Recreating a Tabula Rasa: Dysfunction, Memory, and Domestic Dissolve in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night
Side effects: high blood pressure, nausea, numbness, seizures, coma, euphoria, memory loss, psychosis, death. Modern medicine is a marvel. Even though there are usually many side effects of drugs, they are, overall, here for our benefit. What becomes alarming is the misuse of drugs. Whether for prescription or recreational purposes, improper drug usage can have serious, if not life-threatening, side effects. Eugene O’Neill brings the misuse of drugs to the forefront in his 1956 play, Long Day’s Journey into Night. The central characters of the play—James, Mary, Jamie, and Edmund Tyrone—are all drug addicts. The three men—James, Jamie, and Edmund—are alcoholics, and Mary is addicted to morphine. This drug misuse is a means to an end: after the shocking, measles-induced death of Eugene, the middle Tyrone child, the family is compelled to start anew, to recreate a blank slate, a tabula rasa. The regeneration of a tabula rasa, unfortunately, has devastating results. The consequence of such explicit drug use within Long Day’s Journey into Night directly causes a terribly dysfunctional family dynamic. These central characters continually quarrel, though there are moments of sincere love and encouragement; those moments, however, never take root, and the family members continuously react to each other in a love-hate rhythm. The cyclical nature of the Tyrone family dynamic seems to stem from their individual drug use. Familial dysfunction is not the only side effect of drug use; memory plays an important role within this debilitation. The desire to reconstruct a tabula rasa demands an erasure of memory. Unfortunately, this family dysfunction and memory loss leads to the deterioration of the home; the concept of the home, which the Tyrone family attempts to rebuild, falls into disrepair. The family’s use of drugs effectively creates internal dysfunction, memory loss, and the destruction of the family and home in order to start over, in order to recreate a familial tabula rasa.
The concept of the blank slate, this tabula rasa, extends far back into history. Aristotle’s On the Soul (De Anima), a treatise on the intellect and nature of living things, describes how the human mind is an “unscribed tablet” at birth. Aristotle writes: “What it thinks must be in it just as characters may be said to be on a writing-tablet on which as yet nothing actually stands written: this is exactly what happens with [the] mind” (82). Aristotle argues that, in order to write upon this “unscribed tablet,” one must experience the world and profit from it intellectually. John Locke’s 1689 book, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, continues Aristotle’s thoughts. Locke discusses that infants are brought into the world without any innate principles, and that “there is not the least appearance of any settled ideas at all in them; especially of ideas answering the terms which make up those universal propositions that are esteemed innate principles” (67). According to Locke, it is impossible for infants to enter the world already having inherent thoughts or ideals. Locke also suggests that the construction of an identity can take place through experience. By writing upon this blank slate, an individual is able to create an identity for himself or herself. Identity through experience is also seen in the realm of psychology. Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis touches upon how a person’s identity is created. He states that “mechanisms of the unconscious—resistance, repression, sexuality, and the Oedipus complex” are significant in the creation of an individual’s character (Flitterman-Lewis). Whether these forces are conscious or unconscious—though Freud would argue the unconscious mind holds total power—they all directly influence any person’s unscribed tablet. Thus, it is rather counterintuitive that every member of the Tyrone family wishes to revert back to his or her blank slate in order to wipe away the memory of their lost son and brother. The Tyrones turn to powerful and addictive substances in order to numb the pain and attempt to reconstruct their broken lives.
