Study Guide

The Iceman Cometh Language and Communication

By Eugene O’Neill

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Language and Communication

LARRY: By God, Joe, you’ve got all the beauty of human nature and the practical wisdom of the world in that little parable. (1)

As much as Larry philosophizes, he recognizes that sometimes the simplest language or story can help answer the larger questions in life. Maybe that’s what makes him a real philosopher after all. What do you think, is Larry a 1912 down-and-out Descartes?

WILLIE: Speaking of whiskey, sir, reminds me—and, I hope, reminds you—that when meeting a Prince the customary salutation is “What’ll you have?” (1)

Willie uses language to maintain a sense of his cultured past, while fully realizing his current state. Also, there’s something really funny about a guy talking like this in a total dump.

LEWIS: My dear fellow, I give you my word of honor as an officer and a gentleman, you shall be paid tomorrow. (1)

What does Lewis’s use of language have in common with Willie’s? What does “tomorrow” really mean for the regulars at Harry’s?

PEARL: No. We’re tarts, but dat’s all. (1)

Language gives Pearl (and others) the ability to lie to themselves about who they are and what they really do. What are some examples of how people use euphemisms to cover up the truth today?

HICKEY: He was the boy who could sell those Hoosier hayseeds building lots along the Golden Street! (1)

Hickey connects his dad’s skills of communication to selling and to preaching—two tools he uses to convert others to his way of thinking. He’s a little like the Sham Wow guy but with a way better vocabulary.

PEARL: Aw right, Rocky. We’re whores. You know what dat makes you, don’t you? (2)

Just as Pearl uses language to pretend she is something she isn’t, she can use language to show someone else (Rocky) that he is something he doesn’t want to accept. So, what’s in a name? Does Pearl calling herself what she is make any difference to how she’ll lead her life?

HUGO: The days grow hot O Babylon! (2)

Hugo almost turns this rant into a mantra throughout the play, and by the end it revives the company and brings them together as a Babylonian chorus who all sing different songs at the same time. Is it possible to see Hugo’s shouts of this line as an omen or a prophecy of some kind?

LARRY: Be god, you can’t say Hickey hasn’t the miraculous touch to raise the dead, when he can start the Boer War raging again! (3)

Through Larry’s use of language, Hickey’s own communication skills are compared to the miracle working of Christ. Once again, though, the religious allusion is used as a joke. What? We all know lines about the Boer War are hilarious.

HICKEY: I had the knack. It was like a game, sizing people up quick, spotting what their pet pipe dreams were, and then kidding them along that line, pretending you believed what they wanted to believe about themselves. They liked you and trusted you, they wanted to buy something to show their gratitude. (4)

For all his claims, does Hickey ever intend to help the regulars at Harry’s, or is he simply using his communication skills one more time to sell something he might not even believe in?

HICKEY: I was a raving rotten lunatic or I couldn’t have said—(4)

Hickey has no problem talking until this point when his guilt is strong enough to keep him from saying what he means to say. Even Hickey isn’t immune to guilt. The thought of what he did to his wife, even if he’s said it was out of love or to set her free, still stops him cold at least for a little bit.

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