Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1094
It is early morning in the summer of 1912. In the back room and a section of the bar of Harry Hope’s saloon, with tables and chairs squeezed closely together, nine men are seated, mostly dozing, at the tables, including sixty-year-old host Harry Hope and Larry Slade, about the same age. Larry’s expression of tired tolerance gives his face “the quality of a pitying but weary old priest’s.” These men are alcoholics who frequent the saloon. With the exception of the black Joe Mott, they are also roomers who live on the upstairs floors. All are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the salesman Hickey, due to join them to celebrate Hope’s birthday the next day. Larry, contemplating his friends’ and his addiction to alcohol, comments in an early speech, “The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us.”
Don Parritt, an eighteen-year-old, good-looking but unpleasant fellow who rented one of Hope’s rooms the previous night, engages Larry in an intense conversation. Don is the only son of Rosa Parritt, an anarchist leader arrested and imprisoned for a bombing on the West Coast. Larry speculates that some member of the movement betrayed Rosa to the police and hopes that the informer’s soul will rot in hell. He left the movement eleven years ago, having come to regard humanity as too base for its idealism. Parritt describes his mother as an independent, fierce-willed woman who took and abandoned many men, including Larry. Sardonically, Larry tells Parritt not to expect any intimacy from him, because he has none left to give and only wishes to be left alone.
Willie Oban, a dropout from Harvard Law School, hopes that “Hickey or Death would come!” Two streetwalkers, Margie and Pearl, return from their night’s work and turn their earnings over to Rocky, the night bartender, who deeply resents being called a pimp, just as they insist that they are tarts, not whores. The day bartender, Chuck, a tough but amiable Italian American, enters with his girlfriend Cora, a thin blonde several years older than Pearl and Margie. Cora is also a prostitute.
Toward the end of act 1 Hickey finally arrives; he’s a roly-poly man of fifty, with a salesman’s affable, hearty personality. Warmly welcomed, he shocks his friends by announcing his abstention from alcohol and his evangelical program for these derelicts: He will rescue them from the illusions of their “pipe dreams,” will force them to confront themselves honestly and realistically; then they will find the peace that he now has.
In act 2 the regulars assemble toward midnight for Hope’s long-awaited birthday party. They are anxious and irritable: Hickey spoke to many of them in their rooms, urging them to discard their delusions. The women, for example, should admit to themselves that they are whores and that the bartenders are pimps. Larry should befriend Parritt and help him punish himself for having betrayed his mother to the police. Mosher should return to the circus; and Hope should leave his saloon and reacquaint himself with the neighborhood. As for Hickey, he announces, as a climax to the birthday celebration, that Evelyn died and that he feels no grief for his “dearly beloved” mate. She found her peace at last, released from his faithless and drunken ways.
Act 3 takes place in the middle of the next morning. The sobered residents of the saloon turn in their room keys, resigned to risking life in the outside world. Their mood is bellicose. Chuck and Cora, then Chuck and Rocky, quarrel. Joe is subjected to racial taunts and in turn threatens others with his knife. Piet, a former Boer commando, and Cecil, a former British officer, refight the Boer War. Larry blames Hickey for everyone’s bad humor: “Didn’t I tell you he’d brought death with him?”
As the roomers hesitate to step outside the building, Hope and Jimmy enter the bar, followed by Hickey, who goads them to leave the premises. Hope is particularly hesitant to stroll outdoors. He finally does so, only to lurch back into the bar after a few minutes, complaining of the heavy automobile traffic and desperate for a drink. Larry angrily confronts Hickey, demanding a clear accounting of his wife’s death. Hickey responds, to everyone’s shock, that Evelyn was shot to death.
The last act occurs at 1:30 a.m. the following day. All the habitués are at the saloon, their expectations of self-improvement shattered. The room’s atmosphere is one of “oppressive stagnation.” Parritt pleads with Larry to advise him what to do, now that his mother is convicted. Larry refuses to be Parritt’s “executioner.” Then Hickey returns, having made a phone call, but his manner is no longer confident.
In a long monologue, occasionally interrupted by one of the regulars, Hickey reveals that he murdered his wife. He recalls his early life in a small town, where he drank and whored in rebellion against his strict father. He and Evelyn loved each other from an early age, and she always forgave him after he confessed to his alcoholic binges and to his infidelities. Her pardoning him for his sins and her persistent yet ineffectual efforts to reform him only succeed in making him feel worthless. “There’s a limit,” he tells his listeners, “to the guilt you can feel and the forgiveness and pity you can take!” Finally, Hickey decides he can no longer bear his humiliation, that he needs to free Evelyn from her—and his—misery in loving him. He shot her in her sleep.
Hickey’s confession causes Parritt to unburden himself in parallel fashion regarding his feelings toward his mother. He admits to Larry that he betrayed his mother because he hates her, causing Larry to shout at him to “get the hell out of life.” Parritt thanks Larry for his judgment, goes up to his room, and throws himself off the balcony to his death. Two policemen arrive to arrest Hickey for murder. Before they lead him away, Hickey calls himself “insane” for having expressed hatred for Evelyn. Hope and the other derelicts eagerly seize upon Hickey’s last remarks. They decide that he was insane and that his exhortations to them that they should abandon their pipe dreams was “nutty.” They resume their heavy drinking. After Hickey was arrested and Parritt committed suicide, Larry expressed the wish that he himself would die soon, concluding, “Be God, I’m the only real convert to death Hickey made here.”
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