One morning in August of 1912, James and Mary Tyrone walk into the parlor of their summer home after breakfast. The house is filled with old and important books, and a portrait of Shakespeare hangs on the wall. Mary is a fifty-four-year-old woman who looks healthy, but her hands are constantly fidgeting, signaling a certain restlessness. By contrast, James is confident and assured, striding into the parlor with the unmistakable gait of a successful theater actor who “has no nerves” and has “never been really sick a day in his life.” As the couple advances through the room, James tells his wife how happy he is that she looks healthy and has gained weight. Undercutting this good mood, though, he stops to listen to his two sons in the next room, resentfully guessing that they’re laughing at his expense.
When James tells Mary how pleased he is about her health, the audience intuits that she is not usually so fit or stable. This, of course, is most likely why her hands are constantly fidgeting—she is, it seems, a naturally nervous person. Although she’s in good health now, she clearly can’t forget whatever hardships have befallen her in the past. James most likely can’t forget these hardships either, as evidenced by the fact that he goes out of his way to praise Mary’s seemingly newfound stability. In turn, O’Neill intimates that the Tyrone family is burdened and haunted by the past. On another note, James’s assumption that his sons are making fun of him is an indication that tends to instinctively accuse others of malice.
Banishing the idea of his sons from his mind, James lights a cigar and talks about how wonderful it is to smoke after breakfast. “It was McGuire put me on to them,” he says, to which Mary bitterly replies, “I hope he didn’t put you on to any new piece of property at the same time. His real estate bargains don’t work out so well.” Arguing this, James points out that one of the properties he bought from McGuire actually did make a “quick turnover,” but Mary simply says, “I know. The famous one stroke of good luck.” Then, reconsidering her words, she says, “Never mind, James. I know it’s a waste of breath trying to convince you you’re not a cunning real estate speculator.”
Although James and Mary are in seemingly good spirits, it’s worth noting their inability to avoid confrontation. However small, this dispute about McGuire suggests that Mary resents James for buying so much land. Furthermore, when she says, “I know it’s a waste of breath trying to convince you you’re not a cunning real estate speculator,” she reveals a certain kind of pessimism, or a worldview in which people are not only incapable of change, but also incapable of recognizing their own shortcomings, essentially living in denial of their flaws.
The sound of coughing comes from the next room, and Mary tells James that he ought to be worried about the fact that Edmund isn’t eating enough. “He needs to eat to keep up his strength,” she says. “I keep telling him that but he says he simply has no appetite. Of course, there’s nothing takes away your appetite like a bad summer cold.” James agrees that loss of appetite is “only natural” when a person has a summer cold, adding, “So don’t let yourself get worried.” In turn, she assures him she’s not too worried, though she remarks that it’s a “shame” he’s sick “right now.” “Yes, it is bad luck,” replies James, casting a worried look in her direction. “But you mustn’t let it upset you, Mary. Remember, you’ve got to take care of yourself, too.”
In this moment, James’s love for his wife comes to the forefront, as he worries in a vague way about her nervousness. Indeed, although the audience doesn’t yet know why he goes out of his way to make sure Mary isn’t too stressed about Edmund’s illness, it’s clear that something has unsettled him. This, it seems, is yet another indication that he—and perhaps Mary herself—is troubled by something that has happened in the past, which is why he wants to do what he can to keep Mary from getting “upset.” At the same time, this approach seems to encourage her to deny difficult feelings—a way of coping that is problematic in and of itself.
Defensively, Mary says she isn’t “upset,” and asks James what would make him think otherwise. “Why, nothing, except you’ve seemed a bit high-strung the past few days,” he answers, but she tells him this is merely his imagination. “You really must not watch me all the time, James. I mean, it makes me self-conscious,” she says. In response, he tells her he hasn’t been monitoring her, then adds, “I can’t tell you the deep happiness it gives me, darling, to see you as you’ve been since you came back to us, your dear old self again. So keep up the good work, Mary.”
