Oneill and Williams
Published 03 Jan 2017
The plays Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene Oneill and A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams both depict characters that are torn apart by memories from which they try to alienate themselves. The ghosts of the past shadow the present and obscure the future, as the Mary Tyrone and Blanche Dubois are driven into conflict with their families and toward mental distress because of their inability to handle their situations. Mary and Blanche both demonstrate the influence that actions of the past have over the present, and the difficulties these characters find in simply moving on after one’s mistakes.
Both plays depict these individuals as seeming to possess self-perception problems that originate with and are fueled by the synergistic interplay of their actions with that of others. In depicting this, both playwrights fashion characters whose conflicts and resolutions point toward the existence of an almost classical tragic flaw that drives them to their downfalls—a flaw is directly connected to their lack of self-awareness. It can be seen that Mary and Blanche are plagued by an obscured ability to perceive themselves for who they truly, and this leads to a line of tragic circumstances that end in their mental and emotional alienation from themselves and their families.
In Long Day’s Journey into Night one might consider that Mary’s inability to perceive and define herself stands at the root of the problems that she and her family face. It is she (and her husband Tyrone) who set the tone for their family, and from whom their children might be considered to have derived their misfortunes. While the family struggles for a unified identity, the mother is at odds with herself. Mary suffers from an inability to truly envision the forces that are at work in her life. She is a morphine addict, and the blame for her inability to rise up and take hold of the problem is often cast off onto another of the characters.
In one respect, she blames the doctor for her addiction problems, and she blames her husband Tyrone for hiring him. Her son reveals this in his dramatic response to his father’s assertion that no one was to blame. He replies, “That bastard of a doctor was! From what Mama’s said, he was another cheap quack like Hardy! You wouldn’t pay for a first rate [doctor]” (1303).
Mary sees her husband as a man who possesses a reasonable amount of wealth, but who prefers to spend it on failing real estate deals rather than on the needs of his family. In her opinion, her husband affects prudence in his parsimony, yet might be considered truly dissipative in his determination to direct his resources toward real estate and liquor. She sees his frugality as being to a fault and blames this particular strain of his character for her current demise. She does sometimes allow a glimpse of her true self, such as in her near-confession to her husband of her re-addiction to the drug (in the final scene of Act I). She says, “I tried so hard! I tried so hard! Please believe—” (Oneill, 1316), but she soon retreats into denial, demonstrating a stubborn refusal to remain self aware and to take responsibility for her own problems.
In A Streetcar Named Desire, one finds Blanche in a position in which she too depicts the loss of her own self awareness. Her entire character is one that is steeped in deception, as she seems reluctant not only to reveal her true self to her companions, but also reluctant to look herself in the eye. She affects a picture of Southern propriety and even completes this picture by accusing her sister Stella of compromising her own respectability in marrying Stanley. Yet, Blanche’s true character is revealed by degrees as the story continues, and she is found actually to be the polar opposite of that which she pretends.
Her affected chastity is confronted by the truth of her promiscuity and indecorum—even with under-aged youths. This inconsistency points on the surface toward Blanche’s deceptive nature, but when one looks deeper, one is able to see that she deceives as a means of escape from herself and her fate (which somehow seems to be connected to the family home). She says to her sister who has left that home, “You left! I stayed and struggled. You came to New Orleans and looked out for yourself! I stayed at Belle Reve and tried to hold it together!” (Williams, 1803). The Belle Reve translates to “beautiful dream” (Baym, et al. 1799).
The name of home from which she has now escaped represents the dream world in which she has locked herself as a result of the unbearable aspect of her reality. She is unable to see what she could accomplish if she were able to use her given her qualities constructively. Rather, self awareness proves too painful for her, and she retreats into the shadow of a dream where she becomes a more palatable version of herself.
Eugene Oneill, in Long Day’s Journey into Night, fashions in Mary a character whose self awareness is also impaired. She proves to be very confused, even about the part she plays in her own life. She is surrounded by family members whose sentiment toward her ranges from pity to mistrust, and she too feels a range of emotion toward them and herself. She is unable to sift through all these conflicting sentiments, and is often caught in contradictory statements. In the first scene of Act II, where her son Jamie confronts her about her morphine addiction, she complains to his brother Edmund that Jamie “ought to be ashamed of himself” (Oneill, 1313).
In her very next line, after Edmund chastises Jamie, Mary begins defending the son she had just criticized when she replies, “It is wrong to blame your brother. He can’t help being what the past has made him. Any more than your father can. Or you. Or I.” (1313). She begins by defending her son, and ends in a defense of her own actions. This speech demonstrates her entanglement with her changing perceptions of her family, yet it also reveals that deep down she relinquishes responsibility for her actions. She blames it all on occurrences of the past, choosing not to admit that those occurrences were orchestrated at least partly by herself. This lack of responsibility eventually leads to her downward spiral, as she continues to take larger and larger doses of morphine and is unable to realize her truest potential as a wife, mother, and human being.
Blanche too embarks on a downward spiral that leads her into insanity, and this is also as a result of her lack of self-awareness. The dream world she has created for herself gradually becomes a permanent state of mind, as she seeks to remove herself from the harshness and depravity of her true character. At the beginning of Scene V, she is seen in a moment of clarity, as she recognizes the deception that she often perpetrates upon herself. As she writes a letter to Shep Huntleigh, affecting a friendship that no longer exists and fabricating the facts concerning her current situation, she begins laughing at herself “for being such a liar” (Williams, 1826).
Later, she becomes less and less able to make this distinction, as she settles into a more fixed state of deception and denial. While she prepares herself for a suitor who will never come, her family prepares her for an asylum, which is the future that her perpetual dreaming has fashioned for her. Her refusal (or inability) to remain self aware fixes her in a mental state in which she is dehumanized in her constant alienation from herself.
The characters of Mary and Blanche in the plays Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Streetcar Named Desire depict individuals whose problems regarding self awareness lead to problems within their families as well as within themselves. Blanche’s continued denial of the issues in her life lead her toward a fate in which her mind no longer has access to the realities she has fought so hard to repress. Mary’s inability to take responsibility for her own actions not only alienates her from her family, but causes her to give up on her efforts at ridding herself of her addiction to morphine.
This addiction leads her to a type of self-alienation that is very similar to the one that Blanche experiences in her insanity, and the two women experience a gradual yet seemingly irreversible removal from themselves. Their initial tendencies toward self denial eat at their self awareness until its force can no longer be felt in their lives. They no longer know themselves, and are transformed into subhuman entities, dependent on their individual forms of escape in order to continue existing.
- Baym, Nina. (Ed.). The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. 2. 5th Ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
- Oneill, Eugene. “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Nina Baym (Ed.) Vol. 2. 5th Ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. 1289-1367.
- Williams, Tennessee. “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Nina Baym (Ed.) Vol. 2. 5th Ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998. 1794-1860.