In Long Day’s Journey into Night, O’Neill showcases how hard people will work to avoid confronting their guilt. This dynamic is most evident in the way Mary tries to keep her family from focusing on her addiction. First and foremost, she takes attention away from her morphine habit by staunchly denying that she is headed toward yet another relapse. However, her denial isn’t enough to placate her worried family members, and so she accuses them of distrusting her. This is a way of deflecting their suspicions by forcing them to pretend—along with her—that nothing is wrong. Of course, once they begrudgingly give her their trust, she relapses. Then, once she’s high, she continues to blame them for her own shortcomings, finding it even easier to avoid taking responsibility for her actions. In fact, after she’s taken morphine, she goes even further with her guilt-tripping, ultimately accusing James—in a roundabout way—of driving her to addiction, and Jamie of killing her second-born son, who died of measles as a baby. In turn, O’Neill shows the audience the extravagant lengths people will go to in order to cope with their own sorrows without having to face their feelings of guilt and culpability—even if doing so means destroying their own familial relationships.
Because Mary has relapsed so many times, her family members pay close attention to her at the beginning of Long Day’s Journey into Night. When Edmund notices her walking around the house at night, he fears she’s reverting to her old ways, recalling that she used to get up late and go into the guestroom to inject morphine. When he confronts her about this, though, she guilt-trips him for distrusting her. “For heaven’s sake,” she replies, “haven’t I often used the spare room as my bedroom? But I see what you thought. That was when—” Feeling remorseful, Edmund interrupts, saying, “I didn’t think anything!”
Nonetheless, Mary accuses him of distrusting her, bitterly adding that it would “serve [him] right if it was true” that she was using the drug again. “Mama! Don’t say that! That’s the way you talk when—” Edmund begins, but Mary cuts him off and says, “Stop suspecting me! Please, dear! You hurt me!” It’s worth noting here that Mary hasn’t actually started using morphine yet, but her nervous behavior is a clear indication that she is nearing another relapse. Nonetheless, she hasn’t broken down, suggesting that her intense response to Edmund is an attempt to convince herself that everything is still okay. Indeed, she wants to deny the possibility of a relapse, as if she isn’t already on the cusp of succumbing to her craving.
While it’s true that Mary wants to deny the possibility of yet another relapse, it’s also evident that something else is at play in her conversation with Edmund. When she says “you hurt me,” for example, the audience gets the uneasy feeling that she’s purposefully trying to manipulate him into feeling ashamed for even suggesting she might relapse. By doing this, she slyly convinces him to ignore his misgivings. Even though it’s logical for him to suspect her of relapsing, she makes it seem as if he’s being cruel, and this keeps him from following up on his suspicion. In this way, she uses blame as a way of enabling herself to do the very thing her family is afraid she’ll do: relapse.
Knowing his mother is worried about his own illness, Edmund tries to make her promise that—if he’s diagnosed with something serious—she won’t turn to drugs as a way of coping. “Of course, I promise you. I give you my sacred word of honor!” Mary says. But then, with what O’Neill calls a “sad bitterness,” she adds, “But I suppose you’re remembering I’ve promised before on my word of honor.” Interestingly enough, Edmund vehemently denies this, saying, “No!” As such, he proves how successful Mary has been in guilt-tripping him into feeling bad about “suspecting” her. After all, Edmund surely has heard her “promise” on her “sacred word of honor” before, but he goes out of his way to make it seem like he’s not worried or suspicious. In keeping with this, when Mary says she’s going upstairs to lie down—something she used to say when she was using morphine—he gives her an “instinctive look of suspicion” before looking away “ashamed of himself” and going outside, thereby affording her a moment alone—an opportunity she takes advantage of by going upstairs and injecting morphine.
Once Mary finally relapses, she becomes less subtle about blaming her loved ones for her own hardships. In one argument, she blames her husband, James Tyrone, for turning Jamie, their eldest, into an alcoholic. “You brought him up to be a boozer. Since he first opened his eyes, he’s seen you drinking,” she says, failing to recognize that Jamie has also witnessed her own substance abuse. “When you have the poison in you, you want to blame everyone but yourself!” James replies. This is quite true, as made evident by what Mary says when discussing the death of her second-born child, Eugene, who died as a baby. Indeed, she says she should never have left the child alone with her mother, but that she did so because James invited her on the road (there is, it’s worth noting, an unspoken accusation even in this small detail). When she was gone, she upholds, Jamie went into Eugene’s room and infected him with measles—something Mary claims Jamie did on purpose. Of course, this is a ridiculous thing to say, but it indicates just how willing she is to blame her loved ones for her misfortune.