When Mary tells James that he shouldn’t “watch” her so closely because it makes her feel “self-conscious,” O’Neill suggests that whatever has taken place in the past for the Tyrone family has affected the ways in which they interact with one another. As James tries to pay attention to his wife, she finds herself resenting his attention. This is because his scrutiny perhaps makes her feel guilty for putting him through such emotional turmoil. In turn, though, she essentially makes him feel guilty for not leaving her alone. As such, the audience sees even in this early stage of the play the cycles of guilt that circulate throughout the Tyrone family’s relational dynamic.
Mary tells James she’ll “keep up the good work,” then admits she does feel “out of sorts.” “I wasn’t able to get much sleep with that awful foghorn going all night long,” she says, expressing how glad she is that she fog seems to have lifted.
As she complains about the grating effects of a nearby foghorn, Mary’s nervous sensibility surfaces once again. By showing the audience how easily she can be unraveled by a rather ordinary occurrence, O’Neill suggests that whatever ailment Mary has suffered in the past might be easily awoken, thereby lacing a sense of dread and pessimism through the play.
Again, Mary and James hear their sons laughing in the next room, and James grouchily assumes the joke is about him. Nonetheless, Mary says it’s “a relief to hear Edmund laugh,” regardless of the joke. Ignoring this, James fixates on the idea that his sons are laughing at him, suggesting that Jamie must have told a mean joke. “Now don’t start in on poor Jamie, dear,” Mary says. “He’ll turn out all right in the end, you wait and see.” In response, James says that Jamie is “nearly thirty-four” and, thus, doesn’t have much time to “turn out all right.”
The familial tensions that run throughout the Tyrone clan are readily apparent in this moment. Indeed, one might argue that James is misplacing his stress by berating his son, Jamie. Unsettled by Mary’s recent nervousness—a sign that she might be headed for disaster—he focuses his own restless energy on his sons, ultimately blaming them for his own discontent.
Jamie and Edmund finally enter. Jamie is thirty-three and resembles his father, but his appearance is remarkably worse, since he “lacks his father’s vitality” and “the signs of premature disintegration are on him.” Edmund, for his part, is ten years younger but looks frail and sickly. He resembles both parents, but has a stronger likeness to his mother, mostly because of his visible nervousness. As they enter, Mary asks why Jamie is staring at her. “Is my hair coming down?” she asks. “Your hair’s all right, Mama. I was only thinking how well you look.” When he says this, James and Edmund heartily agree.
When Jamie scrutinizes his mother, it becomes obvious that James isn’t the only one in the family who is worried about her. In fact, all three Tyrone men are apparently concerned about her well-being, as evidenced by the way they emphasize “how well” she looks. Given that they’re so eager to reassure her, it’s clear that whatever ailment has plagued Mary in the past is most likely emotional or psychological, since it seems related to her mood. Otherwise, her family members wouldn’t try so hard to keep her in good spirits.
Edmund and Mary talk about the fact that James is a loud snorer, and Jamie agrees, saying, “The Moor, I know his trumpet.” Defensively, James replies, “If it takes my snoring to make you remember Shakespeare instead of the dope sheet on the ponies, I hope I’ll keep on with it.” In response, Mary tells him not to be so “touchy,” and Edmund chimes in, saying, “The first thing after breakfast! Give it a rest, can’t you?” However, Mary then says, “Your father wasn’t finding fault with you. You don’t have to always take Jamie’s part.”
In this quick back-and-forth, Mary both mocks and defends her husband, instantly switching allegiances when Edmund chastises his father for being so sensitive. This, it seems, is simply the way the Tyrone family operates. Constantly finding their way into arguments, they blame one another for small things, then retract what they’ve said because they feel guilty.
Uninterested in the family’s blossoming argument, Jamie says, “Let’s forget it,” but James immediately jumps down his throat, saying, “Yes, forget! Forget everything and face nothing! It’s a convenient philosophy if you’ve no ambition in life except to—” Before he can finish, Mary cuts him off and changes the subject by asking her sons what they were laughing about earlier. Edmund then launches into a story, telling his parents about an encounter he had at the local Inn with an Irish tenant who lives on one of James’s properties. Before he can begin, Mary tells him in a concerned voice that he shouldn’t be drinking, but he ignores her and pushes on, saying that this tenant has been letting his pigs swim in his millionaire neighbor’s pond. When the millionaire confronted him about this, the tenant accused him of coaxing the pigs into his pond to kill them.
