It is midnight, and James is sitting alone at the table playing solitaire against himself. The bottle of whiskey sits half-empty at his side, and it’s obvious by his slow movements that he’s quite drunk. Before long, Edmund enters, stumbling into something in the hall, which is dark because James is constantly turning lights off to save money. This sparks an argument between the two men, as Edmund tells him he should leave a light on in the hall because one bulb won’t run him into the poorhouse, and James claims he’s not “giving a ball” and thus shouldn’t need to light the whole house. This argument culminates when James threatens to beat Edmund if he doesn’t turn out the light, at which point he suddenly remembers his son’s frailty and instantly feels sorrowful.
The Tyrones can’t help but argue with one another, even when they don’t want to. Although Mary is normally the one instigating disputes, in this moment James and Edmund are at odds with one another on their own terms, a sign that their familial problems don’t all revolve around Mary. However, James finds it difficult to fight with his son because doing so makes him feel guilty. In turn, O’Neill shows the audience that the threat of Edmund’s illness is forever lurking in the family members’ collective consciousness.
Feeling sorry, James gets up and turns all the lights on, saying, “To hell with them! The poorhouse is the end of the road, and it might as well be sooner as later!” Laughing, Edmund says, “You’re a wonder, Papa.” James then asks where Jamie is, but Edmund doesn’t know because he didn’t go uptown to find him. Rather, he walked along the beach in the fog. However, he admits that he did end up giving Jamie half his money, so it’s likely his brother is at the brothel. Throughout their conversation, Edmund and James teeter on the edge of argument. Instead of indulging these disputes, though, they try to avoid confrontation, each one drinking steadily even as James says Edmund shouldn’t have alcohol with his illness.
Once again, O’Neill showcases the ways in which the Tyrone family goes back and forth between argument and forgiveness. In this scene, James and Edmund weave their way in and out of disputes, and James displays his loving concern for Edmund’s wellbeing by telling him not to drink, despite the fact that this is a rather hypocritical thing for him—a hard-drinking man—to say.
Edmund tells James that he stopped at the Inn on his way back, and when his father says he should have “more sense” than to get drunk when he has consumption, he says, “To hell with sense.” He then recites a poem before launching into a brief monologue about walking through the fog. “The fog was where I wanted to be,” he says. “Halfway down the path you can’t see this house. You’d never know it was here. Or any of the other places down the avenue. I couldn’t see but a few feet ahead. I didn’t meet a soul. Everything looked and sounded unreal. Nothing was what it is. That’s what I wanted—to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue and life can hide from itself.”
Unlike his mother, Edmund welcomes loneliness and isolation. Whereas Mary can’t stand to be alone, he relishes the idea that he’s by himself “in another world” where he can’t even see the people or places surrounding him. “Halfway down the path you can’t see this house,” he tells his father, a sentiment that indicates just how badly he wishes he could remove himself from the tumultuous emotional landscape of the Tyrone family. Unfortunately, he can’t bring himself to leave behind his family in earnest because he loves them.
When he senses his father regarding him with a worried look, Edmund says, “Don’t look at me as if I’d gone nutty. I’m talking sense. Who wants to see life as it is, if they can help it?” In response, his father tells him he is poetic but “morbid.” Going on, James says he shouldn’t have given Edmund a drink. “Well, what’s wrong with being drunk?” Edmund says. “It’s what we’re after, isn’t it? Let’s not kid each other, Papa. Not tonight. We know what we’re trying to forget. But let’s not talk about it now. It’s no use now.” “No,” James agrees. “All we can do is try to be resigned.”
When Edmund says, “Who wants to see life as it is, if they can help it?” he admits his desire to blot out the world by drinking. What he wants, it seems, is to alter the way he sees the world, searching for a way to make his otherwise bleak reality at least somewhat manageable. And though this is indeed a “morbid” thought, his father can’t help but agree, since he too uses alcohol to help him accept the difficulties of life. However, James correctly articulates the fact that this kind of coping doesn’t actually lead to acceptance, but rather resignation.
