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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to The Iceman Cometh!