Once again, the Tyrones prove themselves incapable of avoiding conflict with one another. James is especially sensitive, clearly savoring any opportunity to criticize Jamie for not having enough “ambition in life.” What’s more, it’s worth noting that Mary interrupts Edmund’s story to tell him he shouldn’t be drinking because of his “summer cold.” As such, the audience realizes that Mary isn’t the only person the family worries about. Indeed, Mary herself knows what it’s like to love someone intensely and fret about their demise, as made clear by her insistence that Edmund avoid alcohol while he’s sick.
As Jamie laughs with the others at Edmund’s story, James turns on him and tells him to stop laughing, scolding him for being a lazy worker. This annoys everyone present, and they all tell him to stop criticizing Jamie. Edmund, for his part, stomps upstairs to read a book, and Mary tells James not to “mind” him because he “isn’t well,” though she quickly adds, “A summer cold makes anyone irritable.” Hearing this, Jamie says, “It’s not just a cold he’s got. The Kid is damned sick.” As he says this, his father shoots him a “sharp warning look,” but he fails to intercept it. With resentment, Mary says, “Why do you say that? It is just a cold! Anyone can tell that!” Quickly interjecting, James suggests that Jamie simply meant Edmund “might have a touch of something else, too, which makes his cold worse.”
Again, the Tyrone family proves that it is especially prone to unnecessary conflicts, ones in which family members turn on each other quickly and without warning. What’s more, it becomes clear that Mary doesn’t want to consider the fact that Edmund might have something more than a “summer cold.” Indeed, she would rather deny this possibility, and James is all too willing to indulge this emotional reflex. This is because he himself is worried that any bad news might unhinge his wife. As such, he protects her from reality by trying to undo the harsh effect of Jamie’s realistic outlook.
Pushing on, James says that Doctor Hardy thinks Edmund might have malarial fever from working in the tropics. “Doctor Hardy!” Mary scoffs. “I wouldn’t believe a thing he said, if he swore on a stack of Bibles! I know what doctors are. They’re all alike. Anything, they don’t care what, to keep you coming to them.” Stopping short, she sees her husband and son staring at her. “What is it?” she asks. “What are you looking at? Is my hair—?” Cutting her off, James comes to her and assures her that she looks fine, teasing her by saying that she’s simply fishing for compliments. This eventually encourages her to speak longingly about how beautiful her hair used to be, and then she departs, saying she must go talk to the cook about dinner. On her way out, she reminds James not to make Edmund do any work.
Once more, Mary demonstrates her wish to deny that Edmund might be seriously ill. By discounting Doctor Hardy, she attempts to erase all likelihood of Edmund having something more than a simple “summer cold.” As she goes on her rant about Hardy, Jamie and James stare at her uneasily, as if they can’t help but worry about her state of agitation. As such, they quickly try to reassure her that everything’s all right when she realizes they’re scrutinizing her. Yet again, then, O’Neill demonstrates how Mary’s family members try to hide the fact that they’re worried about her reverting to her old ways (though he hasn’t yet revealed what those ways are).
“You’re a fine lunkhead!” James says to Jamie when Mary leaves. “The one thing to avoid is saying anything that would get her more upset over Edmund.” Jamie shrugs at this, saying, “Have it your way. I think it’s the wrong idea to let Mama go on kidding herself. It will only make the shock worse when she has to face it. Anyway, you can see she’s deliberately fooling herself with that summer cold talk. She knows better.” He continues by admitting he doesn’t believe Doctor Hardy really thinks Edmund has malaria. “He couldn’t say anything for sure yet,” James says in reference to a conversation he had with the doctor the day before. “He’s to phone me today before Edmund goes to him.” “He thinks it’s consumption, doesn’t he, Papa?” Jamie asks, and James says, “He said it might be.”
