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Long Day's Journey Into Night

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Long Day’s Journey into Night: The Perpetual Cycles within O’Neill’s Play

O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956, 2002) is a depiction of the Tyrone family and the ongoing cycle of events that occur within the span of one single day in their life. At first glance, patriarch James, his wife Mary, and adult sons Jamie and Edmund, appear to be the average family in the year 1912, until one looks further and finds that each appears to be in their own version of purgatory, stuck in a repetition of events and behaviors that are both non-productive, as well as destructive. Ultimately, these result in their being condemned to continually relive the worst events in their life with their most unflattering characteristics, time and time again. Yet, in doing so, they not only self-sabotage, but sabotage each other and prevent any member of the family from realizing any genuine relief or finding any true resolution amidst this perpetual cycle, which is essentially foreshadowed by the title, itself. Therefore, from the ongoing cycle of denial and blame, to anger and guilt, to drug use and abuse, Long Day’s Journey into Night is a cynical story that illustrates the seemingly infinite cycles that depict the perpetual struggles that occur within one family over the course of an average day as the light gives way to darkness. As such, the paragraphs that follow elaborate on some of the most prominent cycles within the story, beginning with a discussion of the Tyrone family’s collective inability to let go of the past, perpetually sending them backward as opposed to moving towards the future ahead.
The Cycle of the Past

One of the most prominent cycles throughout the entire play is the family’s inability to let go of the past. As a result, this creates a repetitive pattern in which the family is in the present, but they then revert back to a mindset of the past, only to eventually move back to a present state of consciousness. Therefore, the reader is witness to the repetitive cycle of the family’s present experience, followed by their persistent journey back into the problems of the past, only to move forward into the present, once again-- all the while, time, itself, is progressing into the future hour by hour as the day turns into evening. This continuing cycle back into the past is, perhaps, no more evident than in Mary, herself. She finds it impossible to forget her unrealized dreams of becoming a pianist or a nun, as well as the ongoing disappointment of potential that never came to fruition when thinking of her children (Schevey, 1980). But, the haunting of the past does not end here. It seems to plague each member of the family to such an extent that it is as much a part of the present as the moment they are living. As a result, this inability to reconcile the problems of the past through forgiveness contributes to a progressive sense of doom and a sense of hopelessness in that there will be no future, because the past will always be ever-present in the moment. This seems to indicate almost a learned helplessness in which a failure to realize any improvement leads to a resignation and acceptance that nothing will get better. In response, this subsequent lack of effort or sense of “giving up” only reinforces that nothing will change, creating a self-fulfilling perpetual cycle of despair. This is evident in Act 1, Scene 1 when James proclaims “Yes, forget! Forget everything and face nothing! It’s a convenient philosophy if you’ve no ambition in life except to –“ (O’Neill, 2002, Line 45). Similarly, throughout the play, the reader sees Mary continually reference the persistent plague of the past, while also implying that failing to act by engaging in denial may be her preferred style of coping: “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 (O’Neill, 2002, Act 2, Scene 2, Line 103).

The Cycles of Blame & Guilt Yet another cyclical theme that courses through the entire play is that which is a function of blame and guilt (Thiessen, 2009). In one regard, this manifests as the family members feeling guilty about something they may have done in the past. And, in their own inability to face their own demons, they deflect the responsibility from themselves and place the blame on one another (Thiessen, 2009). In turn, this only exacerbates their own guilt and shame, giving rise to more bad behavior as a means of coping, thereby creating a new inventory of events for which to feel bad about and perpetuate the cycle (Thiessen, 2009). Mary’s addiction is a prime example of this scenario in that she hardly takes responsibility for her abuse and lack of impulse control, but instead attributes blame in the most ridiculous ways. In one sense, it is a product of childbirth and, therefore, the child is to blame (Meaney, 2009). Yet, in another dialogue, it is clearly the father’s fault, due to his frugal ways as indicated when Mary speaks of the “subpar” home he provided: “I’ve never felt it was my home. It was wrong from the start. Everything was done in the cheapest way. Your father would never spend the money to make something right” (Act 1, Scene 1, Line 194). Finally, as a result of these cycles of guilt and blame, another cycle seems to develop within them, creating a seemingly infinite and interrelated cyclical relationship throughout the story. More specifically, within these instances of shame and guilt, the family members insult and accost each other, whether this is a function of throwing blame or simply saying something unrelated, but out of pure cruelty (Thiessen, 2009). This would be followed by some remorse and a subsequent apology, only to eventually circle back to yet another insult. This pattern persists throughout the day, the story, and the ongoing dialogue between members of the family.

