It’s easy to identify the strains of anger, hate, and resentment that run throughout Long Day’s Journey into Night, but readers and audience members often overlook the tenderness that the Tyrones have for one another. The characters can’t communicate effectively, fight constantly, and frequently accuse one another of malice, but they also always try to make amends. Indeed, their disputes are punctuated by sudden reversals, in which the family members take back the venomous things they’ve said or—at the very least—try to make up for their hurtful words by changing the subject. Of course, this relational dynamic is dysfunctional and seemingly untenable. And yet, no matter how intensely they insult each other—no matter how viciously they yell—they simply go on with their pattern of spite and forgiveness. In turn, the audience begins to sense that, although the Tyrone family is tragically flawed, there is almost nothing that can truly tear them apart. After all, they would have already parted ways for good if their relationships couldn’t survive the tensions that arise between them. In this way, O’Neill suggests that certain familial bonds can withstand even the most toxic environments, though it’s worth noting that he doesn’t indicate whether this resilience is for better or for worse.
Because they’re often drunk, the arguments between the Tyrone men are often exaggerated and aggressive. This is evident throughout the play, but the most notable dispute comes when Jamie and Edmund—both excessively drunk after a day of hard drinking—sit in the living room and talk about their mother’s addiction. When Jamie calls Mary a “hophead,” Edmund rears up in a protective fury. Wanting to defend his mother’s honor, he punches Jamie in the face. As the audience braces for an all-out brawl, though, the situation quickly diffuses itself. O’Neill’s stage direction reads as follows: “For a second Jamie reacts pugnaciously and half rises from his chair to do battle, but suddenly he seems to sober up to a shocked realization of what he has said and he sinks back limply.” In this moment, Jamie’s drunken scorn evaporates, leaving him ashamed and sad. He even thanks Edmund for hitting him, saying, “Thanks, Kid. I certainly had that coming. Don’t know what made me—booze talking—You know me, Kid.” In response, Edmund says, “I know you’d never say that unless—But God, Jamie, no matter how drunk you are, it’s no excuse!” After a pause, he adds, “I’m sorry I hit you.” What began as a heated argument on the cusp of intense physicality has now become nothing more than a passing incident about which both brothers feel sorry. The fact that they each apologize to each other—and seem to genuinely forgive each other—demonstrates not only how accustomed they are to getting into fights, but also that their bond enables them to overcome violent altercations.
The Tyrones are so used to getting into fights that they’ve learned how to avoid them. When, for instance, Mary goes on an inebriated rant in which she disparages Jamie, both Edmund and James tell her to be quiet, knowing that in her opiated state she’s liable to say things that will upset them. “Stop talking, Mama,” Edmund says, and James agrees, saying, “Yes, Mary, the less you say now—.” However, Edmund eventually gets sucked into what she’s saying, unable to resist responding to her upsetting notions. “Now, now, lad,” James interjects when Edmund begins to reply. “You know better than to pay attention.” Despite this wise counsel, though, even James finds himself enraged by what Mary has to say, and starts to respond only several moments later, at which point it’s Edmund’s turn to interject, saying, “Papa! You told me not to pay attention.” No matter what these family members do to avoid conflict, then, they are seemingly incapable of refraining from argument. By virtue of this, O’Neill shows the audience that fighting with loved ones is unavoidable, even when a family makes a concerted effort to sidestep drama.
Beneath the Tyrones’ animosity, there is a strong undercurrent of love and appreciation. This is how they find it in themselves to forgive one another after terrible fights. “I’m sorry if I sounded bitter, James,” Mary says after a particularly bad argument. “I’m not. It’s all so far away. But I did feel a little hurt when you wished you hadn’t come home. I was so relieved and happy when you came, and grateful to you.” When she says this to her husband, she reveals her affection for him. Following up on this, she asks if he remembers the day they first met. Tenderly and “deeply moved,” James replies, “Can you think I’d ever forget, Mary?” to which she says, “No. I know you still love me, James, in spite of everything.” Moving on, he says he will love her “always and forever.” This is why they never leave one another—they love each other “in spite of” the anger and tension that runs rampant throughout the family, touching not only them, but their sons, too. “I’ve loved you dearly,” Mary says, “and done the best I could—under the circumstances.”
This, it seems, can be said of all the Tyrones: they have “done the best” they can to love one another under difficult “circumstances.” As a result, nothing in their family dynamic ever changes. Indeed, the audience gets the sense that Mary will go on with her addiction, the Tyrone men will keep fighting and drinking, and none of them will ever leave or break the never-ending cycle of anger and forgiveness—and this is all because they love each other. Unfortunately, this keeps them rooted in an abysmal environment, one in which none of them are actually happy. By presenting this dysfunctional family, then, O’Neill shows both the admirable resilience of love and the depressing fact that love itself can weigh people down and keep them from leading healthy lives.
Love and Forgiveness ThemeTracker
Love and Forgiveness Quotes in Long Day’s Journey into Night
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.
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 — !