As noted by Travis Bogard, the pipe dream is the "essential action" that unifies the play's motley crew of down-and-out characters. It takes on a number of permutations. In the case of Larry, Hugo, and Parritt's mother, it figures as a dream of political salvation; Hickey's fantasy of salvation is more explicitly religious. Most of the other characters belong to what Larry sardonically describes as the "tomorrow movement," each sentimentally reminiscing about their glory days and pledging to return to them tomorrow.
Hickey will arrive on the scene to demystify these pipe dreams. Only by killing tomorrow can man achieve peace with himself. This murder of the fantasy of tomorrow will condemn the characters to a sort of living death. Moreover, Hickey's gospel of salvation will ultimately reveal itself to be a pipe dream of another sort, one that enables the evasion of guilt.
As noted above, one of the permutations of the pipe dream is the fantasy that enables the evasion of guilt. The demystification of this fantasy is concomitant with a surrender of the dreamer to judgment. For both the play's criminals, Parritt and Hickey, this surrender is a suicidal yearning for the death sentence.
Parritt works through his pipe dream through the course of the play, ultimately confessing that his hatred for his mother drove him to betray her and the Anarchist movement. He comes to Larry, his father figure, to demand a judgment and sentence. Clinging to his grandstand of philosophical detachment, Larry futilely refuses. When he finally takes on the mantle of judge and sentences Parritt to death, this engagement with the world only makes him yearn for his own demise.
Though initially Hickey seems to play the judge himself, demystifying the group's pipe dreams, he will prove to be sustaining a fantasy of his own, that of his gospel of salvation, to evade his guilt over the murder of his wife. He becomes Parritt's double in this evasion, in his incapacity to admit his hate for his beloved. When disabused of his pipe dream, he similarly delivers himself to the authorities, yearning suicidally for the electric chair.
A number of the characters display violently ambivalent relations with their love objects. The hate that lines their love for the object inspires the guilt that the pipe dream would conceal. The clearest example is Hickey, who at some level preaches his gospel of salvation to keep his hatred of his wife Evelyn at bay. He did not revenge himself on her. Instead, he feels that he saved her from misery and a failed pipe dream. Hickey at once adores his love and despises her for inspiring his guilt with her pipe dream of his reformation. Parritt, Hickey's double, similarly weaves a pipe dream to conceal his hatred for his mother, justifying his betrayal by appeals to patriotism, and a lie about a liaison with a prostitute. His hate appears far less ambiguously than Hickey's. For other characters, the love object serves as a pretext for their denials and defenses. Harry Hope, for example, continually invokes his wife Bess to excuse his inability to venture outside the saloon.
As a number of critics have noted, O'Neill's so-called Greek plays a function according to a choral logic. Note, for example, the repetition and circulation of motifs among various voices, moments of counterpoint between multiple sets of characters, the choreography of their passing into and violently out of sleep, and the play's many songs. Critics often identify the choral aspect of O'Neill's work as one of the more expressionistic elements at work in his largely realist frames.
O'Neill's dramaturgy also distinguishes itself by the multiplicity of character voices. Hope's saloon serves as a sort of microcosm of down-and-out America, O'Neill's vocal arrangements showing tremendous range in accent, diction, and tone. Despite the appearance of many voices, or of "polyvocality," the play is quite monologic, revolving around the leitmotif of the pipe dream and its limited number of permutations. The play is formally conservative in this respect.
Early in the play, Larry quotes Heine's "Death and his Brother Sleep ('Morphine')." It opens by posing a "mirror likeness between those two shining, youthfully-fledged figures" of sleep and death. The play similarly begins with this likeness. The saloon is continually described as a "morgue" and "graveyard," and its pipe dreaming residents are dead to the world. In contrast, a kind of brutal waking death appears upon the demystification of the group's pipe dreams. By forcing his friends to kill their fantasies of tomorrow and face the reality of their desires, Hickey turns them into zombies or wax figures bent on mechanically drinking themselves into oblivion.
Two celebrations occur in the course of the play. The first is Hope's birthday party in Act II—the occasion for Hickey's visit. The second is the "second birthday party" that closes the play. The first shows the characters as they begin to crumble under the weight of Hickey's gospel: each miserably pledges to act on their pipe dreams and almost come to blows with anyone who might deride their plans. Foreshadowing their imminent falls, this celebration takes on an ominously prophetic function. Cyrus Day argues that the party evokes the Last Supper with Hickey as its Antichrist. Larry imagines Hickey as the divine hand from the feast of Belshazzar that foretells the host's doom. The second party takes place after Hickey's arrest and declaration of insanity. It is a "second birth" of sorts as the removal of Hickey enables the group to revive their pipe dreams.
O'Neill's vocal arrangements often feature refrains, whether circulated among the group or located in a single character. The dominant refrain is Hugo's, who will intermittently rouse from drunken stupor to denounce the crowd, whine for a drink, and address the kingdom of Babylon. His occasionally mechanical quality, one that recalls a wind-up doll, prefigures the group's transformation into despondent, wax-like automatons upon the demystification of their pipe dreams. Hugo's refrain on Babylon will also give a unified voice to the group's delusions at the end of the play, when the group chants it jubilantly upon Hickey's departure and the revival of their fantasies. This refrain dramatizes how the pipe dream serves as the characters' "essential action."
The play's primary symbol is the Iceman. The phrase, "The Iceman Cometh," recalls the story of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25:6 and its description of the coming of the Savior: "But at midnight there was a cry made, Behold the bridegroom cometh." The messianic figure of the play is certainly Hickey. In killing the fantasy of tomorrow, this messiah does not bring salvation, however, but death. As Larry notes: "Death was the Iceman Hickey called to his home!"
According to Dudley Nichols, O'Neill's title also evokes a popular bawdy story of the husband who called upstairs to his wife, "Has the iceman come yet?" The answer: "No, but he's breathing hard." Like the traveling salesman, the Iceman had a certain folk mythic dimension in American smoking-car jokes. O'Neill appropriates this figure and its folk mythic dimension to produce a modern Grim Reaper. The double entendre in Larry's jeer that the Iceman finally got Hickey's wife dramatizes this shift. Initially the joke is that Evelyn finally cheated on Hickey, but Hickey soon reveals that the Death has claimed her.
Another set of symbols organizes itself around the trope of the vessel. Early in the play, Larry describes the group's pipe dreams as a fleet of sunken ships. Though their dream ships are imagined as filled with cancelled regrets, fulfilled promises, clean slates, and new leases, Hickey will reveal them as blown by the breath of whiskey (note the numerous puns on the "schooner" glass) and long looted and scuttled.
The trope of the vessel reappears significantly at Harry Hope's birthday party. There, Larry jests that Hickey is the divine hand from the feast of Belshazzar. As told in the Book of Daniel (5: 1–6, 25–8), Belshazzar, King of Babylon, gives a banquet for his nobles, blasphemously serving wine in the sacred vessels his father Nebuchadnezzar had looted from the Temple in Jerusalem. Hickey will call the party to judgment for drinking from their pipe dream vessels, bringing them to their ruin.