Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

Eugene O’Neill himself remarked that The Iceman Cometh has little plot in the ordinary sense; he believed that the theme was carried primarily by the characters. The residents of the boardinghouse are all failures; all were onetime viable members of society, but all have been kept from having to face...

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Eugene O’Neill himself remarked that The Iceman Cometh has little plot in the ordinary sense; he believed that the theme was carried primarily by the characters. The residents of the boardinghouse are all failures; all were onetime viable members of society, but all have been kept from having to face their degeneration by the illusion that he or she will or at least could make up for that failure and become a success. They help sustain one another by professing mutual belief in one another’s pipe dreams. O’Neill’s grim point is that all people have such dreams and that any attempt to live without them is doomed. Even the determination to live without illusions or the conviction that one has moved beyond such dreams through philosophy or cynicism is itself usually a pipe dream. That even a genuine disillusionment cannot solve this problem is exemplified by Larry’s shattered condition at the end of the play: Dreams, even delusory ones, may constitute a positive, if not finally optimistic, note in this bleak context.

The relatively straightforward theme is given depth and resonance by being reinforced at several different levels. Character names are symbolic, beginning with that of Harry Hope, who runs a hotel full of drifters living on impossible hopes. Parritt is, as his name implies, a symbolic parrot in his role as a police informer; the greedy bartender is named Pioggi, “pig.” The revolutionary Hugo Kalmar’s surname is a condensation of Karl Marx’s. Hickey’s name has a central significance to parallel that of his character, which works in conjunction with the title to suggest a whole level of allegorical interpretation. His first name, Theodore, is derived from Greek words meaning “gift of God,” and in a sense Hickey is a Jesus symbol—a new Messiah trying to show the light to the roomers, his disciples, to help them find spiritual peace. His last name, however, counterpoints this symbolism by proclaiming him a “hick man,” easily fooled and himself a victim of delusions, not a true prophet. Similarly, the title of The Iceman Cometh alludes to the New Testament metaphor of Christ as Bridegroom, echoing “the bridegroom cometh,” but it also refers to Hickey’s stock joke about his wife, “she’s with the iceman,” literally recalling the old joke about the iceman having an affair with the housewife (“Has the iceman come yet?” “No, but he’s breathing hard.”), but figuratively suggesting a metaphor of the iceman as death. Hickey thus becomes the symbolic iceman of the title, a false prophet bringing spiritual death to his followers rather than new life.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1038

Hope and the American Dream
The promise of the American Dream, a goal of material prosperity and success, has long been regarded as a crucial element of American culture. For many, it is the possibility of this dream that separates America from other nations. It is the hope of the downtrodden. The faith Americans have in the dream, that, given enough ambition and determination, absolutely anyone can ‘‘make it’’ is almost religious in nature.

For the inhabitants of Harry Hope's saloon, however, faith has led to despair; the dream has soured. O'Neill populates Hope's with characters from diverse backgrounds. Some, such as Willie Oban, a Harvard Law School graduate, and Jimmy Tomorrow, a former war correspondent, have come close to success—though it ultimately eluded their grasp. Others, such as Joe Mott, the former proprietor of a black gambling house, and Ed Mosher, a former circus man, have lived on the edge of respectability. Still others, such as the prostitutes, have always lived lives of petty crime. What unites all but Larry and Parritt, however, is a need to retain their dream, for if the dream is attainable, there is no hope for them. Each sees their failure as a personal issue, not a deficiency in the system. Jimmy Tomorrow rationalizes that as long as he believes that he can quit drinking, get his job back, and resume his former place in society, he can live with his despair.

The former anarchists, however, represent a different perspective. For anarchists, the American Dream is a lie and good can only come when all government is eliminated. Although this too is a dream, it flies in the face of the traditional American belief of individual success within the system. In the early decades of this century, anarchy and socialism were regarded as viable alternatives to an American social system many viewed as flawed. Alternative political beliefs were seen by many as a new hope for America. But in The Iceman Cometh, O'Neill shows that this hope is no more attainable than the roomers' elusive dreams. Even those who believe that the American dream is an illusion have nothing to offer in its stead.

Death
Harry Hope's saloon, Larry notes at the beginning of the play, is "harmless as a graveyard.'' In a sense, however, Hope's saloon is a graveyard— ‘‘The End of the Line Café,’’ as Larry calls it. The saloon's inhabitants cling to their pipe dreams, but their lives are essentially over. Death is the next stop. Larry claims to hope for death. He welcomes it as ‘‘a fine long sleep, and I'm damned tired, and it can't come too soon for me.’’

As long as the roomers have their pipe dreams, they believe they can hold death at bay, but Hickey's arrival brings the reality of death. Hickey first brings a spiritual death, telling the roomers that their pipe dreams are empty. Later, Hickey brings literal death into the world of Hope's saloon; not only is the news of Evelyn's murder shattering, it ultimately paves the way for Parritt's death. Larry, who tells Parritt that his only solution is suicide, becomes Larry's executioner. After Parritt's death, Larry says, ‘‘By God, I'm the only real convert to death Hickey made here.’’ No longer a mere observer, Larry's desire for death is now a reality.

Numerous critics have pointed out that the "iceman" of O'Neill's title is in fact Death, the Grim Reaper. It is Death that has come to Evelyn, sent by Hickey into the arms of the iceman at last. And it is Death that Hickey brings to Hope's saloon. However, as the play ends, the roomers are able to resume their pipe dreams, denying Death access. Even Parritt's suicide is unnoticed by all but Larry. Hickey is able to return to his own pipe dream, to deny his hatred of Evelyn as well as his responsibility for her death. He believes that he must have been insane. Only Larry realizes that Death has truly come to Hope's. For him, that has changed everything.

Isolation
The characters in The Iceman Cometh are isolated from mainstream society. This is evident from the beginning, when the curtain opens on the drunken, sleeping men alone in the literal world of their dreams. As the play progresses, the essential isolation of the characters becomes clear. Even awake, each character remains caught in his or her own dream. There is a sort of camaraderie among O'Neill's roomers, but this small sense of community is revealed as a thin veneer following Hickey's arrival; his proclamations of false dreams reveal an underlying animosity. Forced to face their hopeless realities, the roomers fight among themselves until Hickey's departure allows them to return to their pipe dreams.

Parritt arrives at Hope's bar searching for Larry, hoping to end his own isolation. He comes to the ex-anarchist because he recalls Larry being kind to him. Larry, however, rejects Parritt's appeal for friendship. He believes himself to be in the grandstand, an isolated observer rather than a participant in life, and he intends to remain, isolated, uninvolved.

Hickey also seeks an end to his isolation. In past visits, he was satisfied with his superficial friendship with the roomers. Now, however, he claims to have given up on his pipe dream and is not content with just changing his own life. In his search for relief from isolation, Hickey wants the roomers to come to his realization. His story about murdering Evelyn is an attempt to understand his pain he has felt, but the roomers make it clear that they don't want to hear him. Only when he declares that he must have been insane, when he is willing to return to superficial relationships, is he once more accepted by the roomers.

Larry, despite his efforts, develops a brief but real connection with Parritt. That connection, however, only brings him pain. As the play closes, the roomers return to their thin sense of camaraderie, but O'Neill reveals the depth of their isolation. When the roomers begin to sing in celebration of Hope's birthday, each sings a completely different song. Larry, meanwhile, is spiritually as well as physically isolated from the group. Each of the characters ends the play alone.

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