The Cycle of Addiction

Last, but certainly not least is the cycle of addiction, which is an inherent part of the family’s story. Mary, of course, is addicted to morphine, while the others are alcoholics to varying degrees. As a result, the family members illustrate the classic cycle of use and abuse in that they experience a difficult emotion, often shame or guilt, and in the absence of more effective coping skills, they resort to their preferred substance to ameliorate the pain (Thiessen, 2009). While this provides some temporary relief, eventually the feelings resurface- only now they are compounded by the added guilt of using alcohol or drugs (Thiessen, 2009). In response, the family members then turn to drugs or alcohol to ease the psychological pain, once again. Somewhat interesting, however, is that not only are the cycles within the story self-perpetuating, but the different cycles reinforce each other. For example, the cycle of abuse leads to the feelings of shame and self-loathing that then contributes to each individual, placing blame on others, to deflect from their personal feelings of shame. As discussed, this triggers the cycle of shame, blame, remorse, and then feeling shame, once again. In addition, the cycle of the reemerging past is a scenario that contributes to the cycle of addiction by providing an initial reason to feel bad, while the substance use then gives rise to added insults, thereby contributing to the ongoing cycles of abuse- both substance related and among family members. As a result, these cycles serve as reciprocal influences all acting on, reinforcing, and exacerbating the others. Nevertheless, proof of the cycle of addiction can be found in the following exchange, which also illustrates the sense of despair and learned helplessness mentioned above:

Edmund:

“Well, what’s wrong with being drunk? It’s what we’re after, isn’t it? Let’s not kid each other Papa. Not tonight. We know what we’re trying to forget… But let’s not talk about it. It’s no use now…”

Tyrone

“No. all we can do is try to be resigned – again”

Edmund

“Or be so drunk you can forget” (Act 4, Scene 1, Lines 46-48).

Yet, another interesting moment in which the addiction theme is evident is with regards to Mary’s hair and its symbolic value. Mary’s hair seems to be her way of attempting to present an appearance of sobriety, being cogent and functional. By appearing presentable on the outside, she hopes to convey a sense of stability on the inside (Lachman & Lachman, 1992). Yet, as the play progresses and the learned helplessness begins to set in to a greater extent as the cycles progress, she begins to give up on maintaining her hair. This is symbolic as she begins to give up on herself and keeping up her façade, thereby symbolizing the despair, resignation, and sense of helplessness that occurs as a function of addiction and only exacerbates it (Lachman & Lachman, 1992). Eventually, she just lets her hair down as she lets herself go and no longer attempts to fight the inevitable (Lachman & Lachman, 1992).
Closing Thoughts

After reading O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, it is clear that the title, itself, tells the story behind the Tyrone family, serving as a symbolic reference to the ongoing cycles they facilitate and endure, which are as repetitive as the sun rising to begin each new day. However, it also speaks to the descent into despair that occurs as the family’s hope dissipates, due to the inevitable nature of these cycles, taking their toll on a family that journeys towards darkness. While Mary’s cycle of addiction is, undeniably, a self-destructive pattern that is at the very core of the family’s struggles, the cycles that persist in plaguing the family are numerous and nearly ubiquitous in their lives. Most prominent are those previously mentioned as the family repeats the same behaviors over and over again, whether attacking each other, assigning blame, or making an invested effort in trying to ameliorate their own pain. Yet, the complex, interrelated, and reciprocal nature of these cycles eventually comes to be more than the family can bear as they sabotage each other’s well-being and, simultaneously, sabotage themselves, until they reach a place of hopelessness and resignation. Evidenced by the symbolic value in Mary’s physical appearance and the maintenance of her hair, the effect of these cycles eventually becomes overwhelming, leading to a place as dark as night, marked by the perception that any attempt at a better life is futile. And, as a result, all efforts are abandoned to let the pieces of their lives fall where they may, like the strands of neglected hair that fell from Mary’s head. Ultimately, the reader can only assume that all members of the family followed the same path as Mary who, in one long and tiresome day, “…regresses from the sunlight world of reality to the fog-bound world of dope and dreams” (Carpenter, 1979, 153).

References

Carpenter, F. (1979). The climax of O’Neill’s development. NY: Berlin.

Lachmann, F. M., & Lachmann, A. (1992). Mary Tyrone's Long Day's Journey into Night. The Annual of Psychoanalysis, 20, 235-244.

Meaney, G. (2009). Long Day's Journey into Night: Modernism, post-modernism and maternal loss. UK: Chelsea House.

O’Neill, E. (2002). Long day’s journey into night. NY: Yale University Press.

Schvey, H. (1980). The past is the present, isn't it?: Eugene O'Neill's Long day's journey into night. Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters, 10, 84-99.

Thiessen, B. (2009). Alone in the dark: Isolation in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. Trinity Western University

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