Drunkenly, Edmund continues to recite poetry, calling up a poem about a man sleeping with an overweight prostitute. This, he jokes, is probably what Jamie is reciting now as he himself sleeps with a prostitute. And though James finds some of these poems humorous, he can’t get over the fact that they’re all morbid, and so he criticizes his son’s taste, saying that he should focus on Shakespeare. Pausing in their conversation, they hear Mary moving around upstairs. “I hope to God she doesn’t come down,” James admits. “Yes. She’ll be nothing but a ghost haunting the past by this time,” Edmund agrees, saying that his mother likes to talk when she’s high about a time before he himself was born.
Although James and Edmund love Mary and are distraught that she has relapsed once again, they don’t want to see her. In fact, it is exactly because they’re so unhappy about her condition that they want to avoid having to look at her, as if pretending she’s not there will somehow help them forget their troubles. What’s more, they suggest that she isn’t truly there anyway, upholding that she’s “nothing but a ghost haunting the past” after having used morphine all day. In turn, they put their finger on the fact that Mary romanticizes the past as a way of ignoring her current reality.
Edmund says that the hardest thing to witness regarding Mary’s addiction is “the blank wall she builds around herself.” “Or it’s more like a bank of fog in which she hides and loses herself,” he says. “Deliberately, that’s the hell of it! You know something in her does it deliberately—to get beyond our reach, to be rid of us, to forget we’re alive! It’s as if, in spite of loving us, she hated us!” In response, his father reminds him that this is only “the damned poison,” but Edmund says that she takes the drug in order to “get that effect.”
In this moment, O’Neill calls attention to a difficult question: why do addicts take drugs? Does Mary take morphine because she already feels like there is “a bank of fog” around her, or does she take it specifically to achieve that “effect”? Of course, O’Neill provides no answer to this question, thereby inviting the audience to experience the frustrated confusion that a drug addict’s loved ones go through when trying to understand addiction.
James points out that part of the reason Mary relapsed has to do with how worried she is about Edmund, but Edmund rejects this idea, saying that James is the person to blame because he didn’t hire a good doctor for her when she was in pain after giving birth to him (Edmund). The doctor James hired, Edmund upholds, was cheap. When James refutes this point, Edmund switches tactics, claiming that his father has never given Mary any reason to “stay off” morphine, especially since he’s never provided her with a true home.
Once more, members of the Tyrone family blame one another. As James and Edmund try to force guilt onto one another, the audience begins to feel just how fatiguing this dynamic truly is. Indeed, it’s exhausting to watch these family members accuse each other of malice when, in reality, no one is to blame for Mary’s addiction. In turn, O’Neill underlines the ways in which addiction puts a strain on otherwise loving relationships.
Truly hurt, James pleads with Edmund to stop repeating his mother’s “crazy accusations.” Then, turning angry, he says, “If you insist on judging things by what she says when she’s not in her right mind, if you hadn’t been born she’d never—” With this, he stops talking, unspeakably guilty. “Sure. I know what she feels, Papa,” Edmund says. James quickly falls to apologizing, and they make up once again, though this peace only lasts several moments, as Edmund eventually suggests that his father is going to send him to the cheapest possible sanitorium because he thinks he’s going to die. James, for his part, vehemently denies this, but he eventually admits that it’s true he doesn’t want to overpay doctors. Still, he says that Edmund couldn’t possibly understand the way he sees the world, since he has lived a charmed life, whereas James himself has known true poverty.
When James talks about “judging things by what [Mary] says when she’s not in her right mind,” he implies that Edmund is to blame for his mother’s addiction, since Mary only started taking morphine after she gave birth to him (since the process of labor was so painful). And although he stops before fully voicing this thought, Edmund understands what he means and immediately feels dejected and sad—an indication that he does in fact feel partially responsible for his mother’s addiction. At the same time, though, he immediately tries to distract himself from this feeling by once more attacking James. As such, the toxic cycle of denial, blame, and guilt circles on and on.
