Eugene O´Neill´s "Long Day´s Journey into Night": The Destruction of the Family through Guilt and Failure

Term Paper, 2009

15 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Guilt and Failure in Long Day´s Journey into Night
2.1 Definition of Guilt
2.2 Guilty Characters in Long Day´s Journey into Night
2.3 Definition of Failure
2.4 Failure in Long Day´s Journey into Night

3. The Destruction of the Family through Failure and Guilt
3.1 Relationships within the Family
3.2 The Destruction of the Family

4. Conclusion

5. List of Works Cited

1. Introduction

“At the final curtain, there they still are, trapped within each other by the past, each guilty and at the same time innocent, scorning, loving, pitying each other, understanding, and yet not understanding at all, forgiving but still doomed never to be able to forget.”

(Hinden 36)

In this citation written into a letter to a friend, Long Day´s Journey into Night - author Eugene O´Neill gives an insight into his own interpretation of the ending of the play (cf. Hinden 36). There, O´Neill mentions the four protagonists of this play, the members of the family Tyrone, and their imprisonment into a circle of guilt, scorn, and misunderstanding. Nevertheless, there is also the influence of positive emotions like love, understanding, and forgiveness. This term paper will be about one of these terms, namely the term guilt, by which each family member is affected, and the notion of failure in Long Day´s Journey into Night. In order to discuss these two key terminologies, guilt and failure, there will be a closer look at the family Tyrone, which consists of the father, James Tyrone, the mother, Mary Cavan Tyrone, Jamie, the elder son, and Edmund, the younger son. Finally, there will be the question how the life of each family member is affected by guilt and failure, and how relationships within the family are destroyed by it.

2. Guilt and Failure in Long Day´s Journey into Night

2.1 Definition of “Guilt”

To explain the notion of guilt in Long Day´s Journey into Night, the term guilt has to be defined. The Collins English Dictionary describes guilt as a “state of having done wrong or committed an offence” (726). Moreover, there is the question whether a guilty person or character is responsible for a moral or a criminal delinquency (cf. Collins 726).

Concerning Long Day´s Journey into Night, one recognizes that each guilty character which appears in the play has to face the fact of having a moral responsibility rather than a criminal one. None of the family members can or will be imprisoned for the mistakes he or she has done, but each of them has to explain himself or herself in front of the accusations of the other members of the family. Having stated that moral guilt weighs heavily on each of the characters, the notion of guilt and blame will now be explained further.

2.2 Guilty Characters in Long Day´s Journey into Night

As Abbotson states, each member of the family Tyrone is affected by feelings of guilt, no matter if these feelings are real or imagined (cf. 104). The notion of being blamed and accused influences the lives of the characters and is observable all over the play (cf. Abbotson 106). Moreover, the Tyrones are caught in their feelings of guilt, self-hatred, and hatred against other family members (cf. Müller 171).

James Tyrone, the head of the family and father of two sons, Jamie and Edmund, seems to be the man who is most to blame (cf. Brietzke 153). Firstly, he seems to be responsible for the loneliness and morphine addiction of his wife, Mary Tyrone. Being a miser, Tyrone missed the chance to give her a real home with friends she could talk to and made his wife depressed and hopeless, so that her only escape was taking morphine: “I´ve never felt it was my home. […] Your father would never spend the money to make it right. […] But he´s never wanted family friends.” (O´Neill 23). Mary herself accuses his missing understanding for her, his drinking, and his unwillingness to give her a decent home (cf. Hinden 40). James Tyrone´s stinginess also brought him to the decision to call a cheap doctor when Mary was in pain after the birth of their younger son, Edmund (cf. O´Neill 84). This doctor gave Mary morphine to stop the pain and started her addiction, which is another aspect of Tyrone´s guilt, as Edmund states: “I know damned well she´s not to blame! […] You are! Your damned stinginess! If you´d spent money for a decent doctor when she was so sick after I was born, she´d never have known morphine existed!” (O´Neill 84). Another result of his miserliness is the choice of a cheap doctor for Edmund, who finally gets the diagnosis that he has got consumption (cf. O´Neill 45). Jamie, the older brother of Edmund, accuses his father of being responsible for Edmund´s illness because he did not send him to a decent doctor when Edmund got sick (cf. O´Neill 13). On top of that, James Tyrone feels guilt over his elder son, Jamie, because Mary accuses him of “making Jamie into a boozer” (Hinden 40): “Since he first opened his eyes, he´s seen you drinking. […] And if he had a nightmare when he was little, or a stomach ache, your remedy was to give him a teaspoonful of whiskey to quiet him.” (O´Neill 65). Being addicted to alcohol, Tyrone has always been a bad example for his elder son, who is now hanging around in bar rooms in order to get drunk.

Because of all these mistakes he has made, and his enduring stinginess, from which he cannot escape, Tyrone is accused by all the family members and is called a miser (cf. Brietzke 153). Tyrone´s elder son blames him for almost everything; in his opinion, his father is to blame for Mary´s addiction, for Edmund´s ruined life, and even for his own failed career (cf. Hinden 55).

