The Power of the Past in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night

Deren E. Akın
4 min readJan 9, 2021

Eugene O’Neill’s partly autobiographical play Long Day’s Journey into Night deals with the dramas of Tyrone family. It is linear in timeline and as day comes to an end, the effects of morphine addiction starts to surrender the whole family starting with the mother, Mary. The worse Mary’s condition gets, the harder it becomes for the male members of the Tyrone family to keep it together. All of them dive right back into analyzing their past and blaming each other for every mistake they find in there. What Mary means by “the past is the present”, she means the present she tries to escape from, Tyrone’s mistakes shaped into and Edmund (thus, O’Neill) feels disconnected from.

The plot revolves around Mary and the nostalgia she feels about the past. But the nostalgia she feels does not end at some point, actually it gets worse until she finds herself trusting on morphine to stop those feelings from haunting her. As we read the play, it becomes obvious that her nostalgia and regret about the past will not stop until it finally haunts her present too. Thinking that she not only lost her youth but also her child while trying to catch up with James, she realizes that her choices throughout their marriage decides the present and fate of her future too. In a conversation with James, he asks him to “forget the past” for her well-being but she answers with “MARY. How can I? The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too. We all try to lie out of that but life won’t let us” (O’Neill 287). By that time, she’s so invested in the past that she doesn’t like to be reminded of her existence in the present.

James bugging her about coming back to reality is as annoying as the foghorn that she hates. Both of them represent a warning of her mental state, which she tries to escape from by using drugs. She feels safe in the fog where her past, present or future is blurry. She can go back in time without any disturbance in the fog and relive the moments as she likes (ie. becoming a nun instead of marrying James). As the play comes to an end, Tyrones and the reader are forced to accept a simple truth that cannot be ignored anymore: she loses her sanity as gradually as the sunlight abandons the house of Tyrones.

Edmond Dantès (James O’Neill) loosens a stone before making his escape from the Château d’If in The Count of Monte Cristo (1913)

The father Tyrone, too, is guilty of Mary’s state of mind as indirectly as it might be. While Mary was suffering from the pain she endured during childbirth, James found the cheapest doctor who knew no better cure than morphine. It was not the first mistake he had made though, due to his Irish ancestors, he believed that whiskey would solve every problem so he gave it to his sons even when they were littles. Now both of his sons use alcohol to ease their pain or escape from reality just like their mother does.

But, it cannot be expected from him to have the best judgements in life. Because, as O’Neill describes him, James Tyrone is “a sad, defeated old man,” who is “possessed by hopeless resignation” (O’Neill 398). When he looks at his own past, he realizes that he gave up on his unique talent in acting to become a matinee idol which made him more money. Like Mary uses the fog to escape from reality, he uses alcohol to cover up his mistakes he did in the past but at the end, none of them lasts long enough to forget their present life.

Another thing we learn from the play is that it is not only the Tyrones that live in the past, it is also the author of the play who cannot let go of his past. Having written this as a semi-autobiographical play, O’Neill shows the reader what sort of environment he was raised in through the eyes of Edmund but more importantly, he wants to solve his own problems by revisiting his past.

Black and white faded photo of O’Neill sitting on grass in striped bathrobe, holding book in left hand. Possibly taken by Carlotta. Given to Robert Sisk by Carlotta. NPS Photo. (EUON 2104)

What we learn from the Edmund character is that O’Neill had a drinking problem just like his brother and father and had his own ways of escaping the reality like traveling on the sea. He understands his mother’s desire to be in a fog because he, too, had his times where he retreated into a fog with the help of being on the sea or alcohol. “EDMUND. As if I was a ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea. It felt damned peaceful to be nothing more than a ghost within a ghost” (O’Neill 416) says he in a conversation with his father. He knows how lonely this world can get and he’s made peace with it. By writing this play in a forgiving tone, he hopes to free himself from his past struggles and become present in the moment.

At the end, nothing dramatic happens but the reader knows only one thing for sure: the pain and grief they see in Tyrone family’s life can be found in anyone’s past. They can either choose to stay in the fog like Mary, become stubborn and grumpy like James, manipulate others like Jamie or make an effort to break-free like Edmund but whichever path they choose there’s no escape from the past. It will keep haunting them because every suffering has its roots in the past.



Deren E. Akın

she/her. 21. american studies student based in izmir.