Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1020
Anna Christie, which won a second Pulitzer Prize for Eugene O’Neill in 1922, was produced in an earlier version as Chris, about a veteran seaman reduced to the role of coal bargeman, who frequented O’Neill’s favorite saloon. The final title of the play indicates O’Neill’s shift of emphasis during numerous rewrites from the crusty old sea dog to his daughter Anna. Originally conceived of as a young woman carefully raised in England, Anna emerges as the title character in Anna Christie, a former prostitute tormented by her past. A realistic drama, with symbolic overtones, the play focuses upon the dynamics of the love-hate relationships of the three central figures, Chris, Anna, and Mat, the Irish sailor tossed into their lives.
From one perspective, the plot of Anna Christie concerns the regeneration of a hardened prostitute as a result of her giving and receiving love, but this somewhat simplistic story is provided complexity through the development of the characters. As O’Neill has created them, they are human beings of passion and energy, people struggling against the forces of an impersonal universe.
The product of a brutal upbringing, Anna, a woman who is strong physically and mentally, mistrusts all men, and her dreams of love, home, and a sense of belonging are pitifully simple and small. Alienated and outcast, her position links her with the central figures of two of O’Neill’s other early plays, Brutus Jones in The Emperor Jones (pr. 1920) and Yank in The Hairy Ape (pr. 1922). Like them, she is a victim of circumstances beyond her control. Unlike them, she is honest with herself and eventually is compelled to be honest with her father and lover. In the third act her outburst about the truth of her past is a proclamation of self not unlike Nora’s declaration in Henrik Ibsen’s Et dukkehjem (1879; A Doll’s House, 1880). In essence, she demands recognition and acceptance for herself. She may have sold herself to men in the past, but she refuses to be owned by them in the present. In contrast, Chris and Mat are weak and insensitive men. Chris is immature and deluded; he avoided responsibility as a father by sending Anna away as a child. He avoids responsibility for his woman Marthy by forcing her away when Anna arrives. He further tries to escape a truthful relationship with Anna by shipping out at the end of the play. Unwilling to examine his own motives, Chris hates and fears “dat ole davil” sea and blames it for all his misfortunes. Still, his efforts to protect Anna, although misguided, are understandable and human.
Mat, supremely confident in his youth and physical strength, as well as superstitious in his Catholicism, does not listen to Anna’s doubts or see her misgivings, believing that the power of his love will overcome whatever obstacles she might voice. Jealous of each other, both men would prefer to maintain the illusion that Anna is an innocent young woman in need of their masculine protection and guidance. Despite the fact that their sexual behavior as sailors has been equally promiscuous, the revelation of her sordid past hurts and enrages them, driving them off on two-day binges. Their sudden conversion to tolerance at the end of the play has concerned critics and audiences.
Certain elements, carefully integrated, lift the play above the realistic level. O’Neill uses the sea symbolically, as he does many times in his works, to represent the forces of life that are ineffable, uncontrolled, and sometimes cruel. Contrasted with the sea is the land. On land, there is the harshness of the farm of Anna’s childhood, and the house she entered that brought her disease, and even Johnny the Priest’s saloon, which is unfriendly to women of her kind. The vastness and power of the sea exhilarate Anna, who has been landlocked all her...
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