Despite the fact that Jamie is—according to his father, at least—lazy and unaccomplished, he at least understands the value of acknowledging the truth. Instead of simply letting his mother deny the possible reality of Edmund’s illness, he wants to make her “face it” so that she isn’t “shock[ed]” later on. Unfortunately, though, he exists in a family that doesn’t believe in handling problems this way, and so he’s forced to go along with the charade that Edmund only has a “summer cold.”
Pained to hear his brother might have consumption, Jamie says that this might never have happened if James had sent Edmund to a “real doctor when he first got sick.” Defensively, James asks what’s wrong with Doctor Hardy, and Jamie upholds that the man is a “cheap old quack.” After telling his son that he has no excuse to speak so disparagingly of others, since he’s not drunk, James says, “If you mean I can’t afford one of the fine society doctors who prey on the rich summer people—” At this, Jamie interrupts, saying, “Can’t afford? You’re one of the biggest property owners around here.” Nonetheless, James claims that this doesn’t mean he’s rich, since his houses are all mortgaged. “Because you always buy more instead of paying off mortgages,” Jamie says. “If Edmund was a lousy acre of land you wanted, the sky would be the limit!”
Jamie’s reaction to the possibility of bad news is worth noting, for it is a perfect example of how the Tyrones deal with misfortune. Although he believes in acknowledging harsh realities, he still adopts an escapist attitude when it comes to truly confronting difficult issues. Indeed, rather than making peace with the fact that Edmund might have consumption—otherwise known as tuberculosis—he immediately blames his father by saying that none of this would have happened if James had spent money on a better doctor. This essentially takes his mind off the situation at hand, ultimately manufacturing a superficial conflict that he can focus on instead of thinking about Edmund’s illness. As such, the use of blame becomes a method of emotional denial.
When James starts to argue against Jamie’s accusations of his cheapness, Jamie tells him to stop, saying he knows he “can’t change the leopard’s spots.” In response, James says he knows this all too well, since he himself has “lost all hope” that Jamie will make something of himself. “You’ve never saved a dollar in your life!” he says. “At the end of each season you’re penniless! You’ve thrown your salary away every week on whores and whiskey!” He then says that if Jamie weren’t his son, no one in the acting business would give him a part. In his own defense, Jamie says he never wanted to be an actor in the first place, but that James forced him to do it. In turn, James says he only did that because Jamie couldn’t get any other job.
It's clear that the argument James and Jamie have about Jamie’s pathetic career is yet another form of denial. Eager to avoid any kind of true consideration of Edmund’s illness, they blame each other for other misfortunes. In turn, they distract themselves from the matter at hand.
Jamie tells James not to “drag up” “ancient history,” but James upholds that it’s not “ancient history” because his son “has to come home every summer” to live with him. Eventually, Jamie says, “All right, Papa. I’m a bum. Anything you like, so long as it stops the argument.” Returning to their conversation about Doctor Hardy, James says he couldn’t have found Edmund a better doctor, since Hardy has treated the boy since he was a child. Speaking regretfully about Edmund, he says that he has “deliberately ruined his health by the mad life he’s led ever since he was fired from college.” Going on, he says, “Even before that when he was in prep school, he began dissipating and playing the Broadway sport to imitate you, when he’s never had your constitution to stand it.”
Although James and Jamie have purposefully—though unknowingly—found their way into this argument, they eventually tire of it. This is why Jamie tells his father to stop referencing things that have happened in their tumultuous past. Once he stops the argument, then, it’s unsurprising that the two men are forced to return to their original conversation about Edmund, since they have exhausted their distraction. Interestingly enough, though, one gets the sense that they have genuinely forgiven each other for the nasty things they said throughout the course of their argument, a fact that suggests they’re quite accustomed to these kinds of disputes.
Picking up on the fact that his father is speaking about Edmund as if he’s a goner, Jamie begins to talk about the power of modern medicine. Before he can finish, his father tells him he knows this, eventually suggesting that they should stop talking about Edmund. “The less you say about Edmund’s sickness, the better for your conscience! You’re more responsible than anyone!” he says. This, he argues, is because Jamie was a terrible influence, making the boy “old before his time” and “pumping him full of what [Jamie] consider[s] worldy wisdom.” In turn, Jamie admits that he did “put Edmund wise to things,” but only because he saw that the boy had already started to “raise hell.”