James tells Edmund about his own upbringing, saying that he had to take over as the prominent bread-winner when his father died when he himself was only ten years old. His mother’s one fear, he explains, was that she would get sick and “have to die in the poorhouse.” This, he claims, is how he “learned to be a miser.” Now, though, he promises that Edmund can go to any sanitorium he wants, even the most expensive place. He then tells Edmund a sanitorium that Hardy’s specialist told him about, a place endowed by millionaire factory owners, who established the facility so that their workers could attend for only seven dollars a week. Apparently, Edmund is eligible to go to this sanitorium, but James says he doesn’t have to. Stifling a smile, Edmund says, “It sounds like a good bargain to me. I’d like to go there.”
Edmund can’t help but find humor in the fact that his father is trying to convince him to go to the cheapest available sanitorium. The fact that he agrees to go, though, is a testament to his love for his father, as he ultimately decides to put James first by agreeing to undergo the least expensive medical treatment. Of course, this might be a simple act of kindness, but it also suggests that Edmund has given up hope and resigned himself to the possibility that he might die. As such, he doesn’t care which sanitorium he attends.
“Maybe life overdid the lesson for me, and made a dollar worth too much, and the time came when that mistake ruined my career as a fine actor,” James says. Going on, he says he’s never told anyone this, but he believes the play that made him famous ultimately “ruined” him “with its promise of an easy fortune.” He tells Edmund a story about his glory days, when he played Othello alongside a famous actor who heaped praise on him. Because of his success in this show, he was able to land a large role only several years later, and it was this show that made him his first fortune. From that point on, he chased money, not an artistic career. “What the hell was it I wanted to buy, I wonder, that was worth—” he says. “Well, no matter. It’s a late day for regrets.”
Although James says that it’s “a late day for regrets,” it’s clear that this is exactly what he’s doing: regretting the mistakes he made in the past. Like Mary, he can’t help but think wistfully about the many choices he could have made instead of the ones he actually did make. In turn, his disappointment is perhaps why he spends his time drinking—he wants to be able to tell himself that his regrets don’t “matter,” but this is only something he can convince himself of when he’s drunk.
Looking up, James says that the lights he turned on are hurting his eyes, and so he asks Edmund if he minds if he turns them out. Once again, Edmund stifles his laughter and tells his father he can do what he wants. As he turns the lights out one by one, he says, “I’d be willing to have no home but the poorhouse in my old age if I could look back now on having been the fine artist I might have been.”
Despite the fact that James says he’d be willing to “have no home but the poorhouse” if only he could “look back now” on a respectable artistic career, the audience senses that this isn’t actually the case. After all, he’s currently in the process of turning off lights in order to save money, thereby demonstrating his obsession with riches. Nonetheless, his drunkenness blinds him to the irony of this moment, enabling him to deny the fact that he’s kidding himself.
Edmund and James hear Mary moving around again upstairs, and Edmund says, “Yes, she moves above and beyond us, a ghost haunting the past, and here we sit pretending to forget, but straining our ears listening for the slightest sound […].” He then decides to tell his father about his own career as a sailor, speaking poetically about one time when he lay down on the bowsprit of a boat and let the ocean pass beneath him. “I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it,” he says, “and for a moment in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life, or the life of Man, to Life itself!”
Perhaps the most important word of Edmund’s monologue about his time at sea is the word “belonged.” Indeed, when he says that he felt a sense of belonging as he crashed through the waves and looked up at the night sky, he suggests that he finally was able to shake his feeling of loneliness and isolation. However, the audience should note that he experienced this while staring into the sky in the middle of the ocean—an incredibly isolated moment in and of itself. As such, it seems Edmund felt that he “belonged” simply because he embraced the idea of loneliness. Coming to terms with the beauty of belonging to “something greater than [his] own life,” he found himself at ease, having finally transcended his loneliness by merely embracing it. Unlike his mother, then, he manages to find happiness in the idea of being alone. Mary, on the other hand, wants to banish her feeling of loneliness by living in a proper home, but it’s clear this would do nothing to ease her sense of isolation. What she needs to do, O’Neill implies, is come to terms with loneliness as an unassailable part of life. This, it seems, is what Edmund was able to do at sea.
