Jamie Tyrone: The Foghorn Personified
It is often said that mother knows best, and depending on who one’s mother is, this may or may not hold true. However, in the case of Jamie Tyrone, his mother certainly has a clear grasp of his situation, and shows it through the strikingly accurate portrait she paints of him: “…he’s always sneering at someone else, always looking for the worst weakness in everyone. But I suppose life has made him like that, and he can’t help it,” (O’Neill 63). As A Long Day’s Journey Into Night advances, Jamie’s mother shows an obvious understanding regarding the failures of her and her husband as parents, as well as the subsequent failures of Jamie’s youth that resulted. These scars still deeply pain him, yet at the same time have given him his grounded view of the present, setting him up for the unique role in all of the Tyrones’ lives that only he is fit to play.
Very early on in the play, it is made quite clear to the reader that Jamie’s childhood was neither stable nor happy. Much of this stems from his miserly father, who, despite being an enormously wealthy actor, has an idea of money, or rather of stinginess, ingrained in him that is not unlike that of his poor Irish forefathers. He never had the desire, or, for that matter, saw the need to provide his family with a home they could truly call their own (save a cheaply-built summer house), often dragging them from one dirty, second-rate hotel to the next on his tours. This, in many ways, left the family feeling cut-off from the rest of the world since they were unable to entertain company. Such isolation left Mr. Tyrone the only strong male role model in Jamie’s life, thereby imparting to Jamie his father’s own alcoholism. As Mary puts it: “You brought him up to be a boozer. Since he first opened his eyes, he’s seen you drinking,” (113).
Yet, unlike his father, who famously never missed a performance, Jamie could not handle his alcohol quite so well. His weak ambition, a remnant of his scattered, lonely childhood years, was dealt a further blow by the bottle, causing him to lose even the small grain of seriousness that had before been present in his life. Ultimately, he flunked out of school and let his talent for acting go to waste, relying on his father to win him parts so he could support his addiction as well as his taste for loose women (for no suitable one would have him). In short, his life as it stands can be summarized by Edmund’s recitations of Baudelaire’s “Epilogue,” particularly the last line:
I love thee, infamous city! Harlots and
Hunted have pleasures of their own to give,
The vulgar herd can never understand. (136)
Paradoxically, while the need to escape his bitter reality is now among Jamie’s list of reasons to continue drinking, he has a better hold on his circumstances than any one of the other three family members. The hard falls he’s taken and the life-altering mistakes he’s made cause him to remain grounded and prone to cynicism, often leaving him the first to point out the harsh truths the rest of the Tyrones would rather ignore. In a way, he is a personification of the foghorn situated near the family’s sea-side summer house. Just as the foghorn deters ships from natural fog, he drives both his parents and his brother from the blissful fog of their own ignorance. He is the first to point out Mary’s return to her morphine addiction, the first to state the obvious about Edmund’s health (that he had contracted tuberculosis) and the first to truly voice how badly his father’s cupidity had damaged the people around him, all things the rest of them would rather pretend weren’t true. This is the first reason his father states he has a ‘damn sneering serpent’s tongue,’ an allusion to the paradise-destroying serpent of the Bible (111).
The second reason, again alluding to Genesis, has to do with the way Jamie purposely brings down Edmund (just as the serpent successfully brought down Adam and Eve) through his poor advice and example. At first, this statement may seem to contradict his unequivocal shows of love and protection for his brother, but that is only until one realizes that his attempts at sabotage are not premeditated, but rather subconscious. He cares for Edmund, he wants him to succeed, but at the same time there’s a small part of him, a ‘dead’ part, that wants his sibling to fail. It’s the part of Jamie responsible for all of his self-hatred, the part that makes him not want to wallow in failure alone. However, all of that could be better stated in his own words as he drunkenly confronts Edmund:
What I wanted to say is, I’d like to see you become the greatest success in the world. But you’d better be on your guard. Because I’ll do my damndest to make you fail. Can’t help it. I hate myself. Got to take revenge. On everyone else. Especially you. […] The dead part of me hopes you won’t get well. Maybe he’s even glad the game has got Mama again! He wants the company, he doesn’t want to be the only corpse around the house. (169)
Ultimately, it could be said that all of the contempt Jamie harbors for himself and the way his life turned out is what makes him so apt to share his observations of other family members’ shortcomings and tragedies. However, his refusal to remain silent on the issues that surround the Tyrones make him and integral part of O’Neill’s masterpiece. He becomes a valuable tool for the progression of the story, taking it upon himself to dig up past issues and current secrets. While he definitely has his flaws, his portrayal leaves no doubt of his good heart, as well as the personal brand of reality he brings to the Tyrone family and the play alike.
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