The peace that James and Jamie have just managed to strike only lasts for several moments, as James immediately accuses Jamie of corrupting Edmund. As such, the audience sees how volatile their relationship is, even when they’ve decided to stop “drag[ing] up” “ancient history.”
After a moment, Jamie says, “That’s a rotten accusation, Papa. You know how much the Kid means to me.” Moved, James says, “I know you may have thought it was for the best, Jamie. I didn’t say you did it deliberately to harm him.” Jamie then points out that there’s nothing anyone could really do to influence Edmund anyway, since he’s surprisingly stubborn. “What had I to do with all the crazy stunts he’s pulled in the last few years—working his way all over the map as a sailor and all that stuff. I thought that was a damned fool idea, and I told him so.” Going on, he says that he himself likes to “stick to Broadway, and a room with a bath, and bars that serve bonded Bourbon.”
Once more, James and Jamie make up, forgiving one another despite the vehemence they’ve just displayed. What’s more, when Jamie says that no one could possibly influence Edmund, he destabilizes the notion that it’s possible to blame someone for another person’s shortcomings. In turn, O’Neill suggests that people are ultimately responsible for their own actions, despite how hard they—or others—might try to shift culpability onto their loved ones.
Wanting to say something nice about Edmund, James remarks that his son has been doing well working for the local newspaper, but Jamie instantly says, “A hick town rag! Whatever bull they hand you, they tell me he’s a pretty bum reporter.” Then, ashamed, he says, “No, that’s not true! They’re glad to have him, but it’s the special stuff that gets him by. Some of the poems and parodies he’s written are damned good.” James agrees that Edmund has “made a start,” pointing out that Jamie himself used to want to be a newspaper man but never wanted to “start at the bottom,” to which Jamie replies, “Oh, for Christ’s sake, Papa! Can’t you lay off me!”
Again, James and Jamie cycle through yet another revolution of blame and forgiveness. This time, though, it’s worth noting that Jamie appears somewhat jealous of Edmund’s relative success, which is why he’s so eager to diminish his little brother’s accomplishments. At the same time, though, he feels guilty for disparaging Edmund, suggesting that—despite his enviousness—he ultimately loves his brother.
Switching course, James says that it’s “damnable luck” that Edmund is sick “right now.” “It couldn’t have come at a worse time for him,” he says. “Or for your mother. It’s damnable she should have this to upset her, just when she needs peace and freedom from worry. She’s been so well in the two months since she came home.” He goes on to say that “this time” Mary’s strength and confidence is evident. “She’s a different woman entirely from the other times,” he says, suggesting that she has “control of her nerves.” Or, he says, she did up until Edmund fell ill. “Now you can feel her growing tense and frightened underneath," he says. "I wish to God we could keep the truth from her, but we can’t if he has to be sent to a sanatorium.”
When James says that Mary seems “a different woman entirely from the other times,” he reveals that she has gone through the same hardship multiple times. Although the audience still doesn’t know what, exactly, Mary struggles with, it’s now quite clear that it has to do with her “nerves” and her ability—or inability—to stay calm. This is why James wants to “keep the truth” of Edmund’s illness from her, ultimately wanting to keep her in denial because he thinks she will unravel if she has to confront reality.
James points out that the situation with Edmund is made worse by the fact that Mary’s father died of consumption. Nonetheless, he states his belief that Mary can find the willpower to cope with the bad news if Edmund does indeed have consumption. “Of course, Papa,” Jamie says. “Outside of nerves, she seems perfectly all right this morning.” Immediately, James asks why Jamie used the word “seems,” asking him “what the hell” he means. Jamie then tells him he heard Mary get up late the night before. “Well, you know how it is,” he says, “I can’t forget the past. I can’t help being suspicious.” Going on, he says, “Around three o’clock this morning, I woke up and heard her moving around in the spare room. Then she went to the bathroom. I pretended to be asleep.”
