Symbolism in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night

In Eugene O’Neill’s play “Long Day’s Journey into Night”, the playwright presents the inner workings of a dysfunctional family long before the term dysfunctional became a buzzword of American psychology. The play, written in 1941 but not performed until 1957, is set in 1912 in the predominantly Irish Connecticut home of the Tyrones. It is largely autobiographical as O’Neill himself was the son of “one of 19th century America’s most popular actors” whose first name was James. O’Neill had also managed to travel to Honduras, worked at sea traveling the world, and had become intimately familiar with the saloons and brothels of the area by 1912. This was the year he became ill with tuberculosis and was forced to spend six months in a convalescent home during which time he began to work on his plays (Shew, 2008). According to Scott Reynolds (2007), O’Neill wrote the play as an anniversary present for his wife, but, because of the highly personal nature of the revelations contained within, he would not allow the play to be published until after his death. The entire play takes place within a single day highlighting each family member’s struggle with the self within the framework of their relationships with others. In his presentation of the Tyrone family, emphasized by his use of symbolism, O’Neill attempts to establish the concept that wealth, education, and physical attraction are not sufficient proofs against the hazards of a life spent in fear of self-examination.

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From the opening scene, the family is presented as wealthy, intelligent, and physically attractive, thus the epitome of the perfect American family. Through specific set design instructions, O’Neill establishes the opulence of the home the family occupies, consisting of a living room and at least two parlors that are visible from the audience’s point of view. This grand home is also afforded a prime location as “a series of three windows look over the front lawn to the harbor and the avenue that runs along the waterfront” (O’Neill, p. 11). In addition to the wealth, the family is seen as intelligent as a result of other set specifics, such as the titles of the books in the bookcases or the displays of art on the walls. “The astonishing thing about these sets [of books] is that all the volumes have the look of having been read and reread” (O’Neill, p. 11). Descriptions of the characters provide an equally favorable impression that they are among the elite because they appear younger than their true age, they are still attractive even given their age and they have strongly appealing qualities such as Mary’s eyes or James’ soldierly bearing. Thus, through careful symbolic stage design, the audience has already positioned the Tyrone family as the highest example of the perfect dream before a single word is uttered. Yet, within this first act, it also becomes clear that despite having the wealth everyone dreams of, the classical education of the elite, and the personal good looks of the fortunate, the family is far from the happy group that one might expect.

Both parents, James and Mary, are soon revealed to suffer from some form of obsession – James enters the room wearing shabby clothes despite his obvious wealth and Mary is excessively nervous. As the play continues, it is soon revealed that Mary has been addicted to morphine and has just recently returned from a lengthy rehab period during which she even managed to gain some weight. The importance of this is emphasized as it is the first thing discussed at the opening of the play, yet Mary’s nervous movements become symbolic of her failure to resist the morphine. James himself provides this clue in the first act when he mentions, “you’ve seemed a bit high-strung the past few days” (O’Neill, p. 16). James is eventually revealed to be an alcoholic, which also has its symbolism early in the play through his contradictory nature. Although Mary tells him “Ten foghorns couldn’t disturb you. You haven’t a nerve in you. You’ve never had” (O’Neill, . 17), James is easily upset by the thought that the boys are probably laughing at his expense in the dining room. This continues to emerge as a pattern as James feels continuously affronted yet is constantly seen to be ‘nerveless’. It is slightly suggested that a part of the parents’ problems were brought about following the death of another son, Eugene, who died of measles while still an infant. This is an obvious hint of the playwright’s presence within the play and a symbolic source of separation between the mother and her eldest son. In the play, Mary has tended to blame Jamie for the infant’s death because he snuck into the baby’s room while infected despite being told not to.

The family is completed with two sons, Jamie and Edmund. Jamie is the older of the two boys and harbors a great deal of resentment toward his parents as well as toward his younger brother, whom he has had to protect for much of his life. His character is so negative that James comments, “I suppose you’re regretting you weren’t there to prompt Shaughnessy with a few nastier insults. You’ve a fine talent for that, if for nothing else” (O’Neill, p. 26). As the father and oldest son escalate their discussion in the first act into a full-scale argument, it becomes clear that Jamie has not been able to discover his calling in life, feeling forced into acting and still dependent on his father for his between-season support yet furious that his father continues to hire low-quality medical help. His characteristics are summed up by James as he tells Jamie, “the only thanks [for support] is to have you sneer at me for a dirty miser, sneer at my profession, sneer at every damned thing in the world – except yourself” (O’Neill, p. 32). Like his parents, then, Jamie is presented as a character incapable of taking a deep look at himself.

Finally, there is Edmund, the baby of the family and an autobiographical version of O’Neill. It is strongly suspected at the beginning of the play that Edmund is suffering from tuberculosis which may have been contracted during his world tours with the Merchant Navy, but the family is still waiting on the results of the tests. While James, Jamie, and Edmund are all preparing for this diagnosis, only Mary remains convinced that it is only a summer cold. Edmund’s coughing becomes symbolic as it continues to arise at key moments in the play. Again, this pattern is established in the first act as Mary and James are beginning an argument about James’ attempts at the real estate market but stop as they hear Edmund coughing in the other room. From this point until the family begins to escalate into another argument, Edmund seems fine, laughing and talking with the others. However, exasperated with his father, Edmund jumps up and leaves the room, saying, “God, Papa, I should think you’d get sick of hearing yourself” (O’Neill, p. 26), while the stage direction indicates “Edmund can be heard coughing as he goes upstairs” (O’Neill 26). Edmund’s illness can thus be seen as a symbol of the sickness in the family in which no one is willing to look at his behaviors or issues too closely. These concepts are further illustrated through more external symbols as well, such as the fog, the foghorn, and Mary’s glasses.

In each case, the symbols provided in the play can be seen to represent the characters’ isolation from reality and tendency to hide the truth from themselves. The symbolism of the fog is almost unmistakable in this regard as it slowly begins to creep into the family home as the play enters the second act. The first act is performed in the brightly lit living room of the Tyrone home. O’Neill establishes this in his detailed set descriptions: “It is around 8:30. Sunshine comes through the windows at right” (O’Neill 12). The brightness of the scene seems to suggest that everyone is being open and honest, but it instead serves to heighten the effect as the fog begins to creep in.

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