Denial is the refusal to admit the truth. It is the refusal to accept or acknowledge the reality or validity of a thing or idea. Many characters in The Iceman Cometh suffer from denial and false hope. O’Neill places these characters in the appropriate setting in which they are able to fantasize about their dreams. Amidst the drunken and misguided characters, O’Neill presents a few that the reader builds hope and sympathy for. Each character uses a pipe dream in order to be able to become blind to their downfalls and to reality.
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In the bar setting, characters in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh portray the theme of denial by embracing pipe dreams. Harry Hope is the elderly owner of a saloon and rooming house. The narrow five-story structure presents the ideal setting for self-destruction. The characters come here in order to “drink away their problems” (O’Neill 597). All of the characters in the novel come to Harry Hope’s bar as an escape. They manage somehow to “remain drunk and delude themselves”(Gagey 332), “with a few harmless pipe dreams about their yesterdays and tomorrows” (O’Neill 620).
They feel sheltered and protected from the real world while in the bar. They do not have to face reality here. “The dreamers have come to Hope’s because, ostensibly, they are failures in the outside world. What lies outside is a world without value, a hostile society to which no man can possibly belong, and from which they must take refuge” (Bogard 54). The characters deny the fact that there is a real world out there, in where they may succeed. They are much more content taking refuge in the bar, where they do not have to strive for or work at anything.
They can just wallow in their sorrows and drink them all away. Each character has a separate pipe dream to face. The pipe dream allows the character to live in a state of denial. It is a false belief or a false hope that the character holds on to. This is in order to blind them of reality. By embracing a pipe dream, the characters feel they do not have to face the bitter reality that confronts them. The pipe dreams make life tolerable for the time being (55). Rocky, the bartender at Hope’s bar, denies the fact that he is a pimp. Because he is a bartender, he believes he cannot be a pimp.
He blatantly disregards the fact that he takes money from two prostitutes and protects them as well. He says to one of the prostitutes, “‘What would you do if I wasn’t around? Give it all to some pimp'” (O’Neill 603). The sad fact that O’Neill presents is that Rocky truly believes that he is not a pimp. He has fooled nobody but himself, and doesn’t even realize it. He also holds a pipe dream of being able to open a bar of his own someday. Margie and Pearl, the two prostitutes, have pipe dreams of one day getting married. They are also living in a state of denial.
Margie says, “‘Anyway, we wouldn’t keep no pimp, like we was reg’lar old whores. We ain’t dat bad'” (603). “These characters live their life through blind eyes” (Orr 90). They refuse to see who and what they really are (91). These three characters deny who they are and refuse to accept it. Although they all have good qualities, they do not acknowledge their imperfections and overlook their unhealthy lifestyles. Ed Mosher, Harry Hope’s brother-in-law, was once a circus man. Pat McGloin was once a police officer. Piet Wetjoen was once the leader of a Boer commando.
Cecil Lewis was once the Captain of the British infantry. James Cameron was a Boer War correspondent. Willie Oban is a Harvard Law School alumnus. Joe Mott was once the proprietor for a Negro gambling house. Although these characters seem to be permanent fixations at Harry Hope’s bar, they refuse to acknowledge that fact. They all retain the pipe dream of shortly returning to their previous jobs. Joe Mott says, “‘I’ll make my stake and get a new gamblin’ house open before you boys leave'” (O’Neill 600). All of these characters see a very bright future up ahead for them.
They are all fooling themselves because their pipe dreams will never be realized. Their pipe dreams are just those, pipe dreams. “The key word is ‘pipe dream. ‘ It occurs a myriad of times during the course of the play from the mouth of almost every figure even when, as is usually the case, its existence is being vehemently denied” (Orr 89). Larry Slade is just waiting to die. This is his pipe dream, although he may not realize it. He thinks he has everything figured out.
He knows he will never amount to anything, and does not want to try. Rocky says, “‘S’pose you don’t fall for no pipe dream? Larry replies, “‘I don’t, no. Mine are all dead and buried behind me. What’s before me is the comforting fact that death is a fine long sleep, and I’m damned tired, and it can’t come too soon for me'” (O’Neill 591). Larry has nothing to look forward to. Death is Larry Slade’s pipe dream. “The alternative to the alcoholic pipe dream, the residue of the ideal as O’Neill conceives it, is death” (Orr 91). Larry, along with all the other drunkards, is waiting for Hickey to show up. Hickey rolls around about twice a year and indulges the drunkards by buying them free drinks.
The arrival of Hickey is awaited with great eagerness, not only because he has the money to buy round after round of drinks, but because he has the knack of encouraging a drunken camaraderie that the inmates of the saloon are too demoralised to generate of their own accord” (89). His arrival is highly anticipated by all of the characters, as it brings joy, spontaneity, and free alcohol. When Hickey finally arrives, he brings with him an unexpected attitude. All of the roomers are expecting free drinks upon Hickey’s arrival, but are disappointed. They are surprised to see that Hickey is a changed man. He has given up alcohol.
