Summary: The play follows the life of Nina Leeds over the course of about twenty-five years and is fundamentally about her relationships with men.
When the play opens, she is grieving the loss of her fiancee Gordon. Her father fears that she might be going crazy because she has recently informed him of her plan to become an army nurse. When Gordon entered the war, the two had not consummated their relationship and she is wracked with guilt because of it. Nina secretly wants to be an army nurse so that she can provide sexual comfort to the men returning from war.
After becoming an army nurse and engaging in sexual congress with lots of soldiers, Nina feels guilty. She returns home. Charles Marsden (a writer and friend of her now-dead father) advises that she should atone for her sexual sins by marrying sweet Sam Evans. Though she does not love Sam or feel sexually attracted to him, she does.
When she gets pregnant with Sam's baby, she is thrilled. However, her mother-in-law is horrified by the pregnancy and convinces Nina that she must abort the baby because the men in Sam's family have a history of insanity. When Nina tells Mrs. Evans that the only thing keeping her happy is the pregnancy, Mrs. Evan's suggests that Nina abort the baby and then have sex with a male friend: when a child inevitably arrives, Sam will assume that it is his.
Nina enters into an affair with Dr. Ned Darrell, informs him of her plans to have his child and he agrees. Though their afternoons of rapture do produce a child, they also fall in love along the way.
When the child (named Gordon!) arrives, Sam is thrilled and Ned leaves the country. When Ned returns years later, Sam's business has taken off, Nina is a shell of her former self and Gordon is a strapping young athlete. When Sam unexpectedly dies, Gordon tells his mother and Ned (his unknown father) that they should probably marry. Because too much has passed between them, they refuse. Instead, Nina remarries old Charlie Marsden--who has remained at the periphery, closely observing all of Nina's life choices.
Thoughts: Well. Quite a plot summary.
For the second time in the project, Eugene O'Neill uses the word "slut" to describe a woman (both instances in plays from the 1920s). In each of his four Pulitzer Prize winning plays, O'Neill creates women who are central to the story but who are often sexually promiscuous, always deeply flawed and frequently spiteful and mean. While his portrayal of women is certainly cringe-inducing, it is partially obscured in this play by the fact that none of the characters are very likable. They each have sinister ulterior motives, most surrounding sex or money.
Interestingly, the ulterior motives in this play are blatantly obvious because O'Neill has made the artistic choice to have each character speak almost all of their subtext. Usually marked by a stage direction of "thinking", these lines are meant to be spoken. Finding a way to artistically and believably stage the play would be difficult because although the characters speak their emotions, but O'Neill offers no staging advice and each line of "thinking" reads like a soliloquy. Additionally, there are certain lines without "thinking", so this could quickly become confusing for an audience member. Adding to the challenge of staging is the fact that this play contains nine acts and is over 300 pages long.