Edmund continues his monologue about the wonders of traveling the world on his own, saying, “And several other times in my life, when I was swimming far out, or lying alone on a beach, I have had the same experience. Became the sun, the hot sand, green seaweed anchored to a rock, swaying in the tide. Like a saint’s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see—and seeing the secret, are the secret. For a second there is meaning! Then the hand lets the veil fall and you are alone, lost in the fog again, and you stumble on toward nowhere, for no good reason!”
Although Edmund has achieved a sense of “belonging,” he recognizes that he won’t always feel this way. Indeed, he has become accustomed to the isolating sensation of “fog” rolling in around him, and he doesn’t truly know how to fight this feeling. As such, he simply lives with his loneliness. Having had a transcendent experience—in which he accessed the “secret” of life—he is no closer to actually understanding or controlling his current circumstances. This, he implies, is simply the way life works.
Thinking for a moment, Edmund adds, “It was a great mistake, my being born a man. I would have been much more successful as a sea gull or a fish. As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death!”
Unlike Mary, Edmund accepts that he will “never feel at home.” Indeed, he believes that he will always live the life of a “stranger” who doesn’t “belong.” By contrast, Mary tries hard to deny the fact that loneliness and isolation are simply part of life, but this denial only makes it harder for her to cope with her current circumstances. Although Edmund is certainly not a model of happiness, O’Neill suggests, he at least doesn’t shy away from harsh realities.
Edmund and his father hear Jamie stumbling onto the porch. Wanting to avoid unnecessary arguments, James decides to step out as his son comes into the parlor. “Oh, hello, Kid,” Jamie says when he enters. “I’m as drunk as a fiddler’s bitch.” Flopping down in a chair, he recites poetry and pours himself a large drink. Head lolling, he launches into a tawdry song with disparaging lyrics about Mary. “Shut up!” Edmund threatens, but Jamie simply says, “Where’s the hophead? Gone to sleep?” Leaping from his chair, Edmund calls his brother a “dirty bastard” and punches him in the face. To his surprise, Jamie says, “Thanks, Kid. I certainly had that coming. Don’t know what made me—booze talking.” Edmund, for his part, apologizes for hitting him, and the two brothers put the dispute behind them.
Yet again, O’Neill shows the audience how quickly the members of the Tyrone family can get into an argument and then forget about the dispute altogether. In this instance, Edmund even punches Jamie, but the event still passes without much drama (all things considered). In turn, O’Neill spotlights yet another example of how guilt and rage influence the Tyrone family’s relational dynamics.
Jamie hypothesizes that the only reason he spoke so insultingly about Mary is because he’s so disappointed that she has relapsed. He really thought she would stay clean this time, he admits. “I suppose I can’t forgive her,” he says. “And then this stuff of you getting consumption. It’s got me licked. We’ve been more than brothers. You’re the only pal I’ve ever had. I love your guts. I’d do anything for you.” Before long, though, he drunkenly says that he wants to “warn” Edmund about himself. “Mama and Papa are right,” he says. “I’ve been a rotten bad influence. And worst of it is, I did it on purpose.” Going on, he says he intentionally exposed Edmund to his wild lifestyle so he himself wouldn’t look bad in comparison. Plus, he adds, it was Edmund’s birth that got Mary addicted to morphine, so he can’t help “hating [his] guts.”
In this moment, Jamie delivers a strange combination of sincerity and blame. On the one hand, he seems genuinely concerned about protecting Edmund from himself. On the other hand, though, he also delivers a cruel remark, ultimately blaming Edmund for Mary’s addiction to morphine. In this way, his confession is fraught with tension—so much so that the audience undoubtedly will wonder if he’s being sincere or simply trying to make Edmund feel guilty and sorry for him.
After Jamie makes this confession, he dozes off, at which point James sneaks back inside and pours a drink. Hearing his father’s voice, Jamie snaps awake and begins insulting him, but he and his father decide they’re too tired to argue. Suddenly, the lights snap on in the next room, and piano music issues forth, startling all three Tyrone men to attention. The song is stilted and awkward, and abruptly ceases. Moments later, Mary materializes in the doorway. Over one arm, her wedding dress is draped so that it drags carelessly on the floor. “The uncanny thing is that her face now appears so youthful,” O’Neill’s stage note reads. “Experience seems ironed out of it. It is a marble mask of girlish innocence, the mouth caught in a shy smile.”
