Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 493

Several themes emerge in Beyond the Horizon that Eugene O’Neill touched upon in his earlier produced one-act plays. Virginia Floyd aptly notes that these “earlier themes coalesce in Beyond the Horizon: the necessity of the dream to sustain man, the wife-husband and father-son conflicts, the contrasting value systems of the idealist poet and materialist businessman, the lure of the land versus that of the sea.” Although these same themes recur in much of O’Neill’s later works, in Beyond the Horizon he posits them in the larger context of being true to one’s nature. The dream may sustain a person, but if an individual makes choices diametrically opposed to those dreams, disaster will surely follow.

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The play points out, at times unrelentingly, that each of the two brothers makes decisions that run counter to his true nature. Andrew, the son of the soil, in a moment of jealousy leaves the farm and the way of life he is called to, finding himself adrift both literally and figuratively in a world foreign and incomprehensible. It seems appropriate that he fails at land speculation, because, even though he knows about land, farming, and the joy of making things grow, he is connected no longer to the land—he simply sees it in a materialistic way. Likewise, Robert has long dreamed of the chance to discover what is “out there” beyond the horizon. He longs for adventure and for discovery but opts for the sedentary life of a farmer when Ruth professes her love for him. He fails not because he does not work, but because the work does not suit him.

The play’s other conflicts—mainly the wife-husband and father-son conflicts—are exacerbated by the going-against-nature theme. For example, no one is more vehemently opposed to Andrew’s decision to leave the farm than James Mayo. He knows his eldest son. He has watched him grow up and knows Andrew’s ways are the same as his: He cannot condone Andrew’s choice. Mayo’s last words before Andrew leaves are harsh, bitter with disappointment as he angrily tells Andrew never to return to the farm while he is alive. This rift continues until James’s death and creates a chasm between his wife and his youngest son as well.

Robert and Ruth’s relationship suffers as well, starting almost immediately after the wedding. At the start of act 2 Ruth tries to defend Robert against her mother’s cruel accusations, but it is obvious she does not believe the words she speaks.

O’Neill shows that the Mayo brothers have betrayed their creative gifts and in so doing have shown the “spiritual significance in that picture.” This spiritual significance is embodied in the closing moments of the play as Robert lies dead in the road, with Ruth staring “dully with the sad humility of exhaustion, her mind already sinking back into that spent calm beyond the further troubling of any hope.”

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1311

Dreams
Dreams provide the main theme of the play. Every one of the characters has dreams. Ruth dreams of having a husband. James dreams of having a bigger farm and hopes that his son, Andy, will marry Ruth Atkins so that they can take over the adjoining Atkins farm. Says James, ‘‘Joined together they’d make a jim-dandy of a place, with plenty o’ room to work in.’’ However, the biggest dreamers in the story are Robert and Andy, who have opposite dreams. Robert is a poet and has the romantic dream of going ‘‘beyond the horizon’’ to experience the world. Andy, on the other hand, is a born farmer and dreams of nothing more than marrying Ruth and taking care of the Mayo farm. They acknowledge this to each other in the first scene, when Andy says to Robert, ‘‘Farming ain’t your nature,’’ and Robert says to Andy, ‘‘You’re wedded to the soil.’’ Neither of them understands the other’s dreams, but they support each other.

Ruth is the key character that interrupts these dreams. She gets caught up in Robert’s romantic vision of the sea, and when he admits that he is also leaving because he loves her, she renounces her love for Andy and asks Robert to stay: ‘‘Please tell me you won’t go!’’ Ruth’s request and Robert’s decision to stay set everybody’s lives on a tragic course, leading to the early deaths of most of the characters and the possible ruination of Andy and Ruth. James predicts that this will happen when he declares that only bad things happen when people give up their natural dreams: ‘‘You’re runnin’ against your own nature, and you’re goin’ to be a’mighty sorry for it if you do.’’

Responsibility
For both Robert and Andy, dreams are also responsibilities. Robert has signed up with his uncle, Captain Scott, to work on the sea voyage. When he backs out, he neglects his responsibility, a fact that irks Captain Scott, who has gone to great lengths to accommodate Robert. Says Scott, ‘‘Ain’t I made all arrangements with the owners and stocked up with some special grub all on Robert’s account?’’ Meanwhile, Andy has trained since he was a boy to manage the Mayo farm, and when he backs out of this responsibility, his father challenges him on it: ‘‘The farm is your’n as well as mine . . . and what you’re sayin’ you intend doin’ is just skulking out o’ your rightful responsibility.’’

