Study Guide

The Iceman Cometh Betrayal

By Eugene O’Neill

Betrayal

ROCKY: Remember how he works that gag about his wife, when he’s cockeyed, cryin’ over her picture and den springin’ it on yuh all of a sudden dat he left her in de hay wid de iceman? (1)

From Rocky’s story, it’s clear that Hickey has turned the idea of betrayal into a running joke. Later in the play, this idea will reappear when we discover that Hickey betrayed his wife to the tune of full-on murder. He’s always talked about betrayal as a joke, but it proves to be much more serious.

HICKEY: You’ll have to excuse me, boys and girls, but I’m off the stuff. For keeps. (1)

This is Hickey’s first act of betrayal against the group, and they no longer see him as one of them. This seemingly simple act sets the play in motion in a lot of ways. People realize that the guy they’ve been eagerly awaiting isn’t who they thought he was and this throws everyone’s world into disarray.

PARRITT: But she wasn’t faithful to you, even at that, was she? (2)

Parritt uses the betrayal in Larry’s past—acted out by Parritt’s mother—to try to connect with him. This is a great example of how a character that is not even in a play can still play a major role in the action. Parritt’s mother isn’t physically present, but she hangs over her son and Larry.

PARRITT: I began to feel I was a traitor for helping a lot of cranks and bums and free women plot the overthrow of our government. (2)

Does Parritt feeling like he’s betrayed his country justify his betrayal of his mother and the Cause? More importantly, do you think Parritt really feels like he betrayed his country?

MOSHER: And they’ll all give him a phony glad hand and a ton of good advice about what a sucker he is to stand for us. (2)

Mosher can’t stand the idea of being betrayed by Harry even though he’s been using Harry all along. This connects the idea of betrayal to possession. Mosher sees Harry as someone who owes him something. It’s not like he’s concerned with Harry’s well-being or anything, it’s just that he doesn’t want someone to take away something that he thinks he deserves.

PARRITT: And it must be the final knockout for her if she knows I was the one who sold— (3)

Parritt finally confesses to his betrayal, so why does he keep begging Larry for help?

CHUCK: Yuh don’t wanta see me get married and settle down like a reg’lar guy! Yuh’d like me to stay paralyzed all de time, so’s I’d be like you, a lousy pimp! (3)

Chuck and Rocky might not be known for their deep thinking in the play, but this exchange actually says a lot about relationships. With the two bartenders, O’Neill displays that ugly little part of people that doesn’t want to see friends out-succeed them. For more on this, it can be helpful to turn to the early ‘90s New Wave stylings of a melancholy Brit named Morrissey and his classic tune “We Hate it When Our Friends Become Successful”.

HICKEY: I had to kill her. (4)

What does it say about Hickey that he spills his confession of the ultimate betrayal in such a calm, straightforward manner?

PARRITT: It’s worse if you kill someone and they have to go on living. I’d be glad of the Chair! It’d wipe it out! It’d square me with myself! (4)

Boom! It’s that rare moment when a character in this play says exactly what he means and what he wants. Parritt straight up admits that he welcomes death and that it’s the one way he can come to terms with what he did to his mother. A lot of people shout a lot of stuff in Iceman, but there are a few times when someone just lays everything out there for the world to see. After this outburst, it’s pretty clear how things are going to end for Parritt.

PARRITT: I didn’t give a damn about the money. It was because I hated her. (4)

Is it Parritt’s hate for his mother or the act of betrayal that fuels his guilt? This is an important question when it comes to young Don the stranger, because his guilt is such a huge part of what drives his journey throughout the play.