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Memory and The Past
Yes, forget! Forget everything and face nothing! It's a convenient philosophy if you've no ambition in life except to – (1.1.45)
Yelling at Jamie here, James criticizes his practice of ignoring anything that's inconvenient, and struggling only when necessary. Jamie tires of arguments quickly, and would prefer to have everyone forget their gripes for a while. Still, it's important to note that Jamie's apathy really only applies actively to his own life – with regard to Edmund and Mary, he wants to face their sickness and addiction, respectively.
That's what makes it so hard – for all of us. We can't forget. (1.1.228)
As we mention in the quotes for the "Suffering" theme, Mary is incapable of taking her own advice here. Not only can she not let things go, she constantly obsesses over what is passed – though she keeps instructing her family members to do what she can't and forget. Her inability to forget the past is a driving force behind the decline of Mary's character.
James! You mustn't remember! You mustn't humiliate me so! (2.2.99)
Right after Mary finishes reminding James how all her friends abandoned her when she married an actor, James reminds her of the time she ran out of morphine and tried to throw herself off the dock. This is too much for Mary, and she begs James not just to keep the thought to himself, but also not to remember it in the first place. Mary keeps insisting that no one can forget the scars life has given them, but in truth, she wants all bad things to be forgotten, especially if they're bad things she's done.
[Mary] has hidden deeper within herself and found refuge and release in a dream where present reality is but an appearance to be accepted and dismissed unfeelingly – even with a hard cynicism – or entirely ignored. There is at times an uncanny gay, free youthfulness in her manner, as if in spirit she were released to become again, simply and without self-consciousness, the naïve, happy, chattering schoolgirl of her convent days. (3.1.opening stage directions)
Morphine keeps working as a kind of time machine for Mary, a trope that reaches its peak in the play's conclusion. Her method of forgetting about her present pains isn't some sort of out-of-body experience, like Edmund's sailing epiphanies. Instead, she floats off regularly in substance-induced trances to simpler times, before she left her convent and married James.
It's the foghorn I hate. It won't let you alone. It keeps reminding you, and warning you, and calling you back.
She smiles strangely.
But it can't tonight. It's just an ugly sound. It doesn't remind me of anything. (3.1.9)
Here we have the clearest indication that Mary is attempting to escape from her present reality through morphine. The foghorn here can work as a symbol, just like Mary's hands, Edmund's sickness, or even conversations with James – all of these things remind Mary of all the suffering in her life, and morphine lets her drift back in time and forget about her worries.
Mary! Can't you forget--?
With detached pity.
No, dear. But I forgive. I always forgive you. So don't look so guilty. (3.1.73-74)
This is an unusual moment for James, who doesn't usually ask that the past be forgotten – though it makes sense considering what a jerk he was during their honeymoon. Even more interesting, though, is Mary's suggestion that she remembers everything bad James does, but always forgives them. Is this really true though? It seems to us that perhaps Mary can explain James's behavior, but she never really stops feeling resentful toward him, does she? Unless she's in her most abstract "nobody can change anything" philosophical mode, it seems like she does attribute guilt to him.
That God-damned play I bought for a song and made such a great success in – a great money success – it ruined me with its promise of an easy fortune. (4.1.139)
We always knew that Mary's hostility toward the family has been centered around her miserable past, and we knew that James's cheapness is also a holdover from his childhood. Here, we learn for the first time that the source of James's obsessive drive to make something of his sons also arises from his personal history, because he feels that he missed his chance to be someone great instead of just someone rich.
What's that she's carrying, Edmund?
Her wedding gown, I suppose. (4.1. 229-230)
This is a poignant moment – James can't even recognize that his wife is carrying her wedding dress in her arm. Even if he can't remember the dress itself, how can he not know what a long, white, satin dress would be for? It's as if the idea of their wedding has completely faded from his memory.
Something I need terribly. I remember when I had it I was never lonely nor afraid. I can't have lost it forever, I would die if I thought that. Because then there would be no hope. (4.1.237)
We've already spent a lot of time wondering what Mary might have lost (see her "Character Analysis," for instance), but whatever it is, it's something representative of days gone by. The whole play, Mary's been trying to wipe away the memory of the past thirty-six years, but whatever she's looking for is something that exists only in her mind. This gives Mary an awkward relationship with her own memory – she wants to erase a part of it, but another part is the most valuable thing she has in the world.
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 (E).
We discuss this quite a bit in "What's Up with the Epigraph?" but it deserves a place here too, since we can't overstate the importance of memory and the past to this play. It's interesting that the play itself is based on O'Neill's own memories. (E.2)
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