As the play progresses, O’Neill gives other examples of neglected responsibilities. Robert prefers reading books and daydreaming to working on the farm, a fact that Ruth notes: ‘‘And besides, you’ve got your own work that’s got to be done. . . . Work you’ll never get done by reading books all the time.’’ However, Ruth is also guilty of neglected responsibilities. Ruth has a responsibility to Mary to be a good mother, but she instead takes out her feelings of anger on the child, trying to force her roughly to take a nap—terrifying the child with threats of ‘‘good spankings.’’ This is contrasted sharply with Robert’s caring treatment of Mary, as shown by the stage directions: ‘‘He gathers her up in his arms carefully and carries her into the bedroom. His voice can be heard faintly as he lulls the child to sleep.’’ In the end, Robert appeals to Andy’s sense of responsibility when he voices his dying wish to have Andy marry Ruth and take care of her. Andy notes to Ruth that he cannot ignore this wish by promising his brother he will marry Ruth and then not following through: ‘‘What? Lie to him now—when he’s dying?’’

Choices
At various points along the way, the characters have choices. When Andy returns after three years at sea, he has the choice of leaving again or of staying at the Mayo farm. The latter is a logical choice, since the main reason he left—his love for Ruth—is no longer an issue. However, Andy says to Robert, ‘‘I’m certain now I never was in love.’’ He chooses to go to Buenos Aires to make money speculating in grain instead of staying at the farm that he used to love. In the end, Robert notes that this choice has made Andy the biggest failure of them all: ‘‘You—a farmer—to gamble in a wheat pit with scraps of paper.’’ Robert’s choices also increase his unhappiness, however. His biggest choice, and the one which, as noted above, sets the play on its tragic course, is the choice to stay on the farm.

However, three years later, when Robert has a chance to change things during Andy’s return, he makes the disastrous choices to not tell Andy about his failed marriage and to not accept Andy’s offer of financial assistance. ‘‘No. You need that for your start in Buenos Aires,’’ Robert tells Andy. Although Andy tries to argue with Robert on this point, Robert refuses to listen. He also does not try to convince Andy to stay. This point is noted angrily by Ruth when she is speaking to Andy. ‘‘And didn’t he try to stop you from going?’’ Robert’s pride in not asking for money or asking his brother to stay and help contributes directly to his death at the end. If he had appealed to his rich brother earlier, Andy and Ruth could have gotten Robert to a better climate and perhaps saved his life. As Doctor Fawcett says, ‘‘That might have prolonged his life six months ago. (Andrew groans.) But now—. (He shrugs his shoulders significantly.)’’

Happiness
The play also causes the reader or viewer to question what really makes people happy. In the beginning, everybody is going along on what seems to be his or her true path. Robert is going to sea, while Ruth will most likely marry Andy, who will take over the Mayo farm. When Robert, Ruth, and Andy deviate from their intended paths, however, they all become unhappy. But there is some question as to whether they would have found true happiness if they had stayed on their original paths. Although Ruth says later that she has always loved Andy, she initially says that she is in love with Robert: ‘‘I don’t! I don’t love Andy! I don’t.’’ This is the exact opposite of her later comment to Robert, ‘‘I do love Andy. I do! I do! I always loved him.’’ This leads one to believe that Ruth would not be happy with either man. If Robert had gone away to sea and Ruth had married Andy out of necessity and not love, she may not have been any happier than she was with Robert. In other words, without marrying Robert and seeing that he was not the right one for her, she might never have realized that she loved Andy.

Similarly, there is some question as to whether Robert would have been truly happy at sea. Andy’s experiences in the Far East that Robert has dreamed of are not enjoyable, as he notes to Robert on his first trip home: ‘‘One walk down one of their filthy narrow streets with the tropic sun beating on it would sicken you for life with the ‘wonder and mystery’ you used to dream of.’’ It is unclear whether Robert would have had a different experience. Even the ending is ambiguous. Andy says everything may work out in the end, but Ruth’s reaction of hopelessness leaves the audience to question whether true happiness is possible for these two characters: ‘‘She remains silent, gazing at him dully with the sad humility of exhaustion, her mind already sinking back into that spent calm beyond the further troubling of any hope.’’

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