At first glance, Eugene O’Neill’s gut-wrenchingly poignant and heartbreakingly raw play, Long Day’s Journey into Night, appears to tell the story of Mary Tyrone’s morphine addiction and how her family responds to the situation. Often, however, we find that great works of literature are not so one-dimensional as that. There is another important aspect to this piece – the alcoholism of Mary’s husband, James and their two sons, Jamie and Edmund. On the surface, the men’s consumption of alcohol appears to be no more than a couple of emotionally drained men attempting to the take the edge off, as it were. But after a closer and more thorough reading, something becomes quite apparent: the men are addicts as equally as Mrs. Tyrone is. In fact, the claim might be made that they are, in fact, drunkards who are much further lost in their addiction than is the drug-addicted woman who is their wife and mother, especially because they have not admitted to their problem; they have not even entertained the thought that this likelihood exists.
The play takes place on the day of Mary Tyrone’s relapse and, seemingly, it revolves around that. However, there is something else going on – alcoholism. When read with a slightly more cautious eye, it is difficult and maybe even impossible to deny that the three men in this play, James Tyrone and his sons Jamie and Edmund, are alcoholics. The alcoholism may prove to be even more detrimental than Mary’s addiction for a myriad of reasons. The men are sneaky about their drinking; they drink constantly throughout the day while Mary appears to relieve herself only once; they constantly discuss the drug abuse while utterly failing to acknowledge the possibility of alcohol abuse; and they are able to deny their addiction so easily because there are three of them and only one of her and the addiction seems to find a certain strength in numbers while attacking the vulnerability of the minority. It is for these reasons that the possibility of alcohol abuse is quite conceivable and, indeed, has the potential to be even more injurious than Mary’s drug addiction. For if a person does not admit to a problem, a solution for that problem will never be sought. In the case of addiction, as is apparent here, what could possibly be more dangerous than that?
The first sign that there is alcohol abuse among the men – Mr. Tyrone, Jamie and Edmund – is the sneakiness with which they go about their drinking. In Act 2 of the play, which occurs at about quarter to one in the afternoon, Edmund is seen reading a book while his father and brother are outside working and his mother is upstairs. Catherine, the servant girl, brings him whiskey, presumably because he has asked her to do so. He then asks that she call the others for lunch rather than doing it himself. Catherine, rather snidely, remarks, “you’re making me call them so you can sneak a drink before they come” (O’Neill 421). And Edmund does indeed spring out of his chair and sneak a drink while she goes to the door to call Mr. Tyrone and Jamie. Her comment seems knowing – as if it has happened other times in the past and Catherine understood what his intentions were. A few minutes later, when his brother Jamie joins him, Edmund encourages him to “sneak one while you’ve [Jamie] got a chance,” to which Jamie responds, “I was thinking of that little thing.” After they’ve drunk, Jamie “measures out two drinks of water and pours them in the whiskey bottle and shakes it up” (422). They deliberately go out of their way to cover their tracks. In a study entitled “An Index of Alcoholic Drinking Behavior Related to the Meanings of Alcohol” conducted by Harold A. Mulford and Donald E. Miller, both of the State University of Iowa, “310 respondents responded positively to one or more of the 12 items” that were listed as signs of alcoholism, one of them being “I sneak drinks when no one is looking” (27-28). Jamie and Edmund employ this exact behavior – they sneak drinks when no one is looking and then, on top of of that, they cover their tracks by replacing with water the whiskey that they have consumed.
Since Mr. Tyrone is the man of the house and, technically, the whiskey belongs to him, he does not have quite as much opportunity or need to sneak about his drinking or cover his tracks. However, there is a certain slyness to his drinking. For instance, in Act 3, he goes to get a “fresh bottle of whiskey” and Mary remarks that “he’ll sneak around to the outside cellar door so the servants won’t see him. He’s really ashamed of keeping his whiskey padlocked in the cellar” (O’Neill 451). There is a certain craftiness to this behavior. Perhaps he locks his whiskey to keep it from his sons, but perhaps he locks it away because he is ashamed of how much he has and how much he consumes. It is true that he does not literally sneak his whiskey, but he is certainly sly about his consumption. Mary and Catherine seem to be aware of this deceit – they use the word “sneak” itself to describe the behavior of the men.
