Study Guide

Long Day's Journey Into Night Analysis

By Eugene O'Neill

  • Tone


    We can see from the dedicatory letter to his wife (see "What's Up with the Epigraph?") that O'Neill strives, in this play, to find "forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones." Any one of these four deeply flawed individuals can be extremely frustrating. By the end of the Long Day's Journey, though, we find it hard to stay mad at any of them. Life has dealt the Tyrones a tough hand. With each character, O'Neill shows the reason for the ugly, and doing so allows us to understand and feel compassion for them.

  • Genre

    Drama, Family Drama, Tragedy

    This play is a stage drama focusing on the conflicts plaguing one family, the Tyrones. Even if no one dies at the end, the play is a tragedy: it documents the downfall of the House of Tyrone. In most tragedies the hero has a fatal flaw or makes some error in judgment. Each of the Tyrones has at least one tragic flaw with which they're slowly destroying themselves. James is miserly and an alcoholic, Jamie is a gambler and an alcoholic, Edmund has consumption and is an alcoholic, and Mary is addicted to morphine.

    Often times, Greek tragic heroes are victims of fate. Take Oedipus for example. He was doomed from birth to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Unknowingly, he does just that. A comparison can be made to the Greek notion of fate and the idea of the past controlling the future. We learn over the course of Long Day's Journey into Night how events in each character's past made them into who they are. Though the Tyrones aren't powerless in the hands of the gods (like many Greek tragic heroes), they are certainly prisoners, in a sense, to events that are no longer under their control.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    First of all, Long Day's Journey Into Night is literally that: a very long day that eventually fades into night. It's been happening since the Earth started to rotate, and it won't quit until the spinning finally stops. Umm, so doesn't day turn into night over the course of every 24 hour period? What special significance could such a title have? We have a few theories.

    Let's start with the Symbolism 101 approach. You've got day, and you've got night. Day = sunshine = hope. Night = darkness = despair. (More about this in "Symbol, Images, Allegory.") The Tyrones start off the play in the bright morning sun, hoping against hope that Mary has finally kicked her addiction to morphine. By the end, it's the dead of night, and poor Mary is back on the drug. The promise of a happy healthy mom has been crushed. This has been going on for a while. Mary has been trying to kick the stuff for years. Every time, though, she loses control. It's a vicious cycle.

    A cycle, huh? Key word alert! It seems like we were just talking about another kind of cycle...What was it?…Ah!...Day and night. So, could it be that the title is referencing Mary's repeated descents into addiction? Could it be that the title gives us a major clue into understanding the play? There's a good chance of it.

    The family is caught in a series of cycles. They launch the same attacks over and over again – Tyrone is a cheap skate, Mary is a morphine addict, Jamie is an alcoholic. Edmund's birth and tuberculosis are even used against him at times. These attacks are only part of the cycle though. After each one, the Tyrones forgive each other. We see hate then love, and love then hate – dark then light, light then dark. Get it?

    Just as the Moon circles the Earth, and the Earth orbits the Sun, and the Sun revolves around whatever it is that it revolves around, so to go the Tyrones. They are trapped together repeating the same dark sins while reaching for the same bright absolutions. The title seems to reveal the play as cycles within cycles within cycles within…

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The final moment of Long Day's Journey seems to highlight one of the major themes of the play – memory and the past. "Highlights" may not be a strong enough word. It seems to put the theme in bold, italics, and throws a couple exclamation points in to boot.

    Here's what happens: Mary descends the stairs, lost in a morphine haze. Her hair is braided into girlish pigtails, her wedding dress draped across her arm. She recounts a tale of Mother Elizabeth, a nun at the convent school she attended. Mary ends by remembering when she met and fell in love with James Tyrone. It seems that Mary has gone beyond casual remembering and is almost drowning herself in the past. Why might she do such a thing? And what does it say about the play as a whole?

    Let's take a second to pick apart some of these details or this last moment. First, there's the pigtails. That's a no-brainer. It's the hairstyle of a young girl, quite possibly the style in which she wore her own hair as a child. Could Mary be looking for the innocence she had as a girl, before the big bad world wrecked her life? There's a good chance of it.