The higher Mary gets, the more removed she seems from her present reality. What’s more, she appears to have journeyed even further into the past, so that now her face “appears” “youthful.” In this way, O’Neill presents her as a woman who’s deliberately evading the present. Morphine, the audience understands, is the only way she thinks she can access her past life, which she has romanticized in light of her dismal current circumstances. And yet, it’s obvious that she can’t recapture her youthfulness, as made evident by the fact that she’s dragging her wedding dress on the floor, ultimately sullying it. In this way, O’Neill suggests that Mary’s idealization of the past only desiccates the memory of that time period, which she’ll never be able to relive.
As Mary advances upon her family members, she “seems aware of them merely as she is aware of other objects in the room, the furniture, the windows, familiar things she accepts automatically as naturally belonging there but which she is too preoccupied to notice.” “The Mad Scene,” Jamie says in a scathing tone. “Enter Ophelia!” Both Edmund and James whirl to face him—horrified—and Edmund slaps him across the face. “All right, Kid,” he replies. “Had it coming. But I told you how much I’d hoped—” Without finishing his sentence, he breaks down, weeping.
When Jamie starts to cry, the audience understands that his callous jokes and brazen attitude are only feeble attempts to hide his grief. By making cruel quips about his mother’s addiction, he tries to deny just how troubled he is about the entire situation. When Edmund slaps him, though, he finds himself incapable of keeping up this charade, which is why he suddenly breaks down.
As if to herself, Mary speaks over Jamie’s sobs, saying, “I play so badly now. I’m all out of practice. Sister Theresa will give me a dreadful scolding. She’ll tell me it isn’t fair to my father when he spends so much money for extra lessons.” Going on, she talks about other nuns in the convent as if she’s still a little girl. “Let me see,” she says at one point. “What did I come here to find? It’s terrible, how absent-minded I’ve become. I’m always dreaming and forgetting.” Seeing that his wife is getting her wedding gown dirty, James jumps up and says, “Christ! Mary! Isn’t it bad enough—? Here, let me take it, dear. You’ll only step on it and tear it and get it dirty dragging it on the floor.” “Thank you,” Mary replies, as if to a stranger. “You are very kind.”
Although Mary has plunged herself into the past, her family members have not. This is why James is so troubled to see her dragging her wedding dress on the floor—he understands that she’s sullying the past by trying to relive it. For him, it’s painful to watch his beloved wife ruin herself while fantasizing about her previous life. Worse, she’s not even truly thinking about her wedding, but about the period of her life before she met James. Indeed, she is mainly pretending to be a girl in the convent; the wedding dress is just something she happens to have in her hands. As such, James is forced to watch her drag the dress around as an afterthought.
“It’s a wedding gown,” Mary explains as James takes the dress from her. “But I don’t know what I wanted it for. I’m going to be a nun—that is, if I can only find—What is it I’m looking for? I know it’s something I lost.” As she makes her way aimlessly through the room, James shouts her name, desperately trying to get her attention, but Jamie tells him there’s no use. “Something I miss terribly,” Mary continues. “It can’t be altogether lost.” Looking about herself, she says, “I remember when I had it I was never lonely nor afraid. I can’t have lost it forever, I would die if I thought that. Because then there would be no hope.”
The “it” to which Mary refers is left intentionally vague. When she says, “I remember when I had it I was never lonely nor afraid,” the audience understands why she doesn’t even know what she’s looking for. After all, there’s nothing in life that can completely banish loneliness. Unfortunately, though, Mary believes there must be some way to alleviate her unhappiness, and so she has spent her life searching for this elusive “it,” ultimately turning to morphine because it’s the only thing that numbs her to the world.
