The Iceman Cometh
by Eugene O’Neill
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
This is the big one. It’s right there in bold print in the title, which means it cannot be ignored. So, who is the “Iceman,” why is there so much talk about him, and why does he snag a spot in the name of the show?
A Little Stab in the Back
On the surface, the Iceman is just a joke about cheating—a reference to one of the many “gags” Hickey loves to play, as Rocky points out here:
Remember how he woiks up dat gag about his wife, when he’s cockeyed, cryin’ over her picture and den springin’ in on yuh all of a sudden dat he left her in de hay wid de iceman? (1)
Fighting through Rocky’s dialect, it seems that it’s this ominous "Iceman" who steals Hickey’s wife. At least that’s what happens in the classic gag Hickey keeps bringing up. This gag could evoke the idea that the Iceman symbolizes betrayal or hidden desire or something like that. After all, betrayal is a big part of the play and it does seem to descend upon Harry’s in the form of Hickey and Parritt and others.
The Icy Reaper?
But O’Neill makes the Iceman even darker than a personification of betrayal in the end. The Iceman symbolizes death. That’s the lover Hickey has left his wife in the hay with. As critic Eric Bentley plainly states, “The Iceman is death, of course. Hickey always used to say in jest that his wife was in the hay with the iceman. And in the end he made sure that she was. The Iceman assuredly earns his place in the title of the play.”
Like lot of O’Neill symbols, the Iceman can still seem kind of tricky. The writer Dudley Nichols went right to the source to get a little clarification about the unseen Iceman of the play. This is what he had to say about what O’Neill told him:
"The iceman of the title is, of course, death [...] I don't think O'Neill ever explained, publicly, what he meant by the use of the archaic word, 'cometh,' but he told me at the time he was writing the play that he meant a combination of the poetic and biblical 'Death cometh'—that is, cometh to all living." (Source.)
Hickey "The Iceman" Hickman, According to Larry
Hickey and the symbol of the Iceman merge into one as the play progresses. Larry has a series of lines throughout the play that show the progression of the Iceman as a symbol:
Your iceman joke finally came home to roost, did it?[…]You should have remembered there’s truth to the old superstition that you’d better look out what you call because in the end it comes to you! (2)
This line of Larry’s still plays into the joke Hickey used to tell about his wife cheating on him with the Iceman. However, Larry’s a little prophetic here. He suggests that the thing you “call” eventually comes for you. Well, as we find out later, it was actually death that Hickey called upon for his wife, and death awaits Hickey after the end of the play in the form of the electric chair. Now, on to the next Larry line that can help us out:
Murder each other, you damned loons, with Hickey’s blessing! Didn’t I tell you he’d brought death with him? (3)
Okay, now Larry reiterates his claim that instead of jokes and good times, Hickey has brought death with him this time around. So far according to Larry, Hickey has called the Iceman down on himself and has brought death with him. Finally, Larry ties the two thoughts together and identifies Hickey with death:
I’d get blind to the world now if it was the Iceman of Death himself treating! […] What made me say that, I wonder. […] Well, be God it fits, for Death was the Iceman Hickey called to his home! (3)
Larry calls out the symbol for what it is here. “Death was the Iceman” clues us into it. However, if we look at his first two quotes, we can imply that Hickey hasn’t just called the “Iceman of Death” to his home. As Larry says, Hickey has become death when he comes to the people at Harry’s. Larry is proven right as Parritt dies and Larry’s own final sense of hope for anything dies as a result of Hickey’s appearance on the scene.