The Id, Ego and Super Ego of
Despite his failing health between 1936 and 1943, Eugene O’Neill produced some of his greatest works. During these years, O’Neill wrote The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten. These are dark, autobiographical plays, searching for meaning in a life dominated by addiction, depression and death. “O’Neill returned in these last plays to acceptance of struggle and flight as inseparable from and intrinsic to the life process. Now there was no way out but death” (Faulk 22). The purpose of this paper is to illustrate how the characters of Don Parritt, Theodore Hickman and Larry Slade in The Iceman Cometh correlate to the three Freudian components of psychological identity: the Id, the Ego and the Super Ego of its author, Eugene O’Neill. Collectively, these three characters reflect their author’s complex personality.
The setting of the play, Harry Hope’s, an “End of the Line Café” is an amalgam of three lower end New York saloons where O’Neill stayed in 1912 (Alexander 8), but it is also the microcosm of O’Neill’s memories. O’Neill told the journalist Croswell Bowen, “In writing The Iceman Cometh, I felt I had locked myself in with my memories” (Gelb 833). In Iceman, O’Neill has returned to a pivotal time and place in his life. The people he met there affected him and later served as inspiration for many characters. “The people in that saloon were the best friends I’ve ever known” (Diggins 66). The three characters focused on in this paper represent O’Neill reflecting on his past, his memories on the page.
Sigmund Freud was a prominent influence on O’Neill’s writing, and critics interpret Iceman as representing O’Neill’s Oedipus complex (Miliora 136). The Oedipus complex represents internal desire and external conflict as they relate to the parents. Freud also theorizes that Oedipal desires are the origin of individual identity in relation to the external world (Gay 643). Outwardly, two of the three primary characters exemplify the Oedipus complex: Parritt, the Id and Slade, the Super Ego. Hickey completes the trio as the Ego.
Don Parritt—the ID
The Id is the original impulse of wants and desire in a newborn. Freud describes the Id as the subconscious part of the personality that contains the primitive impulses such as sexual desire (libidinal energy), anger and hunger (Gay 632). The primary desire of a newborn is the love and affection of its mother. Freud describes a scenario with a boy. “The little boy develops an object-cathexis for his mother, which originally related to the mother’s breast” (Gay 640). A child directs his libidinal energies towards his mother, and as they become more intense “the father is seen as an obstacle to them; from this, the Oedipus complex originates” (Gay 640). This relationship forms one pair of bonds in the play.
O’Neill has created Parritt, a young man on the run, as someone craving but denied maternal compassion. Parritt’s mother, Rosa, is a fiercely independent woman and a leader of an Anarchist movement. She expressed her independence through sexual freedom. While Parritt had no father growing up, he had many competitors for his mother’s affection. “She just had to keep on having lovers to prove to herself how free she was” (O’Neill, Act 2).
Parritt resented his mother’s lovers. “I’d get feeling it was like living in a whore house” (O’Neill, Act 3). Resentment leads Parritt to inform the police about his mother’s Anarchist activities. Imprisonment is a virtual death sentence for such an independent woman. “It started me thinking about Mother—as if she were dead. I suppose she might as well be. Inside herself, I mean” (O’Neill, Act 3).
When the mother withholds her affection, Freud theorizes a child will seek identification with the father. “The boy’s object-cathexis must be given up. Its place may be filed by one of two things: either identification with the mother or an intensification of his identification with his father” (Gay 640). In this way, Parritt, who has betrayed his mother, seeks out Larry as the only father he’s ever known. “Larry, I once had a sneaking suspicion that maybe, if the truth was known, you were my father” (O’Neill, Act 3).
The character of Don Parritt is loosely based on a young man named Donald Vose, the son of a woman in the Anarchist movement. In 1914, Vose infiltrated the movement to inform the police of the whereabouts of another Anarchist hiding from the law (Alexander 34). O’Neill was quoted as remarking about Vose, “His betrayal of the Movement derives from a real incident, but I never knew the guy, or anything about his mother, so Parritt’s personal history is my own fiction” (Barlow 13).