    Then there's Mother Elizabeth. Mary told the nun that she had a vision from the Virgin, calling Mary to become a nun herself. Mother Elizabeth advised Mary that she should wait a couple of years and then decide. Did you notice all the mother imagery in this little story? You've got Mother Elizabeth and the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus. Are these the figures that Mary has been digging so desperately in the past to find? Mary describes Mother Elizabeth as "sweet and good" and admits that she loves "her better than [her] own mother" (4.1.242). Then, of course, there's the Virgin Mary, who in the Christian tradition often seen as the most perfect unspoiled mother of all time. Does our Mary wish she could live up to her namesake? We figure that it's probably not a coincidence that the guilty, drug-addled Mary wants to lose herself in memories of untainted mother figures. Could she see in them the mother she failed to be? Does she blame them for deserting her?

    Last but not least, we have two reminders of Mary's marriage to James Tyrone. There's the wedding dress, a pretty obvious symbol of the wedding to which she wore it. We should also take note that wedding dresses in general symbolize innocence and virginity. Is Mary looking for some lost purity?

    Then, of course, there's the famous heartbreaking last line – "Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for time" (4.1.242). Is Mary comforted by this brief flash of happiness? Or is she tortured by it, because of all the badness that followed after? Chances are, as is the case so often in the play, this memory is a comfort and a torment at the same time.

    But what might Mary's final descent into memory say about the overall play? We have a theory. As you read the play, take note of the pattern of Mary's remembrances. Slowly but surely, with the aid of morphine, she moves backwards in time. She starts mostly harping on the recent past – the miserable hotels, James being cheap. Then she moves backwards to Edmund's painful birth and Eugene's painful death. Back and back she goes until finally at the end we have her convent days and the beginning of her relationship with Tyrone.

    O'Neill ends the play at the beginning. In a way, the play cycles backwards and forwards at the same time. All the Tyrones generally follow this same regressive or backward trajectory. (Check out each Tyrone's "Character Analysis".) While the Tyrones do progress forward through the day, they are gradually dragged into the past by the weight of their memories. Mary's final descent seems to be a brilliant punctuation mark to this fascinating structure. Mrs. Tyrone probably sums up this pattern best when she says, "The past is the present isn't it? It's the future too" (2.2.103).

  • Setting

    The Tyrones' summer home, August, 1912

    The Tyrones' summer house is probably based on O'Neill's childhood summer home in New London, Connecticut. The house itself is thematically important because it's the closest thing the characters have to a home, but it really doesn't do the job of providing a emotionally safe, comfortable, haven for the characters.

    From the opening stage directions, we can tell that the house is more for show than for function. The front parlor is "rarely occupied" and the back parlor is "never used except as a passage" (1.1.opening stage directions).

    Basically, the house doesn't feel lived-in. Mary makes this explicit throughout Act II as she complains about never feeling at home in the house or the neighborhood. In fact, the only part of the house that does feel like it's gotten real use are the books, which O'Neill catalogs exhaustively. For more on those books, see Edmund's "Character Analysis."

    So what does it mean that the characters don't have a home? Well, like they say, "Home is where the heart is." Basically, even if the Tyrone family members really do love each other, what they love about each other isn't in the present, but in the past. See the "Memory and The Past" theme for more, but we just want to summarize that the Tyrones find genuine home not in the summer house, but in their respective memories of happier times when they felt comfortable with their lives.

    More broadly, we should also note the role played by the weather, the foghorn, and the yacht bells. These aspects of the setting all carry serious symbolic significance, some of which is openly articulated by the characters. See "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for an examination of fog as a metaphor for addiction.

  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    Some editions of the play include a letter from O'Neill to his wife as an epigraph. It's not "officially" an epigraph, since O'Neill didn't print it as such, but he did present it to his wife as a sort of introduction to the play, and you can see why publishers think it works as an epigraph:

    For Carlotta, on our 12th Wedding Anniversary

    Dearest: I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood. A sadly inappropriate gift, it would seem, for a day celebrating happiness. But you will understand. I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play – write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones.

    These twelve years, Beloved One, have been a Journey into Light – into love. You know my gratitude. And my love!

