The Iceman Cometh

by: Eugene O'Neill

Themes

The Pipe Dream

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.

Judgment

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.

Ambivalence

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.