When Jamie says that he “can’t forget the past” and “can’t help being suspicious,” the audience understands why the Tyrones are constantly scrutinizing Mary—they are closely attuned to her because she has previously demonstrated a seeming inability to remain stable. At this point, it begins to become obvious that the ailment Mary struggles with most likely has to do with addiction. After all, there are very few other reasons why her family members would be so “suspicious” of the fact that she’s walking around at night. Indeed, Jamie seems afraid that his mother’s “nerves” are going to encourage her to sneak off on her own and use drugs in the dead of night.
“She told me herself the foghorn kept her awake all night, and every night since Edmund’s been sick she’s been up and down, going to his room to see how he was,” James says, to which Jamie replies, “It was her being in the spare room that scared me. I couldn’t help remembering that when she starts sleeping alone in there, it has always been a sign—” Vehemently interrupting, James yells, “It isn’t this time! It’s easily explained. Where else could she go last night to get away from my snoring?”
In the same way that James wants to help Mary deny the frightening possibility that Edmund is seriously ill, he himself desperately wants to deny the fact that his wife is about to relapse. This is why he yells at Jamie for being suspicious of Mary. Indeed, he buys into Mary’s narrative about the foghorn keeping her awake, ultimately enabling himself to avoid confronting the possibility that she’s using drugs again.
Despite his outbreak, James considers the story Jamie has just told him, saying, “It would be like a curse [Mary] can’t escape if worry over Edmund—It was in her long sickness after bringing him into the world that she first—” Jamie cuts him off here, offended by the idea that James is blaming Mary for her own troubles. “I’m not blaming her,” James insists, but Jamie asks, “Then who are you blaming? Edmund, for being born?” By way of response, James says, “You damned fool! No one was to blame.” Nevertheless, Jamie suggests that the doctor his father hired to deliver Edmund was to blame, saying that he was “another cheap quack like Hardy.” “So I’m to blame!” James says. “That’s what you’re driving at, is it? You evil-minded loafer!”
Throughout Long Day’s Journey into Night, characters often begin to say something fraught and disturbing, but stop before they finish. This creates a sense of mystery and vagueness that illustrates just how unwilling the family members are to acknowledge hardship. However, it’s possible to infer what they mean when they begin certain sentences. For example, when James says, “It would be like a curse [Mary] can’t escape if worry over Edmund—It was in her long sickness after bringing him into the world that she first—," it’s reasonable to assume that Mary’s ailment first started when Edmund was born. What’s more, the fact that the process of Edmund’s birth brought on a “long sickness” suggests that Mary was most likely in pain. In turn, the audience can intuit that she was given pain-killing drugs, and from here it’s obvious that this must be how she became addicted in the first place. This is why James finds irony in the idea that Mary might relapse as a result of worrying about Edmund, whom he underhandedly suggests was the reason for her addiction in the first place. In this way, he once again uses blame to help himself cope with a difficult situation. Jamie, for his part, resents his father for making such ghastly implications. However, he proceeds by blaming James for hiring an incompetent doctor to treat Mary, ultimately casting blame onto his father in the same way that James tries to blame Edmund for Mary’s addiction.
Suddenly, Jamie shushes his father because Mary has entered the room. “Well,” he says as a cover-up, “if we’re going to cut the front hedge today, we’d better go to work.” When Mary advances into the room, she asks what her husband and son were arguing about, and Jamie claims was simply suggesting that Doctor Hardy isn’t his “idea of the world’s greatest physician”—an opinion Mary agrees with before urging them both to go about their business outside to “take advantage of the sunshine before the fog comes back.” Before the two men leave, Jamie tells his mother he’s proud of her and that she has to be “careful.” “You mustn’t worry so much about Edmund. He’ll be all right,” he says. “Of course, he’ll be all right,” she replies. “And I don’t know what you mean, warning me to be careful.”