    Tao House
    July 22, 1941

    The "epigraph" more than hints at the fact that we're heading into some stormy autobiographical waters. When O'Neill states to his wife that she has allowed him to "face [his] dead" at last, it makes us think there's some strong connections between O'Neill's family and "the four haunted Tyrones" (E.2).

    Just checking out O'Neill's basic biography is illuminating. To begin with, his father was James O'Neill, a big-time actor. His mother was Mary Ellen Quinlan O'Neill, a sometime morphine addict. (She went by "Ella.") While O'Neill was a kid, he lived in a series of hotels with his parents, following his father around to performances. Their only semi-permanent home was a summer cottage in Connecticut. He also had two older brothers: James, Jr. (Jamie) and Edmund. Edmund died young, of measles (source).

    If you've read the play, this should be ringing some major bells. You should be hard of hearing with all this bell ringing. It's almost the exact same story as Long Day's Journey. While it's still a fictional creation, this is about as autobiographical as a play can get. With all the family baggage that gets opened, it's no surprise that O'Neill wouldn't let the text be published until after his death.

    The play seems to only deviate from O'Neill's life story in one major detail: the switch between his own name and that of his brother, Edmund, who died in infancy. O'Neill might've decided on this rather morbid switch for any number of reasons. Maybe he wanted to give his dead brother a chance to live. Though we'll probably never know O'Neill's true motivation for this decision, it's certainly interesting to ponder.

    It's particularly poignant that O'Neill dedicated this play, with its strong themes of addiction, to his wife Carlotta. She was addicted herself to potassium bromide, a strong sedative that was available at the time. This caused unending trouble to their marriage (source). Evidently, though, it wasn't all depression and disintegration. O'Neill writes to Carlotta that their marriage has been a "Journey into Light – into love" (E.3). With the "epigraph," O'Neill lets us know that, ultimately, he wrote the play as an act of forgiveness – of the people he's loved and of himself.

  • Writing Style

    Realistic, Poetic

    For the most part, the play is written in straightforward, realistic dialogue. The characters talk with the speech patterns of their day. O'Neill, however, doesn't seem to be satisfied with mimicking every day speech. This leads to a good amount of poetry in the play. Besides the numerous direct quotes from other poets, O'Neill infuses much of the dialogue with a poetic sense. Edmund's speeches in Act IV are probably the best example. Check out his "Character Analysis" for a taste.

    O'Neill's own poetic voice seems to come out most consistently in his stage directions. He's incredibly lucid and accurate in his descriptions of facial expressions and physical gestures. Check out this action: "[Mary's] face lights up with a charming, shy embarrassment. Suddenly and startlingly one sees in her face the girl she had once been, not a ghost of the dead, but still a living part of her" (1.1.92). Pretty good, Eugene.

    It's almost a shame that some of the most impressive writing in the script is never heard by a live audience. O'Neill, of course, could never have reasonably expected an actor pull off exactly what he describes in his stage directions. The reason he bothers to be so descriptive is for the sake of people reading the play. In O'Neill's day there was very little legitimate theatre in America outside of Broadway. The only way most Americans got to experience a new play was through reading a script. Play scripts were once big-time best sellers. Given that information, it makes a lot of sense why O'Neill would take the time to craft such masterful descriptions in his stage directions.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    Fog and Foghorns

    Fog can represent a number of different things (estrangement, retreating into one's self, blindness) in Long Day's Journey, but generally, for all of the characters, fog is dark, isolating, and unstoppable. Both Edmund and Mary attempt at various moments to escape or transcend reality, and both use fog as a metaphor or mechanism for doing so.

    It's interesting to note that the fog itself isn't enough to generate a mind-altering experience. Edmund experiences his retreat into the fog with the help of alcohol, while Mary relies on morphine. These effects are also by no means limited to Mary and Edmund. James and Jamie may not reference fog explicitly; nonetheless, they both feel as though they've "drowned long ago," and both hide from the world using alcohol. References to alcohol, morphine, and fog all intensify as the play races towards its conclusion.