Although drug use can be seen as a way to experience a higher sense of self-discovery and understanding, the usage of drugs seems to have the opposite effect for the Tyrone family. The Tyrones use drugs, namely alcohol and morphine, in order to feel something in their tempestuous lives; unfortunately, the drug use only creates familial dysfunction, and any moments of feeling alive are cut short. Instead of the Tyrones realizing their full potentials by using drugs, the substances become safe havens for them, places where they can retreat. Mary Tyrone relapses into a morphine addiction after her recent release from rehab, and this is instantly clear from the play’s onset. O’Neill writes: “What strikes one immediately is her extreme nervousness. Her hands are never still…. [O]ne is conscious she is sensitive about their appearance and humiliated by her inability to control the nervousness which draws attention to them” (933). Mary’s fidgeting and paranoia, her “extreme nervousness,” allows the reader to infer that something is indeed affecting her, both physically and mentally. Mary originally needed this narcotic analgesic in order to lessen the pain caused by Edmund’s birth; even though Edmund is not responsible for causing Mary’s relapse, there is an undoubtable link between Mary’s condition and Edmund’s existence. Mary confesses: “But bearing Edmund was the last straw. I was so sick afterwards, and that ignorant quack of a cheap hotel doctor— All he knew was I was in pain. It was easy for him to stop the pain.” (O’Neill 967). Mary later tells Edmund: “You were born afraid. Because I was so afraid to bring you into the world” (O’Neill 979). Mary and Edmund have the strongest relationship within the family—she even states, “I loved you most”—but Mary’s use of morphine obviously puts strain on their relationship (O’Neill 982). Edmund, full of rage, subsequently responds, “It’s pretty hard to take at times, having a dope fiend for a mother!” (O’Neill 983). The tension between them comes to a harrowing conclusion as Edmund leaves her presence. Emotionally distraught, Mary states her desires, her need for morphine: “I must go upstairs. I haven’t taken enough. [She pauses—then longingly] 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” (O’Neill 983). Mary is so far gone into her morphine addiction that she wishes for death. The loss of Eugene, and the difficult birth of Edmund, has created a powerful dependence that destroys the relationships between her and her family members, which she is desperately trying to salvage.
The Tyrone men’s incessant drinking of alcoholic beverages creates colossal distress on the entire family. The three Tyrone men are constantly consuming alcohol, which influences their violent actions and remarks. They rationalize that drinking alcohol is acceptable as long as it is in moderation. James tells Edmund that “It’d be a waste of breath mentioning moderation to you” after the latter pours a large drink against the former’s wishes (O’Neill 957). Their concept of alcohol moderation, however, is rather excessive. As Stanley Kowalski would say, “Some people rarely touch it, but it touches them often” (Williams 695). The constant ingestion of alcohol leads to verbal abuse toward the other family members. The most tragic consequence of this alcohol abuse is Edmund’s diagnosis of consumption. Mary believes that Edmund is only suffering from a minor illness: “Of course, there’s nothing takes away your appetite like a bad summer cold” (O’Neill 935). However, she fails to acknowledge the possibility of consumption, which is easy to understand once one considers that Mary’s father died from the same disease; she decides to ignore the current circumstances of Edmund’s health. James states that Mary should never know of Edmund’s diagnosis: “I wish to God we could keep the truth from her, but we can’t if he has to be sent to a sanatorium. What makes it worse is her father died of consumption. She worshiped him and she’s never forgotten” (O’Neill 945). Thus, it makes sense for Mary to disregard Edmund’s plummeting health because she figuratively lives within the past. The present and future do not register within her mind, unlike her husband and sons who are future-oriented. Alcohol also spurs memory loss, and so James, Jamie, and Edmund often unknowingly repeat themselves. Hence, the Tyrone men are more inclined to erase their memories of the death of Eugene through memory-affecting alcohol. Unlike Mary, who uses morphine to dull the physical pain of the loss of her child, the Tyrone men use drugs in order to psychologically repress any thought of Eugene and Edmund’s consumption in order to create a new tabula rasa.
The Tyrone family’s drug use spawns dysfunction in their day-to-day lives; the Tyrones constantly struggle to live. In Stella Adler on America’s Master Playwrights, Stella Adler states that the central characters within Long Day’s Journey into Night are heavily isolated and lonely, even though they interact with each other constantly; the characters struggle, and their loneliness and sense of being lost directly influence the dysfunction of the Tyrone family. However, it is not just these faulty interactions that affect this familial chaos. Normand Berlin, in The Cambridge Companion to Eugene O’Neill, posits that there are two essential and climactic events that play into the Tyrone family’s dysfunction: Mary slipping back into morphine use and the diagnosis of Edmund’s tuberculosis. Berlin writes: “O’Neill rivets our attention to what the characters are saying (as each Tyrone uncovers a little more of the past or modifies someone else’s view of the past) and what the characters are feeling (as the rhythm of accusation-regret, harshness-pity, hate-love, beats throughout the play)” (89). No matter how much these family members try to come to terms with their pendulum-like feelings, it appears that they will remain forever within this unforgiving rhythm. “As the play journeys into night,” Berlin writes, “time will be moving toward revelations and confessions, but the circles of repetition will also be felt, resulting in a strange kind of stalemate” or frozenness (90). Even if these “revelations and confessions” occur, the Tyrone family remains static, doomed to repeat the entire day for the rest of their lives. The dysfunction, therefore, is a never-ending cycle, promulgated by their extensive drug use.