The second indicator of serious alcohol addiction and perhaps the most obvious indicator is the continual nature of the men’s drinking, especially when contrasted with the singular nature of Mary’s substance abuse. In the second act of the play, we learn of Mary’s relapse. There is a terrible conversation between Edmund and Jamie during which they conclude that their mother has succumbed to her addiction once again (O’Neill 422-424). Interestingly enough, O’Neill’s biological mother, after whom Mary Tyrone is modeled, “kicked her drug habit,” according to Zander Brietzke in his article “Too Close for Comfort: Biographical Truth in Long Day’s Journey into Night” (25). There are strong autobiographical ties in this play and this may be another connection: O’Neill’s mother did overcome her addiction and, though Mary does relapse, the reader does not pick up any evidence that there is a second time – there is yet hope for a recovery, for she has only given in to her addiction once.
The men, however, are a different story. It is nearly impossible to pinpoint a single time when James, Jamie and Edmund are drinking because they hardly ever put down the glass of whiskey. We see their consumption of alcohol throughout the entire play – in fact, they drink so much that by the end of the play, all three of them are drunk. In Act 4, when Edmund comes home, it is noted that “he is drunk now, too, but like his father he carries it well” (O’Neill 454). A little while later, when Jamie returns home, he is described as being “very drunk,” so much so that he is “woozy on his legs. His eyes are glassy, his face bloated, his speech blurred, his mouth slack like his father’s, a leer on his lips” (469). Again, there is a noteworthy biographical tie here, for O’Neill’s real life brother, after whom Jamie is modeled, did indeed drink himself to death (Brietzke 25). The comparison here is clear: Mary Tyrone abuses morphine once and O’Neill’s mother eventually overcame her drug addiction while Jamie Tyrone drinks so much that he causes himself to arrive at a state of extreme drunkenness and O’Neill’s brother eventually drank himself to death. In fact, according to Michael Hinden in his article “O’Neill and Jamie: A Survivor’s Tale,” Jamie O’Neill, the author’s brother, “destroyed himself” with his drinking (438). Now, since we can see how these two addictions came to an end in real life and we can see the biographical similarities in this play as a whole, it seems very likely that O’Neill’s intention for his fictional characters was not wholly different than the family members by whom he was inspired. Perhaps he was suggesting that it was the drunken men who were truly addicts, not his mother, not Mary.
The third hint indicating that the addiction of the men is much deeper than Mary’s addiction is the fact that her addiction is so commonly and so frequently discussed while the men’s addiction is never even mentioned. Throughout the play, each of the men discusses Mary’s morphine addiction at least once with one of the other men. Jamie first voices his suspicions to his father when he says that he “woke up and heard her moving around in the spare room” and that it scared him because he “couldn’t help remembering that when she starts sleeping alone in there, it has always been a sign– [of a relapse]” and his father responds quietly that it was “like a curse she can’t escape” (O’Neill 415). After this, it is Mr. Tyrone who brings it up to both of his sons:
“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 her curse. 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!” (432)
And it is Edmund who is last to discuss the matter. He does so bitterly and brokenly, describing the addiction as a horrible thing to see and notes that the “hardest thing to take is the blank wall she builds around her” in order to lose herself, for “she takes it to get that effect,” at least she did this time, according to his observations (461). The men cannot resist talking about Mary’s situation. Jack W. Entin, in his piece entitled “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” sums up their process perfectly with the statement that “each in his own turn holds forth in a lengthy emotional, almost kaleidoscope account of berating the others in the family for their faults, indifference, and selfishness” and also notes that “it seems that all of the members of the family are both loved and loathed at the same time” (318). They are extremely perceptive when it comes to Mary’s plight, yet not one of them has acknowledged the possibility of being in the same position as she is.
Furthermore, not only do Mr. Tyrone, Jamie and Edmund discuss the matter among themselves, but they also address her directly. Edmund is most pitiful, Jamie is most blunt and Mr. Tyrone is most disappointed, and each of them ultimately approaches her personally and individually. This time, it is Edmund who initially speaks out. He tells Mary that he is “trying to help” because it is bad for her to forget. The right way is to remember, he says, so that she will always be on her guard. “You know what’s happened before. You know I hate to remind you. I’m doing it because it’s been so wonderful having you home the way you’ve been” (O’Neill 418). He is pleading with her, gently, not to fall back into her old habits. Jamie, on the other hand, is not so compassionate. “Do you think you can fool me, Mama?” he asks her, “I’m not blind” and when she denies a knowledge of what he is implying, he responds, “No? Take a look at your eyes in the mirror!” (426). His manner is curt, his language is clear and there is no denying the meaning of his words. When Mr. Tyrone finally confronts her, it is described as a “grief-stricken” encounter. “Why couldn’t you have the strength to keep on?” he mourns. This question is in alignment with John Henry Raleigh who asserts that Mr. Tyrone “believes in self-responsibility” in his article “Communal, Familial, and Personal Memories in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night” (71). Perhaps he is trying to help her overcome her addiction. But he gives up so easily when she denies knowing what he is discussing, as she has done previously with Jamie, and he “hopelessly” remarks, “never mind. It’s no use now” (429). Perhaps his concerns are rooted more in burying his addiction than in healing hers.
