In many ways, Long Day’s Journey into Night is a play about a family that can’t extricate itself from the past. The majority of the characters are obsessed with periods in their lives that have already ended. For Mary, this obsession manifests as a form of nostalgia, one in which she tries to escape her present reality, which is bleak and depressing. Unfortunately, though, her drugged-out reveries of living her past life only make her feel like she has taken the wrong path. Indeed, she fondly remembers her days as a girl, when she lived in a convent and planned to be a nun or a concert pianist. Similarly, James waxes poetic about his past, and although he did ostensibly lead the life he always thought he wanted, he eventually realizes that he focused on the wrong things by sacrificing his passion for art in favor of a commercially successful acting career. As such, both Mary and her husband wallow in regret, wishing they could turn back time and change the way they lived. And though this is impossible, they waste away the present by mourning the past. In fact, at the end of the play, Mary even tries to pretend she’s a girl in the convent again, but this is only a disturbed, inebriated fantasy. In this manner, O’Neill spotlights the futility of dwelling on the past, making it clear that focusing on nostalgia and regret do nothing to help a person attain happiness.
Part of the reason Mary finds herself unable to stop thinking about the past has to do with how she views personal history. Rather than seeing life as constantly changing, she believes a person’s past dictates the rest of his or her existence. As such, she’s unable to ignore her own history. This becomes clear in a conversation she has with James, in which he urges her to “forget the past.” “Why?” she asks. “How can I? The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us.” When Mary says that “life won’t let” her wriggle out of the past, she commits herself to the idea that she’s locked into a certain way of being. Under this interpretation, what has already happened in her life not only determines the nature of her “present” experience, but also dictates her “future.” As a result, she has no reason to stop thinking about the past. In fact, this mentality only further encourages her to disregard her current life, ultimately inspiring her to spend all her mental energy thinking about that which has already happened.
The nostalgia Mary has for the past turns easily into regret, since she laments the fact that she has lost touch with her old life. Before she met James, she explains at several different moments throughout the play, she was an “innocent” young girl living in a convent, studying to be a nun, and practicing to become a concert pianist. Once she met James, however, she became smitten with him and quickly left behind her old ambitions. Instead of entering the church or pursuing a career as a musician, she decided to travel with him as he went around the country as a famous actor. And although she seems to have thoroughly enjoyed this at first, now she can only focus on what she gave up to live this life. “You’re a sentimental fool,” she mutters to herself at one point after she has told Cathleen—the servant—about how delightful it was when she first met James. “What is so wonderful about that first meeting between a silly romantic schoolgirl and a matinee idol? You were much happier before you knew he existed, in the Convent when you used to pray to the Blessed Virgin.” It’s worth noting here that, though Mary is discounting the notion that her first encounter with James was “wonderful,” she is doing so in order to further exalt her past. After all, she says that she was “much happier before” she met him, thereby using her “sentimental” story about James as a way of romanticizing her convent days to an even greater extent. Needless to say, this does not help her make the best of her current situation.
Mary isn’t the only family member to spend the majority of her time thinking fondly about the past, since James also has a tendency to glorify his days as a famous actor. In a conversation with Edmund, he rehashes the finest moment of his career, when a legendary actor praised his portrayal of Shakespeare’s Othello. “As I look back on it now,” he says, “that night was the high spot of my career.” However, he has already prefaced this story by saying that he’s tired of “fake pride and pretense,” admitting that this play—though it was the “high spot of [his] career”—ruined him because it brought him too much fame and attention. Instead of following his heart and pursuing interesting roles, he tells Edmund, he started chasing commercial success. Depressed after recounting this story, he says, “I’d gladly face not having an acre of land to call my own, nor a penny in the bank—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.” When he says this, it becomes evident that—as is the case with Mary—James’s nostalgia easily turns into regret, for there’s nothing he can do to change the past, and yet, he can’t help but retell the stories of his halcyon days.
At the end of Long Day’s Journey into Night, Mary comes downstairs holding her wedding dress and starts saying in a confused, opiated way that she’s going to be a nun. In this moment, the audience sees that she has plunged herself into a disturbed reenactment of her own personal history by pretending to be a younger version of herself. In doing so, she proves how thoroughly entrenched she is in the past. This only emphasizes the tragedy of her and James’s obsession with their personal histories. Unhappy with their current existences, they waste their days reliving experiences that are long gone. In this way, O’Neill uses Mary’s sad attempt to reenter the past to symbolize the pointlessness of indulging nostalgia, suggesting that the only thing a person can do to alleviate regret is to simply move on with life.
The Past, Nostalgia, and Regret ThemeTracker
The Past, Nostalgia, and Regret 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.
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.
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.
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.
You’re a sentimental fool. What is so wonderful about that first meeting between a silly romantic schoolgirl and a matinee idol? You were much happier before you knew he existed, in the Convent when you used to pray to the Blessed Virgin.
If I could only find the faith I lost, so I could pray again!
She pauses—then begins to recite the Hail Mary in a flat, empty tone.
“Hail, Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with Thee; blessed art Thou among women.”
You expect the Blessed Virgin to be fooled by a lying dope fiend reciting words! You can’t hide from her!
She springs to her feet. Her hands fly up to pat her hair distractedly.
I must go upstairs. I haven’t taken enough. When you start again you never know exactly how much you need.
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.
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!
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.