Through their drug use, the male Tyrone family members are intentionally trying to erase the memory of Eugene and his tragic death. Asim Karim, in his essay “Trauma of Subjective Memory in Stranger Interlude and Long Day’s Journey into Night,” posits that trauma extensively affects memory. Karim states, “The traumatized responses in [O’Neill’s] persona vary, but are definitely regressive [and] assume psychotic urge[s] for repetition that obstruct individual harmonious integration with the self and others” (156). The traumatic event of losing Eugene, in conjunction with Mary’s relapse into morphine use and Edmund’s recent consumption diagnosis, creates a desire to repress any negativity within the lives of the Tyrone family. The past, present, and future collide when Mary and James argue about their automobile, in which Eugene is coincidentally brought into the discussion. James pleads, “Mary! For God’s sake, forget about the past!” (O’Neill 967). Mary responds, “Why? 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 967). He asks her: “Can’t you let our dead baby rest in peace?” (O’Neill 967). The Tyrone men are more adept at erasing their minds than Mary; one could argue that they have a better tool to do so: morphine eliminates pain and does not affect memory. Mary, who is so “far gone in the past already…in the beginning of the afternoon,” cannot help but think of her dead child; Mary’s inability to forget the past, however, creates an even bigger tension between the family members (O’Neill 966). The men demand to completely eradicate memories of the past, without any acknowledgement of what could occur if they did remember. Near the play’s end, Edmund insists to wipe his memory clean by drinking:
EDMUND: It did pack a wallop, all right. On you, too. [He grins with affectionate teasing.] Even if you’ve never missed a performance! [Aggressively] Well, what’s wrong with being drunk? It’s what we’re after isn’t it? Let’s not kid each other, Papa. Not tonight. We know what we’re trying to forget. [Hurriedly] But let’s not talk about it. It’s no use now.
TYRONE: [dully] No. All we can do is try to be resigned—again.
EDMUND: Or be so drunk you can forget. (O’Neill 988)
Edmund and James (equally referred to as Tyrone) desperately wish to forget their current circumstances and their past lives. Each man desires to forget Edmund’s recent diagnosis and, on a larger scale, the death of Eugene. The most effective way in which James, Jamie, and Edmund can eliminate their memories, is by recreating a tabula rasa through alcohol consumption; they wish to forget their less-than-happy circumstances and, with alcohol as their solution, they are able to revert back to their non-experienced lives.
Through the extensive drug use and dysfunction of the Tyrones, and the male characters’ memory loss, the family is bound to fall apart. And, indeed they do. O’Neill’s play is fashioned around cycles, and so, like the cycle of day and night, the repetition of their conversations and arguments only perpetuates the destruction of the family unit. The play’s title suggests the cyclical nature of the Tyrones’ lives: this long day will ultimately culminate into a horrifying night, only to begin again the next morning. Even if the Tyrones wished to recover themselves, it would be impossible to do so. Once in the swirling maelstrom, it is difficult to get out. And, just like the cyclicality of nature, the Tyrone family’s addictions slowly revolve, as well. Edmund is literally killing himself by drinking alcohol; he will eventually go to a sanatorium, but, once released, he will undoubtedly resume drinking that which nearly kills him. Initially, Edmund is never told he has consumption; James and Jamie want to spare the truth from Edmund and Mary, though they eventually do discover the disease that affects Edmund. Jamie does not want Edmund to go to a cheap sanatorium, but that is all the Tyrones can afford. At the play’s end, however, Edmund accepts James’s offer to go to any sanatorium. James says, “You can choose any place you like! Never mind what it costs! Any place I can afford. Any place you like—within reason” (O’Neill 997). Even though this is the kindest gesture James gives, he still qualifies where Edmund can go: it must be “within reason.” While their relationship is getting better, James is still restricting Edmund’s life; this is just another twist in the maelstrom. Likewise, Mary returns from rehabilitation only to begin using morphine again. This chaotic family life is built upon Mary’s shoulders, which is rather alarming. Mary should never have married into the family because “she could not take the life,” or, more particularly, this family life (Adler 68). Her original dream was to be a nun, but once she “fell in love with James Tyrone, and was so happy for a time,” she decided to marry him instead (O’Neill 1012). Mary, however, cannot merge into the life of a wife and mother. Adler writes: “Who could take such a life? It was rootless. It was without any desire to have a home. It was children brought up without a base or a nest, which makes for unhappiness” (68). Mary leaves her idealized childhood home, and her second home at the monastery, in order to attempt a creation of a new home for James and herself. The results, however, are devastatingly morose.
