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 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.

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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.


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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,...

(The entire section contains 1477 words.)

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  • Summary
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  • Characters
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