What’s more, she even manages to suggest that she never would have become addicted to morphine if James had hired a more expensive, knowledgeable doctor who—in the aftermath of Edmund’s complicated birth—would have known what to do to ease Mary’s pain without introducing her to morphine. As she spins this hypothetical scenario, the audience sees how determined she is to avoid taking responsibility for her own addiction. And though everyone in the Tyrone family denies their vices—the three men insisting they aren’t alcoholics even as they drown themselves in liquor—it’s clear Mary’s way of dealing with her problems is the most tragic, since she cruelly tries to manipulate her loved ones into shouldering the burden of her despair. In this way, O’Neill spotlights the ways in which using denial and blame to avoid guilt can ravage personal relationships.
Denial, Blame, and Guilt ThemeTracker
Denial, Blame, and Guilt Quotes in Long Day’s Journey into Night
What strikes one immediately is her extreme nervousness. Her hands are never still. They were once beautiful hands, with long, tapering fingers, but rheumatism has knotted the joints and warped the fingers, so that now they have an ugly crippled look. One avoids looking at them, the more so because one is conscious she is sensitive about their appearance and humiliated by her inability to control the nervousness which draws attention to them.
You’re a fine lunkhead! Haven’t you any sense? The one thing to avoid is saying anything that would get her more upset over Edmund.
Shrugging his shoulders.
All right. 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.
You’ve been the worst influence for him. He grew up admiring you as a hero! A fine example you set him! If you ever gave him advice except in the ways of rottenness, I’ve never heard of it! You made him old before his time, pumping him full of what you consider worldly wisdom, when he was too young to see that your mind was so poisoned by your own failure in life, you wanted to believe every man was a knave with his soul for sale, and every woman who wasn’t a whore was a fool!
Yes, this time you can see how strong and sure of herself she is. She’s a different woman entirely from the other times. She has control of her nerves—or she had until Edmund got sick. Now you can feel her growing tense and frightened underneath. I wish to God we could keep the truth from her, but we can’t if he has to be sent to a sanatorium. What makes it worse is her father died of consumption. She worshiped him and she’s never forgotten. Yes, it will be hard for her. But she can do it! She has the will power now! We must help her, Jamie, in every way we can!
Still […] people like them stand for something. 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.
She turns back from the window.
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 every summer.
Anyway, you’ve got to be fair, Mama. It may have been all his fault in the beginning, but you know that later on, even if he’d wanted to, we couldn’t have had people here—
He flounders guiltily.
I mean, you wouldn’t have wanted them.
Wincing—her lips quivering pitifully.
Don’t. I can’t bear having you remind me.
Don’t take it that way! Please, Mama! I’m 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.
God, Mama, you know I hate to remind you. I’m doing it because it’s been so wonderful having you home the way you’ve been, and it would be terrible—
Her hands fluttering.
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.
That’s crazy, Mama. We do trust you.
If there was only some place I could go to get away for a day, or even an afternoon, some woman friend I could talk to—not about anything serious, simply laugh and gossip and forget for a while—someone besides the servants—that stupid Cathleen!
Because he’s always sneering at someone else, always looking for the worst weakness in everyone.
Then with a strange, abrupt change to a detached, impersonal tone.
But I suppose life has made him like that, and he can’t help it. None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.
Oh, I’m so sick and tired of pretending this is a home! You won’t help me! You won’t put yourself out the least bit! You don’t know how to act in a home! You don’t really want one! You never have wanted one—never since the day we were married! You should have remained a bachelor and lived in second-rate hotels and entertained your friends in barrooms!
She adds strangely, as if she were now talking aloud to herself rather than to Tyrone.
Then nothing would ever have happened.
They stare at her. Tyrone knows now. He suddenly looks a tired, bitterly sad old man.
You’re to blame, James. How could you let him? Do you want to kill him? Don’t you remember my father? He wouldn’t stop after he was stricken. He said doctors were fools! He thought, like you, that whiskey is a good tonic!
A look of terror comes into her eyes and she stammers.
But, of course, there’s no comparison at all. I don’t know why I—Forgive me for scolding you, James. One small drink won’t hurt Edmund. It might be good for him, if it gives him an appetite.
The family are returning from lunch as the curtain rises. Mary is the first to enter from the back parlor. Her husband follows. He is not with her as he was in the similar entrance after breakfast at the opening of Act One. He avoids touching her or looking at her. There is condemnation in his face, mingled now with the beginning of an old weary, helpless resignation. Jamie and Edmund follow their father. Jamie’s face is hard with defensive cynicism. Edmund tries to copy this defense but without success. He plainly shows he is heartsick as well as physically ill.