Finally, we see the addiction of the men culminating in their existence as the majority. For there is a certain strength in numbers and it is much easier to attack the vulnerable minority (Mary) than to penetrate the strength of the majority (Mr. Tyrone, Jamie and Edmund). Each of these men appears to be an alcoholic as exemplified through their constant drinking, the sneakiness of their drinking and the utter lack of acknowledgement of a potential drinking problem; thus, when these three alcoholics are put together in one unit, they form a strong group. There is a certain unity in their shared addiction and that unity is present in their communal drinking and in their conversations as they continuously discuss how best to handle Edmund’s sickness and, more importantly, Mary’s addiction. For example, in Act 1, Mr. Tyrone scolds Jamie for mentioning Edmund’s sickness in front of Mary and Jamie retorts that hiding things from her is the wrong way to handle the situation (O’Neill 411). They find a great advantage in their similarities because they allow the men to hide in one another’s drunkenness. Mary, on the other hand, is all alone in her drug addiction. She has no shadow beneath which to hide. She is the vulnerable one. She is the one easily attacked. A little farther along in the same act, when Edmund claims that he is not suspicious of his mother, Mary replies, “Oh, yes you are. I can feel it. Your father and Jamie, too” (419). She understands the weakness of her position – the weakness of the minority. The men exploit that. They use her vulnerability to create a distraction for themselves. Mr. Tyrone, Jamie and Edmund drink constantly, but they use the weakness of one, the minority, to cover up and distract from their own weakness – the weakness of three, the weakness of the majority. This is a weakness that is far greater, for they have not yet admitted it and they are able to conceal the true nature of their addiction under the guise of a ‘harmless act’ of which all three of them partake.
In an article entitled “Reality and Its Vicissitudes: The Problem of Understanding in Long Day’s Journey into Night,” Stephen A. Black notes that there is an “assumption that understanding gives people control over themselves, over circumstances, and over nature itself” (57). In their efforts to save Mary from her addiction by seeking to understand it, Mr. Tyrone, Jamie and Edmund utterly fail to save themselves. So many signs of alcoholism are apparent – the sneakiness of the drinking, the continual nature of the drinking, the absolute failure to acknowledge it while focusing so greatly on the addiction of another and their method of retreating into the comfortable majority where everyone else is doing the same thing that they are doing. It is hard to ignore such a real, such a thorough portrayal of alcoholism. It exists greatly in this play – the men are serious addicts. It is true that Mary has a dangerous morphine addiction, but it is also true that the men have an alcohol addiction; indeed, they are much more intensely lost in their addiction – for they do not even know yet that it exists.
Black, Stephen A.. “Reality and Its Vicissitudes: The Problem of Understanding in “Long Day’s Journey into Night””. The Eugene O’Neill Review 16.2 (1992): 57–72. JSTOR. 30 Nov. 2015. Web.
Brietzke, Zander. “Too Close for Comfort: Biographical Truth in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”.” The Eugene O’Neill Review 25.1 (2001): 24-36. JSTOR. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
Entin, Jack W. “Long Day’s Journey into Night”. The Clearing House 37.5 (1963): 318–318. JSTOR. Web. 27 Nov. 2015.
Hinden, Michael. “O’Neill and Jamie: A Survivor’s Tale.” Comparative Drama 35.3 (2001): 435-445. Project MUSE. Web. 26 Nov. 2015.
Mulford, Harold A., and Donald E. Miller. “An Index Of Alcoholic Drinking Behavior Related To The Meanings Of Alcohol.” Journal Of Health & Human Behavior 2.1 (1961): 26-31. Academic Search Complete. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.
O’Neill, Eugene. “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym and Robert S. Levine. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 402-480. Print.
Raleigh, John Henry. “Communal, Familial, and Personal Memories in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Modern Drama 31.1 (1988): 63-72. Project MUSE. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.