Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
If you’re having a bad day and you’re in need of a pick-me-up, the work of Eugene O’Neill may not be the way to go. The Iceman Cometh paints a picture of the world in which life seems bleak and utterly hopeless. Even Hickey’s recipe for happiness involves giving up on having any kind of dream:
After you’re rid of the damned guilt […] and remorse that nags at you and makes you hide behind lousy pipe dreams about tomorrow. You’ll be in a today where there is no yesterday or tomorrow to worry you. You won’t give a damn what you are anymore. (2)
While Hickey struggles to get the others to a place where they don’t care about what or where they are, Larry spends much of the play spouting the benefits of apathy. He says he no longer cares about the Cause, he no longer cares about life, or anything anything.
It’s only when Larry admits to himself that his apathy has been a lie, though, that life truly turns bleak for him. Some of the last words Larry speaks in the play are, “Be God, there’s no hope!” (4). In a number of ways, this distills the tone of The Iceman Cometh to a single line. The others return to drinking and dreaming to provide some semblance of hope, but Larry sees it all for the lie it is. The world is a cold, lonely, desolate place, and the only out is death, but they’re all too cowardly to do anything about it.