The Iceman Cometh
by Eugene O’Neill
Mothers and Wives
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
It’s a lovely thought that mothers and wives are the two women men love most in the world. That’s the way we all like to imagine things to be. So, when you see mother and/or wife symbolism pop up in a play, you might think it’ll have something to do with love, caretaking, protection, or any number of other relatively positive things. Of course, you’re on to Mr. O’Neill at this point, so you know it’s not going down like that.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
Parritt’s mother and Hickey’s wife represent guilt in the play. Even though Parritt claims he hated his mother and Hickey killed his wife while yelling at her and laughing, neither can escape what he has done to the women he was meant to love. In discussing the guilt that Evelyn evokes in Hickey, critic James A. Robinson goes on to say, "Another off-stage woman in Iceman also breeds guilt and self-loathing in a man: Rosa Parritt, mother of Don and ex-lover of Larry Slade" (source).
The Past is What You Make It
Since the mothers and wives in The Iceman Cometh never actually appear onstage to speak for themselves, they kind of take on the roles of blank slates. They’re all either dead or gone, so the men in Harry’s can create them in any image they want.
Harry talks about how much he loved Bessie and how wonderful she was, but it turns out that he never really could stand her. Jimmy Tomorrow blames his wife’s affair on his drinking and all of his problems, but as Hickey quickly points out, “But I’ll bet when you admit the truth to yourself, you’ll confess you were pretty sick of her hating you for getting drunk. I’ll bet you were really damned relieved when she gave you such a good excuse” (2). It turns out Jimmy started boozing it up and falling apart long before his wife cheated on him.
So, wives and moms catch kind of a tough break in this one. They get a guilty rap and are molded into whatever is easiest for the men to project their own deficiencies onto.