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 life. On the barge she feels cleansed, happy, as though she has found a home. Chris mistrusts the sea as Anna mistrusts men. He sees himself as its victim. The sea has deprived him of wife and family, and he fears losing Anna to its spell. On the other hand, Mat, rescued by the barge, believes that the sea has brought him to Anna, and that the will of God operates within it. The sea is life, and the characters, however they respond to it, are at its mercy.
Another symbolic element is the fog, which represents the mystery of life and which sometimes clouds human understanding. Chris fears the fog for its ability to confuse and mislead; he considers it the worst of the tricks the sea can play. The fog of the first two acts allows Anna to be soothed and freed from the guilt of her past. When the fog lifts and the sun shines in act 3, she finds the strength to enlighten the men with the truth. When the fog returns at the end of the play, it carries a sense of foreboding for the future of the three characters.
Critics have faulted the last act, citing the neatness of the resolution as contrived, “a compromise with integrity.” In its sense of inevitability, the play seems to promise a tragic ending. O’Neill responded that it is “just the sort of compromise those characters would have arranged for themselves in real life.” In a letter he jokingly claimed that he had told his characters to die, but they insisted on living, which is “what most of us have to do.” Another point of view sees the ending as far from happy, as the fog swirls in and old Chris mutters about the fog: “You can’t see vhere you vas going, no. Only dat ole davil, sea—she knows!” Moreover, Anna is left landlocked and alone.
Written in the early 1920’s, when O’Neill was producing startling experimental plays, Anna Christie appears to represent a return to more conventional drama for him. However, in the depth of the character delineation and the subtle integration of the symbolic material, O’Neill demonstrates his continued progress as a playwright.