You ought to be kicked out in the gutter! But if I did it, you know damned well who’d weep and plead for you, and excuse you and complain till I let you come back.
A spasm of pain crosses his face.
Christ, don’t I know that? No pity? I have all the pity in the world for her. I understand what a hard game to beat she’s up against— which is more than you ever have! My lingo didn’t mean I had no feeling. I was merely putting bluntly what we all know, and have to live with now, again.
The cures are no damned good except for a while. The truth is there is no cure and we’ve been saps to hope—
They never come back!
It was my fault. I should have insisted on staying with Eugene and not have let you persuade me to join you, just because I loved you. Above all, I shouldn’t have let you insist I have another baby to take Eugene’s place, because you thought that would make me forget his death. I knew from experience by then that children should have homes to be born in, if they are to be good children, and women need homes, if they are to be good mothers. I was afraid all the time I carried Edmund. I knew something terrible would happen. I knew I’d proved by the way I’d left Eugene that I wasn’t worthy to have another baby, and that God would punish me if I did. I never should have borne Edmund.
But some day, dear, I will find it again—some day when you’re all well, and I see you healthy and happy and successful, and I don’t have to feel guilty any more—some day when the Blessed Virgin Mary forgives me and gives me back the faith in Her love and pity I used to have in my convent days, and I can pray to Her again— when She sees no one in the world can believe in me even for a moment any more, then She will believe in me, and with Her help it will be so easy. I will hear myself scream with agony, and at the same time I will laugh because I will be so sure of myself.
Mary is paler than before and her eyes shine with unnatural brilliance. The strange detachment in her manner has intensified. She has hidden deeper within herself and found refuge and release in a dream where present reality is but an appearance to be accepted and dismissed unfeelingly—even with a hard cynicism—or entirely ignored. There is at times an uncanny gay, free youthfulness in her manner, as if in spirit she were released to become again, simply and without self-consciousness, the naive, happy, chattering schoolgirl of her convent days.
But I forgive. I always forgive you. So don’t look so guilty. I’m sorry I remembered out loud. I don’t want to be sad, or to make you sad. I want to remember only the happy part of the past.
Tyrone is seated at the table. He wears his pince-nez, and is playing solitaire. He has taken off his coat and has on an old brown dressing gown. The whiskey bottle on the tray is three-quarters empty. There is a fresh full bottle on the table, which he has brought from the cellar so there will be an ample reserve at hand. He is drunk and shows it by the owlish, deliberate manner in which he peers at each card to make certain of its identity, and then plays it as if he wasn’t certain of his aim. His eyes have a misted, oily look and his mouth is slack. But despite all the whiskey in him, he has not escaped, and he looks as he appeared at the close of the preceding act, a sad, defeated old man, possessed by hopeless resignation.
I suppose it’s because I feel so damned sunk. Because this time Mama had me fooled. I really believed she had it licked. She thinks I always believe the worst, but this time I believed the best.
His voice flutters.
I suppose I can’t forgive her—yet. It meant so much. I’d begun to hope, if she’d beaten the game, I could, too.
He begins to sob, and the horrible part of his weeping is that it appears sober, not the maudlin tears of drunkenness.
Did it on purpose to make a bum of you. Or part of me did. A big part. That part that’s been dead so long. That hates life. My putting you wise so you’d learn from my mistakes. Believed that myself at times, but it’s a fake. Made my mistakes look good. Made getting drunk romantic. Made whores fascinating vampires instead of poor, stupid, diseased slobs they really are. Made fun of work as sucker’s game. Never wanted you succeed and make me look even worse by comparison. Wanted you to fail. Always jealous of you. Mama’s baby, Papa’s pet!
He stares at Edmund with increasing enmity.
And it was your being born that started Mama on dope. I know that’s not your fault, but all the same, God damn you, I can’t help hating your guts — !
Looking around her.
Something I need terribly. 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.
She moves like a sleepwalker, around the back of Jamie's chair, then forward toward left front, passing behind Edmund.
Turns impulsively and grabs her arm. As he pleads he has the quality of a bewilderedly hurt little boy.
Mama! It isn’t a summer cold! I’ve got consumption!
For a second he seems to have broken through to her. She trembles and her expression becomes terrified. She calls distractedly, as if giving a command to herself.
And instantly she is far away again. She murmurs gently but impersonally.
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.
He lets his hand drop from her arm.