Mary’s obsession with the fog seems to correlate with her nerves, as she is apparently incapable of ignoring the possibility of its return. In this way, it is similar to her family’s fear that she is going to relapse. Indeed, the Tyrones all have pessimistic attitudes that cause them to resign themselves to the possibility of a bleak future. This is why Jamie goes out of his way to tell his mother she shouldn’t worry about Edmund so much, though it’s worth noting that this goes against what he said earlier about not hiding the truth from Mary. By spotlighting this contradiction, O’Neill shows the audience that how hard it is for loved ones to decide what’s best for one another.
On his way out, Jamie apologizes for telling Mary to be careful, and then he and James exit. Once alone, Mary sits in a chair, “her face betraying a frightened, furtive desperation.” After a moment, Edmund enters and admits that he waited until his father and brother went outside because he feels “too rotten” to argue with them. “Oh,” Mary says, “I’m sure you don’t feel half as badly as you make out. You’re such a baby. You like to get us worried so we’ll make a fuss over you.” Laughing, she tells him she’s only teasing, instantly soothing him and telling him she’ll take care of him, though he says that she should focus on caring for herself.
Once more, Mary goes out of her way to diminish the severity of Edmund’s illness. When she says that he’s “a baby” who simply wants attention, it’s clear she’s simply trying to convince herself that she need not worry about him. This attitude is somewhat self-centered, since Mary tries to dismiss her worries for her own sake instead of acknowledging what Edmund is actually going through.
Looking out the window, Mary comments on their neighbors, whom she sees passing in a Mercedes. “People like them stand for something,” she tells Edmund. “I mean they have decent, presentable homes they don’t have to be ashamed of. They have friends who entertain them and whom they entertain. They’re not cut off from everyone.” Turning from the window, she adds, “Not that I want anything to do with them. I’ve always hated this town and everyone in it. You know that. I never wanted to live here in the first place, but your father liked it and insisted on building this house, and I’ve had to come here very summer.” Trying to placate her, Edmund tells his mother that living here is “better than spending the summer in a New York hotel,” but Mary upholds that she’s never felt like this was her home.
When Mary praises her neighbors and says they have “decent, presentable homes they don’t have to be ashamed of,” she reveals her desire to live in a house she truly believes is her own. What’s more, she also implies that she feels lonely and isolated, as made evident by the fact that she jealously says her neighbors aren’t “cut off from everyone.” Strangely enough, though, she then goes out of her way to uphold that she doesn’t actually want what her neighbors have. As such, O’Neill suggests that what Mary truly wants is to get rid of her own loneliness. Because this has nothing to do with living in “decent, presentable homes,” though, she’ll never be able to shake her feelings of isolation.
“It was wrong from the start,” Mary says about the family’s summer house. “Everything was done in the cheapest way. Your father would never spend the money to make it right.” This, she claims, is why she’s never been able to have friends. She also believes it’s why Edmund and Jamie have never been able to entertain respectable women—they don’t have a presentable home. In response, Edmund says it’s unfair to blame everything on James, since even if he had wanted to change things, he would have had a hard time because of her habits. “Don’t,” Mary says. “I can’t bear having you remind me.” Edmund insists that he’s trying to help, “Because it’s bad for you to forget. The right way is to remember. So you’ll always be on your guard. You know what’s happened before.”
In this conversation, Edmund recognizes the detrimental emotional effects of using blame to avoid thinking about one’s own shortcomings. Telling his mother it’s “bad for [her] to forget” about her addiction, he encourages her to “remember” what she’s been through in the past. This, he intuits, is the only way to keep herself on “guard.” Blaming James, Edmund suggests, will only make it easier for Mary to avoid taking responsibility for her own actions and, in doing so, slip back into her old habits.
“God, Mama, you know I hate to remind you,” Edmund says to Mary, maintaining that he’s only doing it for her own good. In response, she says she doesn’t know why he’s speaking this way, asking why he and everyone else is “so suspicious all of a sudden.” “It makes it so much harder, living in this atmosphere of constant suspicion, knowing everyone is spying on me, and none of you believe in me, or trust me,” she says.