The reform of his character, announced soon after his arrival, comes as a complete shock to them and suggests an imminent confrontation. The hard-drinking narrator of dirty jokes appears to have turned into a moral crusader exhorting them to give up their alcoholic ways and make the effort to return to their former more productive lives” (89). When offered a shot of whiskey, he only drinks the chaser. He also discourages the others to drink. This new attitude stuns the roomers. Hickey walks into the saloon with a mission to challenge every single one of the roomers to face and crush their pipe dreams.
This brings about many arguments and fights. This is something the roomers do not expect to have to deal with and do not want to deal with. Hickey begins with Harry Hope. Since the death of his wife, Harry Hope has taken refuge in his bar. He has never left in twenty years. Hope constantly talks about his pipe dream of taking a walk and being able to leave his bar. He believes that if he would walk in public, people everywhere would recognize him because of his previous popularity in the community. The truth, though, is that Hope is terribly frightened about taking a walk and about having to go outside.
When trying to offer others an explanation to why he has been unable to succeed, Hope would provide an exaggerated story of almost being run over. Hope’s problem with denial lies in the fact that he believes he is somewhat famous. Hope says, “When I’d wave my hand, people everywhere would run to say hello to me” (O’Neill 614). He does not acknowledge the fact that he has rarely left the bar in twenty years. He still expects to be highly recognized by all of the townspeople. Hope’s true fear is not of passing cars, it is of having to face the reality that he is not as popular as he thinks, because of the alcoholic he has turned into.
Hope blinds himself from the truth” (Orr 88). The reader is delighted when informed of Hickey’s new attitude. He seems to have everyone’s best interests in mind. He is presented as the hero of the story who will “make everything better. ” Then, the reader comes to the realization that Hickey does not truly have everyone’s best intentions in mind. “Beneath Hickey’s evangelism is a hidden dimension which makes it apparent that the crusade is part of a strategy, at best a ruse to help reveal to the inmates a more fundamental aspect of their existence.
For Hickey expects each of them in turn to fail to come to terms with the outside world, and to return one by one to the backroom bar, dejected and defeated. It then becomes clear that Hickey is not the reformed salesman of the American Dream but something more sinister. The prophet of the ideology of individual self-help and success emerges as the very opposite, a harbinger of destruction who by his action unmasks the very ideology to which he appears to bear allegiance” (89). Hickey wants to crush their pipe dreams of a better tomorrow because he himself has already been forced to do so.
Hickey wants the roomers to make an effort to get over their pipe dreams only to allow them to see how difficult it really is. Hickey says to the roomers, “‘I know you’ll become such a coward you’ll grab at any excuse to get out of killing your pipe dreams. And yet, as I’ve told you over and over, it’s exactly those same damned tomorrow dreams which keep you from making peace with yourself. So you’ve got to kill them like I did mine'” (O’Neill 635). Hickey wants to rip off their masks and free them of the torture of hope (Bogard 57).
At the climax of the play, the reader is startled to find that Hickey’s new attitude has been brought about because of a death. Hickey killed his wife, Evelyn. He reveals the story of their marriage. Evelyn always forgave Hickey in spite of his frequent moral lapses. She deluded herself into thinking that every lapse was the last and Hickey would reform. This was her pipe dream. She chose to deny the fact that Hickey would never change. According to Hickey, the only way he could give Evelyn the peace she always wanted and to free her from her pipe dream of reformation was to kill her (Gagey 332).
He insists he committed the murder with love, not hate, in his heart. But suddenly, in the course of his recital, Hickey comes to the unexpected realization that he too has been deluding himself, that he really killed Evelyn because he hated her” (332). When Hickey realizes this, it becomes too much for him. Instead of facing the issue, Hickey denies he would have really killed his wife out of hate. He therefore excuses himself as being insane. Hickey says, “‘I was out of my mind. Evelyn was the only thing on God’s Earth I ever loved! I’d have killed myself before I’d ever have hurt her'” (O’Neill 640).
Hickey denies he killed his wife out of hate. In conclusion, in the bar setting, characters in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh portray the theme of denial by embracing pipe dreams. Each of the characters in the play had a pipe dream to face. “The pipe dreams of O’Neill’s characters have the same function: they make life tolerable while the dreamers wait for Hickey or Death” (Bogard 55). The characters use pipe dreams in order to be able to become blind to their weaknesses and downfalls. They deny and refuse to acknowledge the grim reality that surrounds them. They are more content by drinking their sorrows away in Harry Hope’s bar.