Unable to watch this display any longer, Edmund grabs Mary’s arm, turns her around, and yells, “Mama! It isn’t a summer cold! I’ve got consumption!” This almost penetrates the haze separating her from the rest of the world, as she “trembles and her expression becomes terrified.” “No!” she says, mostly to herself. Then, once more, she mentally retreats, saying, “You must not try to touch me. You must not try to hold me. It isn’t right, when I am hoping to be a nun.”
Seeing that his mother is using morphine in order to run from the things that upset her, Edmund decides to force the truth upon her. To do this, he tells her pointblank that he has consumption. And although it seems for a moment as if she understands what he has said, she quickly forces herself to keep up her ruse of living in the past. This, of course, is yet another attempt to turn away from reality.
As this scene unfolds, Jamie periodically recites poetry, which his father finds morbid. “Oh, we’re fools to pay any attention,” James says. “It’s the damned poison. But I’ve never known her to drown herself in it as deep as this. Pass me that bottle, Jamie. And stop reciting that damned morbid poetry. I won’t have it in my house!” Jamie pushes the bottle to his father, who pours himself a glass and sends the bottle back. Jamie then pours himself a glass and shoves the bottle to Edmund, who also pours a glass. When James raises his glass for a toast, his two sons follow suit, but Mary speaks before they have a chance to bring their glasses to their lips. As she begins, they all “slowly lower their drinks to the table, forgetting them.”
This is an important moment in Long Day’s Journey into Night. Throughout the play, the Tyrone men have tried many times to deal with the hardship of Mary’s addiction. Mostly, though, they’ve turned to alcohol as a source of relief, ultimately practicing the same kind of escapist behavior as Mary herself. Now, though, O’Neill shows the audience once and for all that the Tyrones won’t find solace in drinking. Indeed, when Mary begins speaking and the three men put down their glasses—forgetting about their toast—O’Neill suggests that their sadness is so all-consuming that it eclipses their desire to drink. Nothing they do, O’Neill intimates, will ever distract them from the sorrow they feel about Mary.
“I had a talk with Mother Elizabeth,” Mary says, speaking about the convent once again. “She is so sweet and good. A saint on earth. I love her dearly.” She goes on, praising Mother Elizabeth until a certain point, whereupon she says, “All the same, I don’t think she was so understanding this time. I told her I wanted to be a nun. I explained how sure I was of my vocation, that I had prayed to the Blessed Virgin to make me sure, and to find me worthy. […] But Mother Elizabeth told me I must be more sure than that, even, that I must prove it wasn’t simply my imagination. She said, if I was so sure, then I wouldn’t mind putting myself to a test by going home after I graduated, and living as other girls lived, going out to parties and dances and enjoying myself.”
At this point, it’s clear that the Tyrones have fully lost Mary to the past. High out of her mind and unwilling to acknowledge the present, she has plunged into her past life. In turn, the title of the play once again brings itself to bear on the characters; Mary has, it seems, been on a “long” “journey” throughout the entire day, dosing herself with morphine until now, finally, she has lost herself to the “night,” when she can finally leave the present altogether and lose herself to an uninterrupted fantasy of the past.
Mary explains that Mother Elizabeth told her if she still wanted to be a nun after living “as other girls lived,” then she could return to the convent. “After I left her, I felt all mixed up,” she says, “so I went to the shrine and prayed to the Blessed Virgin and found peace again because I knew she heard my prayer and would always love me and see no harm ever came to me so long as I never lost my faith in her. […] That was in the winter of senior year,” Mary says. “Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time.” As Mary stares out into “a sad dream,” James “stirs in his chair,” Edmund and Jamie sit still, and the curtain closes.
The end of Long Day’s Journey into Night is appropriately anti-climactic. After all, this is not a play with a robust or surprising plot. Rather, the entire production concerns itself with the ways in which the Tyrone family copes with sadness and addiction. For Mary, this means taking drugs and reminiscing about the past as a way of ignoring the present. As such, the play ends with her staring out into “a sad dream” of the past, rehashing the moment her life changed and set her on a path to unhappiness. Meanwhile, her family members sit idly by, feeling utterly helpless. Estranged from Mary because she is nothing but a “ghost haunting the past,” they have no choice but to resign themselves to the hopeless reality of her addiction.