Although it may be true that her family members’ suspicions make it “harder” for her to remain sober, it seems in this moment that Mary is purposefully guilt-tripping her son for encouraging her to acknowledge her history of addiction. By making Edmund feel ashamed for bringing up her troubled past, she essentially forces him to trust her. This, it’s worth noting, is exactly what a person who is on the verge of relapsing might do in order to avoid scrutiny.
Edmund tells Mary that he, Jamie, and James do trust her, but that they worry about her. Still, she laments the fact that none of them feel comfortable leaving her alone, and then she “insist[s]” that Edmund tell her why he seems so “suspicious” of her this morning. “It’s stupid,” he says. “It’s just that I wasn’t asleep when you came in my room last night. You didn’t go back to your and Papa’s room. You went in the spare room for the rest of the night.” This, she says, is because of James’s snoring. “For heaven’s sake,” she adds, “haven’t I often used the spare room as my bedroom? But I see what you thought. That was when—” Guilty, Edmund cuts her off to insist that he wasn’t suggesting anything, but she doesn’t believe him. “It would serve all of you right if it was true!” she says.
When Mary says, “That was when—,” O’Neill once again provides the audience with only the first half of a sentence that would undoubtedly be fraught with meaning if it were to be finished. He does this in order to emphasize the extent of the Tyrone family’s denial. Indeed, Mary is hesitant to talk about her addiction, and even Edmund—who supposedly believes such matters must not be forgotten—is perfectly happy to cut his mother off so he doesn’t have to hear her talk about her troubled past. Of course, this willingness also has to do with the fact that his mother has shamed him for “suspecting” her. Suddenly, he is eager to convince her that he trusts her, though it’s obvious he should not, since she says it would “serve” her loved ones right if their suspicions were true.
Edmund tells his mother not to say such morbid things, saying, “That’s the way you talk when—.” Before he can finish, though, she says, “Stop suspecting me! Please, dear! You hurt me!” She then says that she simply couldn’t sleep because she was worried about his sickness, and he tells her that he simply has a “bad cold.” However, he also says that he wants her to promise that she won’t revert to her old ways if his illness turns out to be more serious, but she refuses to hear this, saying, “I won’t listen when you’re so silly! There’s absolutely no reason to talk as if you expected something dreadful.” Even so, she gives him her “sacred word of honor” that she will continue to take care of herself. “But I suppose you’re remembering I’ve promised before on my word of honor,” she adds.
Mary is quite good at making her loved ones feel bad about watching her closely. In fact, she’s a bit too good at this for someone who supposedly has nothing to hide. Indeed, she shames Edmund into pretending as if he doesn’t “suspect” her, telling him that he is “hurt[ing]” her. What’s more, she blames his sickness for her uneasiness, claiming that she’s out of sorts because she’s worried about him—a statement that no doubt makes him feel even worse about himself. By doing this, she encourages him to leave her alone, ultimately enabling herself the kind of autonomy and privacy she would need if she were to relapse without her family finding out. In short, she plays on her son’s love as a way of manipulating his trust.
Once more, Edmund insists he doesn’t suspect Mary, but she ignores him, saying she can’t blame him. “How can any one of us forget? That’s what makes it so hard—for all of us. We can’t forget.” Changing the subject, she says she feels “tired and nervous this morning,” saying she “ought to go upstairs and lie down.” At this, Edmund “gives her an instinctive look of suspicion” and then quickly looks away, ashamed. “Or are you afraid to trust me alone?” she says. “No!” he replies. “Can’t you stop talking like that! I think you ought to take a nap.” He then goes outside to lie in the shade and watch Jamie work. Once he’s gone, Mary sits and drums her fingers against the armrest before leaning forward in “a fit of nervous panic,” her eyes wide and her hands “driven by an insistent life of their own.”
In this final moment of Act One, it is overwhelmingly obvious that Mary is purposefully manipulating Edmund by making him feel guilty for “suspecting” her of relapsing. When she declares that she wants to go upstairs alone—a telltale sign that she’s planning to use drugs—she says, “Or are you afraid to trust me alone?” In doing so, she forces Edmund to act like he does indeed “trust” her. Given the tormented way she behaves after he leaves, though, it’s clear she’s about to do exactly what he fears.