Long Days Journey Into Night

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Explore the significance of the past in the play “Long Day’s Journey

Into Night” by Eugene O’Neill

At the very start of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, O’Neill sets the scene for the theme of the past being integral to the play directly with the dedication to the love and tenderness of his wife – “… which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play – write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all of the four haunted Tyrones.” This admittance that the play was written as a sort of autobiography, a partial re- telling of O’Neill’s personal history, means that it seems almost intrinsically connected to the past right from the beginning, the intimation from the author being that he wrote it as a form of catharsis in order to deal with the real events from his own life. Consequently the theme of the past is introduced before even the first Act has begun. The idea that he is ‘facing his dead’ is a particularly apt one as at the time of writing the play, the people upon whom its characters are based – O’Neill’s family – had all passed away some years before. His father, mother and elder brother Jamie are all portrayed in the same roles in the play as they had in real life, and with similar histories. The only alteration is that instead of the middle son being named Edmund, O’Neill changes the baby’s name to his own, and calls it Eugene, having the fictional Edmund take the place of himself within the family.

The main way in which the characters seem constantly to trap themselves

in the past is through their constant blaming of the present upon past events. There is nothing in the present to which they do not attribute any blame, and none of them in any way seem to blame themselves for what has happened to them, preferring instead to blame each other. Consequently none of their conversations can be held without somehow referring to the past, as it is the past upon which they have built their relationships with each other. The relationship between Tyrone and Jamie for example is one in which Jamie blames Tyrone for his miserliness with his money, which he believes is what led to his mother’s addiction to morphine, and her recent unhappiness which caused her to return to

the drug. Tyrone blames his son for being an “evil-minded loafer”, and says that


he is responsible both for making nothing of his own life, and also for leading Edmund astray. In fact, the blame for these character defects does not lie within Tyrone or Jamie as personalities, but rather with the circumstances which caused these traits.

For Jamie, his alcoholism and cynicism are largely to do with his discovery of his mother’s drug addiction when he was younger – it is made clear that prior to this discovery, Jamie was talented and enthusiastic, excelling at school and clearly liked by many people.  He himself admits that the event had a large bearing on his life in just the same way that he has resorted to alcohol in order to purge himself of the same sort of knowledge about Edmund - “Christ, I’d never

dreamed before that any women but whores took dope! And then this stuff of you

getting consumption. It’s got me licked…”. Jamie’s cynicism clearly did not exist before he discovered that his mother used morphine, or at least not to the same degree, the fact that he’d ‘never dreamed’ of the idea effective in suggesting how completely distant it was from his mind – and therefore how different his mind must have been from its present state of suspicion.

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The circumstance precipitating Tyrone’s miserliness were similarly ones which he

himself did not contrive – when he was only ten years old, his father abandoned the family and Tyrone was forced to go and find work, living a large part of his life in poverty. It is this which has made him so conservative with his money, and reluctant to expend more than is absolutely necessary, preferring to invest it in property, which he believes is the best way to keep it safe. The power of money over him is made particularly clear when the audience are told that, ...

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