The second guilty character is Mary Tyrone, the wife of James and the mother of Jamie and Edmund. All over the play, one can recognize Mary´s permanent and strong sense of guilt and her desperation. One guilty action she seems to be most aware of is the fact that she is responsible for the death of her second child, Eugene. Even if she is not directly responsible for it, she accuses herself of not being at home when Jamie infected his brother Eugene with measles, from which the little child died (cf. O´Neill 65). Mary´s thoughts always circle around this incident and she permanently states that she blames herself for Eugene´s death: “It was my fault. I should have insisted on staying with Eugene […].” (O´Neill 51). Her only hope is that, some day, she does not “have to feel guilty any more” (O´Neill 54). But Mary also feels guilt over her living sons, Jamie and Edmund. When he says that he had “never dreamed before that any woman but whores took dope” (O´Neill 100), Jamie explains his hopelessness which results from the discovery of his mother´s morphine addiction. The knowledge about his mother´s illness traumatized him and the knowledge that Mary is a drug addict is a burden on him, which disillusioned him and made him hopeless. Jamie´s failure in life and his escape into drinking alcohol is closely connected with the state of health of Mary – when Mary returns to taking morphine, Jamie starts drinking again (cf. Hinden 54). Another behavior one can blame Mary for is her rejection of Jamie, which results from the incident with Eugene. This rejection and her missing love has destroyed Jamie´s life and hurts his feelings (cf. Hinden 43). Furthermore, Hinden assumes that Mary riddled her son with guilt and always told him that he killed Eugene out of jealousy, which made Jamie feel blameworthy and desperate (cf. 43). Mary´s younger son, Edmund, suffers in almost the same manner from thinking that his mother is an addict. “God, it made everything in life seem rotten!” (O´Neill 71), Edmund tells the reader in Long Day´s Journey into Night. With this statement, he makes his mother responsible for his own failed life because Mary traumatized him, as well as she traumatized Jamie. Moreover, Mary feels guilt over having born Edmund because she had not wanted another child after the death of Eugene and is now of the opinion that she is responsible for the misfortune and sickness of Edmund (cf. Abbotson 104).

To sum up, one can say that she feels, in general, inadequate for her role as wife and mother – a feeling which results from her morphine addiction, which takes her away from her family and into a dream world (cf. Abbotson 104).

There are not just the parents who are affected by the notion of guilt and responsibility, but also the two brothers, Jamie and Edmund Tyrone.

Jamie has to take the responsibility for the death of his younger brother, Eugene (cf. O´Neill 50). Though this incident is never mentioned by him, but by his mother Mary, the reader can assume that this occurrence evokes a great sense of guilt in Jamie´s mind (cf. Hinden 54). As the death of Eugene happened when Jamie was a little boy, he grew up with a permanent sense of guilt (cf. Hinden 55). This is encouraged by Mary´s narrations, as the reader can see in O´Neill´s Long Day´s Journey into Night, when she says: “Jamie would never have been allowed, when he still had measles, to go in the baby´s room. […] He was jealous of the baby. He hated him.” (50). Moreover, Jamie does not just have to shoulder the guilt of having killed Eugene, but does also have to take the responsibility for the mental breakdown of his mother: Eugene´s death started Mary´s desperation, which was followed by the painful birth of Edmund, and resulted in her addiction. On top of that, Tyrone and Mary blame their elder son for his bad influence on Edmund. “You made him old before his time, pumping him full of what you consider worldly wisdom, when he was too young to see that your mind was so poisoned by your own failure in life […]”, Tyrone says to his son (O´Neill 16). And Mary assumes that “he´ll never be content until he makes Edmund as hopeless a failure as he is.” (O´Neill 64). Therefore, Jamie feels guilt over his brother; he is made responsible for Edmund´s mistaken life and his illness. It seems that Jamie wants his younger brother to fail because of his own failure in life, and that he functions as a bad example for him, because he encourages Edmund´s drinking. Furthermore, the love of his parents for Edmund evokes jealousy in Jamie, and he thinks that he hates his brother for the same reason which brought him to murder Eugene (cf. Brietzke 154). Because of his own failed life, for which he also blames himself (cf. Abbotson 104), he wants his brother to fail, too, in order to “make himself look better”, as Abbotson explains (104). According to Michael Hinden, Jamie is confronted with his guilty behavior all the time and by all the family members; he is seen as morally unclean and as a danger for the family (cf. 58).

Finally, there is the question of the guilt of Edmund, the youngest in the family Tyrone. As Hinden declares, Edmund is the one who is blameless, whereas Tyrone, Mary, and Jamie made themselves guilty by choice: Tyrone is stingy, Mary decides to take morphine, and Jamie chooses the way of disobedience (cf. 60). Therefore, Edmund is not directly to blame – he cannot be made responsible for his painful birth and for the fact that his existence reminds Mary of the dead Eugene (cf. Brietzke 154).

Nevertheless, Edmund is aware of his responsibility because his birth started Mary´s depression and addiction: “[…] bearing Edmund was the last straw. I was so sick afterwards, and that ignorant quack of a cheap hotel doctor – All he knew was I was in pain. It was easy for him to stop the pain.” (O´Neill 50). Moreover, Edmund´s brother Jamie reminds him of their mother´s breakdown – although Jamie knows that Edmund is at least to blame, he accuses him that it was his being born that started Mary´s morphine addiction (cf. O´Neill 103).


Excerpt out of 15 pages


Eugene O´Neill´s "Long Day´s Journey into Night": The Destruction of the Family through Guilt and Failure
University of Tubingen  (Englisches Seminar)
PS I: Introduction to Literary Studies
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Eugene O'Neill, Play, Drama, Englisch, Family, english, Long Day's Journey into Night, failure, guilt, Tyrone
Quote paper
Simone Leisentritt (Author), 2009, Eugene O´Neill´s "Long Day´s Journey into Night": The Destruction of the Family through Guilt and Failure, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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