Study Guide

Long Day's Journey Into Night Fate and Free Will

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Fate and Free Will

I'm not blaming you, dear. How can you help it? How can any one of us forget? That's what makes it so hard – for all of us. We can't forget. (1.1.228)

This is the first of Mary's many fatalistic conclusions. The argument is basically this: since things have happened in the past, we can't be blamed for expecting them to happen again. This makes sense in the abstract, but the problem is that it takes away a person's agency if the event actually can be prevented from happening again. Mary has taken away the possibility of human intervention from her equation. There's simply no way to forget the past, and so it must dictate the future.

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. (2.1.76)

Once again, under the influence of morphine, Mary abandons the blame game and turns to fatalism. She recognizes that getting mad at Jamie logically leads to her blaming herself for poor decisions she made in her past (such as, perhaps, marrying James or getting pregnant with Edmund). That's why she says you lose your true self – she attributes the blame of her past actions to a self that wasn't actually her, but necessarily had to come about due to prior decisions.

Scornfully parodying his brother's cynicism.
They never come back! Everything's in the bag! It's all a frame-up! We're all fall guys and suckers and we can't beat the game!
Christ, if I felt the way you do--!
Stung for a momentthen shrugging his shoulders, dryly.
I thought you did. Your poetry isn't very cheery. Nor the stuff you read and claim you admire.
He indicates the small bookcase at rear.
Your pet with the unpronounceable name, for example.
Nietzsche. You don't know what you're talking about. You haven't read him.
Enough to know it's a lot of bunk!
Shut up, both of you! There's little choice between the philosophy you learned from Broadway loafers, and the one Edmund got from his books. They're both rotten to the core. (2.2.28-32)

Poor Nietzsche always gets a bad rap for encouraging apathy, when in reality his philosophies were all about encouraging people to take control of their own life and do something. Sounds like the opposite of apathy to us.

James! I tried so hard! I tried so hard! Please believe--! (2.1.123)

In one of the most upsetting moments in the play, Mary finally cracks under James's critical gaze, and confesses to her return to morphine. More to the point, though, we see here the rationale for her constant resort to fate as an explanation for all the ills in her life. We want to believe her when she says she has tried so hard not to get back on morphine, but no matter how hard she tries, she can't kick it.

There ought to be a law to keep men like him from practicing. He hasn't the slightest idea – When you're in agony and half insane, he sits and holds your hand and delivers sermons on will power! […] He deliberately humiliates you! He makes you beg and plead! He treats you like a criminal! He understands nothing! And yet it was exactly the same type of cheap quack who first gave you the medicine – and you never knew what it was until too late!
I hate doctors! They'll do anything – anything to keep you coming to them. They'll sell their souls! What's worse, they'll sell yours, and you never know it till one day you find yourself in hell!

Where previously the agent behind Mary's fatalism was some sort of abstract concept like "the effects life has on you" and a more general appeal to the way people work, here she makes her fatalist argument much more concretely. Here, doctors (specifically Doctor Hardy) are the ones responsible for people's sealed fates. Hardy is an agent of destiny, getting Mary hooked on morphine leaving her without any power to resist.

If your mother had prayed, too – She hasn't denied her faith, but she's forgotten it, until now there's no strength of the spirit left in her to fight against the curse.
Then dully resigned.
But what's the good of talk? We've lived with this before and now we must again. There's no help for it.
Only I wish she hadn't led me to hope this time. By God, I never will again!

A fun bit of hypocrisy from James here. He argues that Mary ought to have had more faith in God so that she would have been able to pull through. Of course, what James fails to acknowledge is that he's had a hand in shaking that faith in God by taking her away from the convent. Like Mary, James consistently underestimates the role of his own activities in bringing about the disasters facing his family.

I hope, sometime, without meaning it, I will take an overdose. I never could do it deliberately. The Blessed Virgin would never forgive me, then.

This passage, coming at the end of Act III, gives us a chilling bit of (false!) foreshadowing. It's hard to read this and not expect Mary to end up dead in Act IV. At the same time, it's a reminder of her failed suicide attempt when she tried to jump off the dock. At the most basic level, though, the passage shows us Mary's strange relationship with fate. She clearly wants to die, but refuses to go after her goal willingly. The only acceptable way for her to achieve the happiness she sees in death would be if fate so willed it. She seems to regard the amount of morphine she takes as out of her control.

More of your morbidness! There's nothing wrong with life. It's we who –
He quotes.
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings." (4.1.145)

Hint: if you ever see this quote (from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar) in a work of literature, you can be sure that fate versus free will is a key theme. This is basically the mother of all fate vs. free will quotes in all of literature. Cassius, in Shakespeare's play, urges Brutus to take responsibility and quit thinking that fate dictates all actions. In other words, when something goes wrong, it's our fault, and the only way for us to fix it is through positive action. James advocates this philosophy, and it stands in contrast with that often supported by Jamie and Mary, who both argue what has happened has shaped what will happen, and we have no control over the process.

Disgustedly amused.
You're the limit! At the Last Judgment, you'll be around telling everyone it's in the bag.
And I'll be right. Slip a piece of change to the Judge and be saved, but if you're broke you can go to hell!
He grins at this blasphemy and Edmund has to laugh. (4.1.201-202)

Jamie may be joking, but this jest betrays a real philosophical concern of this play that maybe money greases the wheels of fate. In other words, all this talk about fate may really be a more abstract way of saying that a person's place in society determines how happy he can be. Jamie doesn't seem to be a believer in the whole "money can't buy you happiness" idea.

Got to take revenge. On everyone else. Especially you. Oscar Wilde's "Reading Gaol" has the dope twisted. The man was dead and so he had to kill the thing he loved. That's what it ought to be. The dead part of me hopes you won't get well. (4.1. 206)

Cool literary reference here, as Jamie brings up a great poem, Oscar Wilde's "Ballad of Reading Gaol." In this poem, Wilde writes about a man threatened to death for killing his wife. He writes: "The man had killed the thing he loved / And so he had to die." Here Jamie inverts the causality. Instead, once you die on the inside, as Jamie has, you lose control of yourself, and are forced to kill the thing he loved (i.e., Edmund).

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