p. 66] —his derisions hide his concern for his sons of whom he had held high aspirations
Chabrowe’s comment that O’Neill wrote plays “aiming to reveal man’s struggle – with its paradox of triumph in failure — against the mysterious force that shapes his existence and limits him,” [Cited Krasner, 2005; p. 155] vitally applies to the characterization of James Tyrone. James Tyrone has struggled all through his life, abandoning an enjoyable and artistically satisfying life for securing wealth. Yet at the fag end of his life’s journey he realizes that his greed for money has shattered his dreams, causing despondency and despair. The character of James assumes significance in exemplifying the theme of the play. His long journey of revelations and self-analysis through the day eventually changes him, as he and his family prepare themselves to confront the dark realities surrounding them – a paradox of triumph in failure.
Krasner, D. (Ed) (2005) Companion to Twentieth Century American Drama Blackwell Publishing, Massachusetts
Manheim, M. (Ed) (1998) The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
O’Neill, E. (1989) Long Day’s Journey into Night. Yale, New Haven.
Shannon, W.V. (1989) The American Irish: A Political and Social Portrait University of Massachusetts Press, Massachusetts