is a domestic comedy in four acts, centering on Eugene O’Neill’s nostalgic memories of turn-of-the-century family life in New England. The play is structured around the growing-up experiences of Richard Miller as he rebels against small-town morality in his reading, politics, and idealistic romance. Strong family ties and patient parental attention help Richard to resist temptation and accept the positive qualities of his domestic situation.
The action takes place over a two-day period, beginning on the Fourth of July, 1906. In act 1, as family members prepare to celebrate the holiday, Richard is at odds with the others as he lashes out, idealistically, against capitalism and quotes passages from authors considered to be "racy" and avant-garde. His reading is the springboard for the play’s development. When some quotations that Richard has shared with his sweetheart, Muriel McComber, are discovered by her father, Mr. McComber not only tries to prevent Muriel from further contact and communication with Richard but also demands that Mr. Miller discipline Richard harshly.
Richard’s reaction to his father’s reprimand and the break-up with Muriel constitute idealistic martyrdom. In act 2, during the family meal—with comic relief from the interactions of the old suitors, Sid Davis and Lily Miller—Richard maintains his pose of disdain and pessimism about life. He rebelliously looks forward to a forbidden night out with one of his brother’s friends and the chance to be with a "fast" woman.
In act 3, at a saloon with a prostitute, however, Richard only succeeds in making himself foolishly drunk.
Although he kisses Belle, he resists the temptation of going upstairs to a room together. Richard’s drunken return to his house is met with parental severity, but Uncle Sid, recognizing that Richard is really ill from the side effects and himself used to the impact of too much drink, escorts Richard to bed.
Although discipline is threatened the next day, in act 4, Essie, Richard’s mother, begins to feel sorry for her son. Richard, moreover, receives word that Muriel still loves him and was forced to write the break-up letter. Ever the romantic, Richard ignores his parents’ wishes once more, sneaking out the next night for a secret meeting on the beach with Muriel. In this contrasting scene to the saloon meeting with the prostitute, Richard and Muriel commit themselves to an undying love and innocently exchange a kiss. When Richard returns home, his regret about his night at the saloon and his commitment never to drink again or get involved with "fast" women are so sincerely convincing that his father settles the issues with advice about how to live a good middle-class life. The play ends with Richard’s acceptance of his need to attend college before he and Muriel can marry.