O’Neill’s “own fiction” came from combining the Vose story with several of the author’s own experiences as a young man in the early 1900’s. O’Neill, like Parritt, harbored an unfulfilled longing for maternal attention. His mother, Ella, was equally dispassionate towards him due to morphine addiction. O’Neill discovered her addiction in 1903. “Eugene returned to the hotel one day unexpectedly and stumbled upon his mother in the act of giving herself a morphine injection” (Gelb 72). Later that year, as her addiction progressed, O’Neill lost his faith and abandoned the Catholic Church for good (Gelb 78). Throughout his life, he would feel this to be a betrayal of his mother more than God.
Another event that became part of Parritt’s story occurred in 1912. Desperate over his failed marriage, O’Neill attempted suicide at Jimmy the Priest’s, one of the hotels upon which Harry Hope’s is based. During this time, O’Neill resided in these hotels and drank heavily. One evening, after an embarrassing incident with a prostitute, he swallowed a lethal dose of barbiturates (Gelb 97). His companions revived him, but his brush with death haunted him for years to come.
Drawing on these formative experiences as a means of fleshing out this character, O’Neill has unintentionally revealed a primary component of his personality. Don Parritt, a young character of complex longing represents the Id of Eugene O’Neill.
Freud defines the Ego as the component of identity that negotiates with the desires of the Id. “Thus in its relation to the Id it is like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse” (Gay 636). The Ego’s primary job is to regulate the satisfaction of the Id. The connection between desire and control is profoundly significant in the formation of personality and identity (Gelb 634).
This connection is revealed in Iceman when Hickey, O’Neill’s Ego, mysteriously recognizes Parritt, his Id. Although they have never met, Hickey sees a connection, “In my game, to be a shark at it, you teach yourself never to forget a name or a face. But I still know damned well I recognized something about you. We’re members of the same lodge—in some way” (O’Neill, Act 1). Hickey recognizes part of himself.
O’Neill portrays Hickey as plagued by desires but attempting to regulate them. For example, Hickey has always used Harry’s birthday parties as his excuse for regular, periodic drinking binges. “Yuh could set your watch by his periodicals” (O’Neill, Act 1). This time, when he appears, he seems to have beaten his addiction. “I’m off the stuff for keeps” (O’Neill, Act 1). Hickey married Evelyn in hopes that their love would reign in his wild ways. But it did not. He admits as much toward the end of the play. “I never could learn to handle temptation. I’d want to reform and mean it. I’d promise Evelyn, and I’d promise myself, and I’d believe it” (O’Neill, Act 4). In this way, O’Neill presented the decadent impulses of the Id being regulated by the Ego.
Like Parritt, O’Neill based Hickey on a combination of acquaintances from his time living in the New York hotels. Hickey is not based on any one salesman in particular, rather several salesmen who would come and go in the bars where O’Neill stayed. “Of course, I knew many salesmen in my time who were periodical drunks, but Hickey is not any of them. He is all of them, you might say, and none of them” (Barlow 14). Like Harry Hope’s is a combination of locations, Hickey is an amalgam of salesmen.
Some critics have seen a connection between Hickey and O’Neill. James A. Robinson sees Hickey as O’Neill, the playwright of the 1920’s who scolded his bourgeois audiences. “His mission was, like Hickey’s, to expose his audience’s illusions and make them face unpleasant truths about themselves” (636). Others have seen Hickey as the influence of O’Neill’s brother, James O’Neill Jr. O’Neill idolized his older brother, and his influence is seen in many of the author’s work (Gelb 285).
Like Jamie, who drank himself to death, the struggle for sobriety became too much for Hickey. “I was due to come here for my drunk around Harry’s birthday, I got nearly crazy. I kept swearing to her every night that this time I really wouldn’t “ (O’Neill, Act 4). The forces driving Hickey take their toll. As Freud explains, the Ego regulates the desires of the Id, but it is those desires that shape the Ego. “It is easy to see that the ego is that part of the Id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world through the medium of the conscious mind” (Gay 635).
Hickey’s murder of his wife can be seen as a last, desperate attempt at control. If he could not resist temptation, he would prevent it from causing Evelyn any more pain. Where Parritt, as O’Neill’s Id suffered from a lack of maternal love, Hickey as Ego suffered from excess of it. Evelyn loved Hickey despite himself. And when marriage and love could not help him resist temptation, the Ego found a way out.