The concept of the home is tipped on its side in Long Day’s Journey into Night. “Home” becomes increasingly problematic, due to the familial dysfunction, memory loss, and the destruction of the Tyrone family. O’Neill’s stage directions note that the Tyrones are currently residing in their summer home, and so the setting is already temporary. Removing the family from their first home allows for the resurgence of chaos. This summer home is filled with culturally relevant novels, plays, and anthologies, pieces of art and agreeable furniture, but it is cold and distant, uncomfortable and foreign: a petri dish for anarchy. The concept of the home changes due to James’s fixation on houses. James speculates in real estate, but he is so obsessed with his finances that he deprives his family of a livable household. In James’s view, he lives within a house, not a home. When Edmund returns at the beginning of Act 4, he turns on the hall lamp, and James becomes furious. James states, “I told you to turn out that light! We’re not giving a ball. There’s no reason to have the house ablaze with electricity at this time of night, burning up money!” (O’Neill 985). James is fearful of being a “wasteful fool,” and so he never gives his family the opportunity to live freely; he suffocates his family by controlling how the home is run (O’Neill 985). In his essay, “The Spare Room: Long Day’s Journey into Night,” Kurt Eisen argues that Mary is the cornerstone of this “homeless” household. If Mary is the cornerstone of the home, then the family’s vitality is already fated to perish. He writes:
Her desire for a home, along with the Tyrone men’s simultaneous feelings of a sincere love and an equal despair that she will ever escape her addiction, generate the play’s central thematic conflict. ‘Home’ is ironically an absence at the center of the Tyrone family, and O’Neill’s postmelodramatic vision offers very little comfort from God, home, or country. (128)
The separation from the Tyrone family’s first home permits a strange atmosphere. For instance, Edmund states, “As it is, I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death!” (O’Neill 1000). Edmund, with his recent diagnosis and torn relationships with his family members, feels detached from his home. Mary, who longs for a home that is comparable to the idealized one she grew up in, works belligerently to make a happy home; however, due to James’s constriction of running the household, her morphine use, and the resulting familial dysfunction and destruction, she never finds solace or a home. The concept of the home, therefore, crumbles before the Tyrone family without any hope for its repair.
The play culminates in a series of confessions, which allows the members of the Tyrone family to understand each other more fully. Yet, it is entirely ineffective. After Mary’s confession, O’Neill then writes: “[She stares before her in a sad dream. TYRONE stirs in his chair. EDMUND and JAMIE remain motionless.]” (O’Neill 1012). The family members become stagnant, and any hope of changing their lives is impossible. They endlessly wait for the beginning of the cycle to start again. No matter what is said during this long day, the night resets their lives and their dysfunction. The inability for the characters to move at the end of the play signifies their inability to resolve their family issues, an incompetence to recreate a familial tabula rasa. Since they cannot move at all, they will undoubtedly remain in the past-ridden present, without any hope for a future. In addition, the possibility of Edmund’s death would only recreate this familial chaos twofold. The remaining family members would have an even more difficult time with living. O’Neill’s play, though autobiographical, taps into the American conscious. The play was first performed and published in 1956, but it was written in the early 1940s when America had just entered the war. With the world in chaos, the focus of the play on a dysfunctional family makes sense. The Tyrone family is a representation of a world in conflict: one that wishes to forget the past while simultaneously fighting various demons and planning for a future. Long Day’s Journey into Night is a warning of what can occur when a world is in pandemonium and drug use is the only way to numb the problem. Just as the Tyrone family is having difficulty recreating a tabula rasa, the world will too.
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