A sense of loneliness pervades Long Day’s Journey into Night. Despite the fact that the Tyrone family lives together and is constantly surrounded by servants, they are all on their own when it comes to dealing with their emotions. Mary, in particular, struggles with a feeling of isolation that makes her feel alone even when her husband and sons dote on her and try to make her happy. This, she claims, is because she has never had a true “home.” Instead, she’s spent her entire adult life traveling with James and staying in cheap hotels, a lifestyle that has made it impossible for her to forge meaningful relationships with people outside her family. Now that she actually has settled down into this summer home, though, she feels even more isolated from the world than before. Similarly, Edmund insists that he will “always be a stranger who never feels at home.” But the difference between him and his mother is that he’s willing to admit he’ll never feel like he belongs anywhere, whereas Mary insists upon disparaging her current situation in order to go on hoping that she might someday—in another context—rid herself of loneliness. Given that she appears unable to even hear or speak to her family members by the end of the play—a representation of how much she has isolated herself—it’s reasonable to argue that O’Neill condemns this kind of grass-is-always-greener mentality. By perpetually chasing a sense of belonging that doesn’t exist, Mary has only intensified her solitude. In turn, O’Neill intimates that loneliness is an inherently human condition that affects everyone, and that this ought to be accepted as a fact of life.
In the first act, O’Neill makes it clear that Mary has idealized the idea of leading a socially gratifying life. Indeed, she believes that having a home and friends might alleviate the sense of isolation she seems otherwise incapable of escaping. In a conversation with Edmund about their neighbors, she says, “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.” At the beginning of this passage, it seems as if Mary is concerned first and foremost about her image, since she speaks enviously about her neighbors’ “presentable home.” However, she eventually points out that these acquaintances aren’t “cut off from everyone.” As such, she hints that she herself does feel “cut off” from the outside world. Of course, what she fails to take into account is that she is currently living in a home, which is what she has always wanted. Nonetheless, this fact is apparently incapable of soothing her sense of isolation—an indication that superficial matters like home ownership do nothing to banish a person’s loneliness.
Throughout the play, Mary goes on at length about wanting to settle down in a true home, saying things like, “In a real home one is never lonely.” She also laments the fact that she has never lived in a place long enough to make friends. “If there was only some […] woman friend I could talk to—not about anything serious, simply laugh and gossip and forget for a while—someone besides the servants,” she says. However, O’Neill insinuates that Mary doesn’t actually want these things. Indeed, Mary has romanticized the idea of domesticity. This is evident in her conversation with Edmund about their neighbors. After speaking jealously about the fact that these people aren’t “cut off from everyone,” she adds, “Not that I want anything to do with them. I’ve always hated this town and everyone in it.”
As such, it becomes clear that she’s not interested in actually living the lifestyle of a wealthy suburban woman, but that she has simply determined that this way of life might eradicate the loneliness she currently feels. She admits this much to Edmund at the end of their conversation about the neighbors, saying, “I know it’s useless to talk. But sometimes I feel so lonely.” This, it seems, is her chief concern: finding a way to get rid of her sense of solitude.
Like his mother, Edmund feels lonely and isolated. However, he doesn’t believe—like she does—that he could ever get rid of this feeling. He reveals this in a drunken conversation with his father in the play’s final act, when he talks about the time he’s spent as a sailor. He talks about lying on the bowsprit one night and looking up at the starry sky as waves crashed beneath him, and he speaks adoringly about the freedom he felt in this moment, in which he was utterly alone and yet felt connected to the world. “I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it,” he says, “and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rhythm, became moonlight and the ship and the high dim-starred night! 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, or Life itself!” By giving himself over to a feeling of complete solitude in the middle of the ocean, Edmund achieves something like transcendence. “As it is,” he says, “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 […].”
Having his loneliness, then, Edmund’s worldview is bleak, but it is this very mindset that enables him to access fleeting moments of joy and transcendence. Whereas Mary spends her time fantasizing about ways to feel a sense of belonging, Edmund embraces his feeling of isolation and, in doing so, manages to convert it into something worthwhile. This, O’Neill suggests, is the only way to approach loneliness, which is an inherently human condition that is impossible to avoid.
Loneliness, Isolation, and Belonging ThemeTracker
Loneliness, Isolation, and Belonging Quotes in Long Day’s Journey into Night
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.
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!
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.
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.
It wasn’t the fog I minded, Cathleen. I really love fog.
It hides you from the world and the world from you. You feel that everything has changed, and nothing is what it seemed to be. No one can find or touch you anymore.
It’s the foghorn I hate. It won’t let you alone. It keeps reminding you, and warning you, and calling you back.
She smiles strangely.
But it can’t tonight.
The fog was where I wanted to be. 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. Out beyond the harbor, where the road runs along the beach, I even lost the feeling of being on land. The fog and the sea seemed part of each other. It was like walking on the bottom of the sea. As if I had drowned long ago. As if I was a ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea. It felt damned peaceful to be nothing more than a ghost within a ghost.
He sees his father staring at him with mingled worry and irritated disapproval. He grins mockingly.
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?
I lay on the bowsprit, facing astern, with the water foaming into spume under me, the masts with every sail white in the moonlight, towering high above me. I became drunk with the beauty and singing rhythm of it, and for a moment I lost myself—actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved 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! To God, if you want to put it that way. Then another time, on the American Line, when I was lookout on the crow’s nest in the dawn watch. A calm sea, that time. Only a lazy ground swell and a slow drowsy roll of the ship. The passengers asleep and none of the crew in sight. No sound of man. Black smoke pouring from the funnels behind and beneath me. Dreaming, not keeping lookout, feeling alone, and above, and apart, watching the dawn creep like a painted dream over the sky and sea which slept together. Then the moment of ecstatic freedom came. The peace, the end of the quest, the last harbor, the joy of belonging to a fulfillment beyond men’s lousy, pitiful, greedy fears and hopes and dreams!
It was a great mistake, my being born a man, I would have been much more successful as a seagull 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!
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.