Slade—the Super Ego
Freud explains that the formation of the Super Ego stems from the relationship between the Id and Ego. The impulses of the Id are the biological products of countless preceding generations and the Super Ego tempers those impulses. “The Ego Ideal (Super Ego) is therefore the [visible] expression of the most powerful impulses and most important libidinal vicissitudes of the Id” (Gay 643). As a person matures, desexualization of the mother occurs and the intensifying of identification with the father results in a deeper incorporation of cultural and soci4etal structures. This identity within the Ego becomes the Super Ego and represents man’s religion and morality. “The self-judgment which declares that the Ego falls short of its ideal produces the religious sense of humility” (Gay 643). It also produces the feeling of guilt, the main emotion associated with the Super Ego.
Larry Slade performs the role of O’Neill’s Super Ego to the other main characters in Iceman. Sitting in the grandstand of philosophical detachment, Slade projects the façade of indifference towards the other roomers at Harry Hopes, even though they look to him for moral guidance. When Don Parritt arrives unexpectedly, Larry is torn between his affection for Don and his disgust with human nature. Don reminds Larry of two his greatest disappointments in life: his love for Rosa Parritt, Don’s mother and the failure of Socialism in America. Yet Larry was resolute in his detachment. When Hickey arrives as expected, his unexpected transformation draws Larry toward involvement as well. His influence over the other roomers was not enough to prevent Hickey from his attempts to “save” them. In the end, Larry is compelled to judge the crimes of both Parritt and Hickey. Larry condemns them of their crimes and his condemnation sets them free.
Conventional interpretations of the play present Hickey as the protagonist and Slade as the leader of the chorus of roomers at Harry Hope’s. As Timo Tiusanen explains, “There is a chorus in The Iceman Cometh, and there is a protagonist playing against this chorus: Hickey against the roomers” (29). Critics like Cyrus Day and John Patrick Diggins agree that Slade “speaks for O’Neill in the play” (Day 11; Diggins 9) providing a moral compass to a bar full of addicts and dreamers. O’Neill has created Slade as the character to whom the audience is first attracted and with whom it identifies. He is connected with the audience and the characters simultaneously. Stephen Black describes Slade as “The rational man, one on whom to rely as a guide through an evening in the asylum” (Black 4). Calling him rational is calling him the Super Ego that tempers Parritt’s Id and Hickey’s Ego.
The character of Larry Slade is based on O’Neill’s life-long friend, Terry Carlin. O’Neill met Carlin in his early Anarchist days while publishing Revolt (Gelb 833). O’Neill believed that Carlin “Cared for nothing in the world except the integrity of the soul” (Alexander 39), a characteristic that O’Neill attributed to Slade. He provided Slade with other details from Carlin’s past. Carlin fell in love with an unfaithful woman. Her infidelity eventually ended the relationship and caused Carlin to lose faith in the Anarchist movement and humanity. “His suffering transformed him into the detached philosopher he was when O’Neill came into his life” (Alexander 43). The Slade character channels these emotions—both a high sense of integrity and an affected detachment. He is content to “fall asleep observing the cannibals do their death dance” (O’Neill, Act 1).
Parritt and Hickey retreat to Hope’s carrying their guilt, Parritt’s for Rosa’ arrest and Hickey’s for Evelyn’s death. Each man wanted to use Larry to relieve his guilt. But Larry is resolved to remain detached. “Larry rejects Hickey for the same reason he rejects Parritt. [Each wants] understanding…and requires that understanding fit his own self-justification” (Black 9). Willingly or otherwise, the Id and Ego characters must work through their guilt with Slade as the uncompromising voice of moral authority, their Super Ego.
Toward the end of Iceman, despite his resistance, Parritt and Hickey pull Slade off the philosophical grandstand and cause him to admit he cares enough to judge their crimes. Once provoked, Slade, the Super Ego, forces Hickey to realize his hatred for Evelyn motivated the murder. Similarly, once forced, Slade condemned Parritt’s betrayal. The Super Ego judges the action of the Id and Ego, and finds them reprehensible and lays a death sentence on each. Parritt leaps to his own death. The police take Hickey away to the electric chair.
Depression and illness caused O’Neill to feel the presence of death in 1939. It inspired him to reflect back upon his life. Dwelling in his memories, like the roomers at Harry Hope’s, he wrote The Iceman Cometh. Unwittingly, he revealed more of himself to the audience than he may have realized. For in the characters of Parritt, Hickey and Slade O’Neill has portrayed his own Id, Ego and Super Ego searching for meaning in the shadow of the Iceman.
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