    What, then, of the foghorns and the yacht bells, which periodically cut through the fog? It's Mary who points out that she hates the foghorn: "It won't let you alone. It keeps reminding you, and warning you, and calling you back" (3.1.9). To pursue our analogy of fog and addiction further, the sounds of the harbor act as periodic intrusions of reality into each character's fantasy life. Addiction isn't enough to hold reality at bay forever; there are always the other Tyrones hovering around, ready to chime in and remind each other of their many, many failings.

    The Car

    The family car makes for an interesting symbol because it is intended to mean one thing but works out to mean another: James buys the thing as proof of how much he cares for Mary. He also wants to show the whole neighborhood that, while he is frugal, he has good taste and knows how to spend. Unfortunately, the car he buys is a lemon that James picked up used. Mary just sees it as a symbol of her husband's thoughtlessness, long absences, and miserly ways.

    Morphine and Alcohol

    Alcohol and morphine function (as drugs often do in literature) as symbols of retreat. Basically, no one in the family has anywhere to go – literally or metaphorically – so they have two options: fight or flight. They fight often (especially the male characters), but they also spend a whole lot of time fleeing, turning to drugs and alcohol to hide from reality. We talk about Mary's particular dependence on morphine in her "Character Analysis," so let's get specific with what the Tyrone men are up to.

    The Tyrones don't just drink any alcohol; they drink bonded bourbon. Bonded means the bourbon is really good (aged four years and distilled by one brewer for a season at a distillery) and, thus, more expensive. This is some seriously high quality bourbon, and it's another hint – along with all those real estate deals – that James is willing to spend extra money, so long as he is the primary beneficiary. It's also a social class symbol – poor people don't drink bonded bourbon.

    Bourbon is also an important choice because bourbon is basically the American alcohol. This stuff is classic Americana, a whiskey made from corn and named after the county in Kentucky where it was invented.

    So here's our question: why Jim Beam instead of Jameson's? Let's not forget that James is all about Irish patriotism, yet he doesn't drink Irish whiskey. While there may be a significant difference in flavor between bourbon and Irish whiskey, Ireland obviously has its own illustrious history of whiskey brewing. We don't want to push this too hard, because there may be issues of price and availability, but with all of his posturing about his roots and his defense of all things Irish, it's surprising that James only ever drinks the American stuff.

    Does this have any symbolic meaning? Looks like it to us. James has "made it," has assimilated successfully into American culture. He's a representative of the American dream, and, just as he's ditched his childhood of impoverishment and labor, he's ditched the liquid representative of his abandoned culture – Irish whiskey.

    Day and Night

    The cyclical movement of time, as represented by the progress of day to night, is one of the central symbols of Long Day's Journey. The Tyrone family is caught in a similar cycle. They attack each other, they feel bad, they apologize, they say something mean, they feel bad, they apologize…it's the family feud that never ends. The whole play is built around these cycles.

    Think also about the nature of addiction, and of Mary's morphine addiction in particular. Abuse, regret, back on the wagon, fall off the wagon, abuse, regret…The play might draw to a close, but we have a feeling the cycles are never-ending. We talk about all this in greater detail in "What's Up with the Title?" Check it out.

    The Wedding Dress and Booth's Praise

    Both of the Tyrone parents have a carefully hidden object that they used to look at every once in a while to remind themselves about what they've lost. Mary's wedding dress brings to mind her happiness with her father, innocence, youth, beauty – what you will. James keeps a piece of paper printed with praise from famous actor Edwin Booth of James's performance of Othello.

    The dress and the paper each stand in for a history that's dead to the Tyrones, leading to the loss of the objects themselves. The wedding dress, however, is recovered in the final scene, as Mary regresses back to childhood – crazily and artificially, but still, she does seem to recover her lost history, for a time.

  • Narrator Point of View

    This is a play without a narrator, and therefore has no particular narrative voice. It might be worth pointing out, though, that the audience seems to be intended to identify the most with Edmund. The tone of the play toward the other characters is quite a forgiving, which is consistent with Edmund's overall disposition. This comparison makes a lot of sense, when you think about the fact that Edmund is O'Neill's fictional recreation of himself.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    Anticipation Stage

    Right at the beginning of the play, we can already sense that things aren't quite right. From the start, we hear James insisting that Mary has gotten plump and sassy again – so clearly she was ailing before. The main issues are quickly implied: morphine, alcoholism, and James's stinginess. None of these spark anything other than minor bickering at this point.

