Jamie comes in, rip-roaring drunk. Tyrone leaves before Jamie enters, fearful that Jamie's sharp drunken tongue will lead to a fight between the two men. Jamie now has a conversation with Edmund.
At first, he doesn't let Edmund touch the booze, but at Edmund's insistence Jamie relents. Jamie criticizes Tyrone's stinginess; Edmund defends him, but Jamie insists that Edmund is too easily fooled. Jamie, reciting poetry intermittently, recounts his adventures at Mamie Burns's whorehouse. He went with Fat Violet because he felt sorry for her. He was terribly drunk. He cried quite a bit, and the Madame thought he'd gone mad.
Jamie continues to speak sentimentally, talking about the weariness and his failure, and Edmund warns him to stop; if not, Jamie will be crying in a minute. Jamie keeps talking, barely coherent and still drinking. He asks cruelly, "Where's the hophead?" Edmund, shocked that Jamie would refer to their mother so callously, punches Jamie in the face. Jamie apologizes, but then explains his anger. He's so angry that she's failed again. This time, he really believed she'd beaten it. Both men start to cry. Jamie remembers when he found out: he caught her in the act with the needle. Jamie also worries about Edmund. Edmund is more than his brother. He's the only friend he's got.
Then he stops crying, and he begins to speak bitterly. He tells Edmund that he knows their parents will try to poison his mind against Jamie. They've probably told him, says Jamie, that Jamie is hoping Edmund will die, so that he'll have a bigger inheritance. Jamie is so used to having the worst said about him, that he can't help to start to feel it sometimes. Then, he begins to attack Edmund bitterly, telling him that he's pretentious, that he's writing for a hick-town rag, and that Jamie's own writing in college was better. Suddenly, Jamie catches himself, and apologizes. He then says he has reason to be prouder than anyone: he taught Edmund, raised him in a way, turned him on to poetry and planted the idea of writing in Edmund's head. Jamie accepts this all with a smile.
Once again, he forbids Edmund to drink. He takes Edmund's hand and tells him not to be scared about the sanatorium. He suggests jokingly that Edmund is not even sick, and that the doctors are all part of a con game. Jamie pours one drink, and then tells Edmund to listen carefully. He may not have the chance to confess again.
He tells Edmund that part of Jamie, a big part, wants Edmund to fail. In part, he tried to get Jamie turned on to whores and booze because he wanted his brother to fall into dissolution, as he has. Edmund tries to get Jamie to stop, but the confession keeps coming. In part, he blames Edmund for Mary's morphine addiction: it was after Edmund's birth, after all.
He wants Edmund to succeed. He wants Edmund to be great. But he's going to try to make him fail. When Edmund comes back, Jamie warns him to be on guard. Jamie asks Edmund to forgive him, and to always remember that he warned Edmund, risking the loss of the only person he has left. Then Jamie passes out.
Tyrone re-enters. He has heard the last part of the conversation. He looks down on his son pityingly. Jamie wakes, and immediately starts to initiate a fight with Tyrone. The two of them exchange bitter words until, at Edmund's pleading, they stop.
Suddenly, the lights come on. They hear the sound of a piano being played awkwardly. Mary enters, carrying her wedding dress. Jamie calls out, "The Mad Scene. Enter Ophelia!" and Edmund slaps him for it. Jamie apologizes, and then starts to sob. Tyrone is furious, but at Jamie's sobbing, he softens, and pleads with his son to stop.
Mary does not know them. She speaks like she is still in Catholic school, and when she sees her ugly hands, she says quietly that she'll have to go to the infirmary. The men try to talk to her, but she does not know where she is. Tyrone takes the dress from her to protect it from being ripped. Jamie recites from Swineburn's "A Leave-taking." Edmund tries to reach out to Mary, but she is lost. She tells him he must not touch her, because she is going to be a nun.
The men see it is no use. They settle down for another drink. Tyrone orders Jamie to stop quoting poetry; it's too morbid for his house. Mary finishes the play with a story: when she went to Mother Elizabeth and told her she wanted to be a nun, and that she'd had a vision of the Virgin Mary, granting her consent. Mother Elizabeth told her that she must be even more certain. If she felt so sure, she should go home after school for another year, and try to enjoy herself with the other girls, dancing and going to parties. And if after a year she was still certain, then she should come back and take vows.
Mary was shocked by this advice, but she agreed to follow it. She struggles for a moment to remember what happened next, and then it comes back to her: "That was in the winter of senior year. Then in the spring something happened to me. Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time."
The conversation between Edmund and Jamie is the second vital conversation of the play. The play has little in the way of plot, but if it can be said to have a climax, that climax is Edmund's forgiveness of his brother and father.
It is because of this climax that Edmund emerges as the play's central character. In previous acts, he had as much or as little stage time as the other characters. And even here in Act Four, he speaks less than Jamie or Tyrone. What speech he does have is relatively unimportant. But the key to Edmund's emergence as hero is that he listens. Listening and attempting to understand are Edmund's great strengths. He is open to the stories of Tyrone and Jamie in ways that Tyrone and Jamie could never be open to each other. Edmund is able to escape the burden of the past, or at least deal with it, because of his capacity to forgive. Remember that Edmund is unmistakably, and undeniably, the younger Eugene O'Neill. So for all of the darkness and sadness of the play, all audience members would know that Edmund survived and became one of his country's first great playwrights.
It is incorrect, therefore, to consider the play a tragedy. Tragedy is the fall of a great figure. Although there are fallen characters in the play, we see them all long after they have fallen. Mary could be said to lapse during the course of the play, but actually we infer that she has already been taking the morphine in secret. And the real story of the play is not a tragic fall, but an act of great compassion and forgiveness. Edmund's story is ultimately one of triumph, the triumph of coming to terms with one's past and forgiving one's family. Even if one cannot simply forget the failures and suffering in his family's history, Edmund's victory is considerable.
Jamie's confession is a powerful moment. On one hand, it confirms our worst fears about him. He wants his own brother to fail simply because he has. But the confession is also an incredible act of love. He risks losing his brother, and his brother is the only friend he has. Although the sentiment is deplorable, the act is ultimately more important. For that reason, Jamie, too, is forgiven. This scene shows a part of his compassion: he sleeps with the whore no one else wants. He is a ruined man, unable to care for himself, but all the same he tries to help or protect others. His warning to Edmund is a noble sacrifice.
The play still ends with a note of loss. Mary returns, now completely a ghost haunting the past, carrying the wedding gown and unable to recognize her own family. The gown has become a symbol for squandered potential, anticipated happiness that never came. The play's final words are hers, and they are heart wrenching. She haunts the past and is therefore only partially aware of the irony in her words: "I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time." We have moved from there to here. Finishing in this way indicates that despite Edmund's triumph, not everything has been resolved. Many of the cycles of fighting, alcoholism, and drug abuse will continue. Although Edmund has forgiven his family, he cannot save them, nor can he force them to forgive each other.