    All of the protagonists seem in some ways incomplete and unfulfilled. The play quickly gets to hinting at a tragedy to come.

    Dream Stage

    Doesn't really happen – we cut straight from Anticipation to Frustration.

    The play moves very quickly from bad to worse, without stopping along the way.

    Frustration Stage

    We find out that Mary is taking morphine again, and Edmund has consumption. And so begins the drinking and the vicious infighting. Major problems are looming on the horizon.

    We skip straight through the Dream Stage because nobody becomes committed to any course of action and things never even appear to be going well; it doesn't get better than the "less bad" we see at the outset of the play, quickly proceeding to "bad" and "worse." The difficulties hinted at earlier in the play take specific shape, and we see that the Tyrones face several troubles that cannot necessarily be resolved. From here on out, there will be no rest.

    Nightmare Stage

    Mary's conversation with Cathleen reveals a woman in dire straits, and James and Edmund return to the house only to throw down with one another and with Mary. Once Jamie and Edmund come home in Act IV, the most serious fights go down, but the three Tyrone men do seem to achieve some degree of mutual reconciliation.

    Act III consists mainly of the unbearable pressure building on the characters. Everyone (readers included) has a mounting sense of threat and despair, as the tragic penny starts to drop: no act, however violent or redemptive, will be likely to save this family. That said, the play doesn't stick with Booker's model here, since it is in this Nightmare Stage that O'Neill decides to introduce the one ray of hope in the play: the small reconciliations between James, Jamie, and Edmund.

    Destruction or Death Wish Stage

    Mary is completely overcome by a serious morphine-induced hallucination.

    Mary Tyrone may not die at the end of Long Day's Journey, but the woman whom the rest of the Tyrones knew as wife and mother appears completely dead to them. By injecting herself with so much morphine, Mary effectively kills herself for the remainder of the play.

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation

    The play opens in the living room after breakfast, and the first thing we hear is James insisting that Mary has gotten more plump and sassy again. James and Mary appear fairly content, and Jamie and Edmund seem to be laughing good-naturedly at their father.

    Even if it only lasts a couple pages, the initial situation is a happy one. This isn't paradise, and we can sense that things haven't been (and won't be) perfect in the household. Nonetheless, O'Neill sets the scene with mirth.


    At the end of Act I though the end of Act II, Scene One, the problems that shape the play begin to reveal themselves. Mary has a mysterious but nasty habit, Edmund's sick, Jamie is a degenerate, and James is cheap.

    Things head south quickly, and we see that the characters are dealing with personal and interpersonal conflicts.


    As if they didn't have enough to deal with, the Tyrones start getting busy making things worse. Act II, Scene Two and Act III brings about the escalation of infighting. Mary's morphine addiction is back and worse than ever, Edmund has consumption, and the men in the family start drinking a bit too much.

    Basically, the Tyrones' conflicts become clear and we see that they have very serious problems.


    We've reached the end of Act IV. After binging on alcohol, the boys come home to find Mary high on morphine and hallucinating about her past. With no idea of what's going on around her, she's a shell of her adult self. Mary reverts to her much-lamented girlhood, when she felt that she had her whole life ahead of her. Jamie and James look on with weary resignation.

    Everything comes to a head by the end of the play – the drug and alcohol users have hit bottom, and all the male Tyrones stage epic showdowns with one another. There may be hints of reconciliation among them, but Mary's sad situation takes center-stage.


    The future of the Tyrone family is uncertain.

    Well, the curtains come down right on the climax, so we never really learn the aftermath (although, the epigraph could also work as an epilogue – see "What's Up with the Epigraph?" for more on this). Who lives? Who dies? Will Mary ever kick her habit? Will Jamie and James be consumed by their alcoholism? Will that sanatorium work out for Edmund? Can the brothers ever be friends? Guess we'll never know.


    O'Neill decided to end the play during the climax, so we don't really get a denouement.

    No dice.


    All the concluding is left for you. Congrats!

    If you want, you can write the sequel: Long Night's Journey Into Day.