Academic journal article Canadian Social Science

Biblical Themes in Eugen O'Neill's Plays

Academic journal article Canadian Social Science

Biblical Themes in Eugen O'Neill's Plays

Article excerpt


Eugene O'Neill was born in a devout Catholic family. Young Eugene had fervently prayed to God to heal his mother's drug addiction, but God did not hear his prayers. Disappointed Eugene abandoned his Catholic faith at the age of fifteen, and began to explore a new god for replacing the old one since then. Eugene O Neill is an honest, sincere and compassionate dramatist; his works focuses on the meaning of human life. Although European writers and thinkers, such as Freud, Jung, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Shaw, Chekhov, Synge, Conrad, Nietzsche and Strindberg exerted important influences on him in philosophy, psychology and drama, they could not bring him satisfaction and joy. O'Neill's exploration of the ultimate meaning of life had finally returned to the biblical doctrine. Through dealing with the recurrent themes in O'Neill's plays, this paper aims to point out that biblical doctrines are indispensable to O'Neill's plays.

Key words: Sin; Evil; Desire; Truth; Light


Eugene O'Neill was a descendant of Irish immigrants who were devout Catholics. When Eugene was seven, he was sent to Mount St. Vincent boarding school sponsored by the Sisters, and received the education of the orthodox doctrine. When Eugene was bom, his mother Ella was treated with morphine because of the difficult labour and finally became a morphine addict. Eugene fervently prayed to God to cure his mother's drug addiction, but God did not hear his prayers. At the age of fifteen, Eugene abandoned the Catholic faith-the values and beliefs that have united the Irish through the ages.

O'Neill's abandonment of faith was also closely related with the times. In 1883, along with the German philosopher Nietzsche's enlightening declaration: "God is dead" the Bible as the center of the Western traditional values collapsed. Darwin's theory of evolution and the rapid development of science and technology further shook O'Neill's Catholic faith.

For O'Neill, the loss of belief was not as simple as he imagined and his life always maintained a certain contact with God. O'Neill's father, James, often prayed for God's blessing in his last days. Furthermore, Biblical doctrines are the recurrent themes in O'Neill's works, and 0'Neill often declares that his most concern is the "human relationship with God",


Because Adam and Eve were deceived into eating the forbidden fruit by Satan, they were banished from the Garden of Eden as a punishment. Sin spread rapidly in the human beings. Selfishness, prejudice, arrogance, pride, evil, violence, oppression and hatred are the evidences of what the Bible calls sins. Because of sin,the human beings trapped in a dilemma with no escape. When God saw the human beings getting entangled with corruptions, He felt heartbroken. Man is continually making efforts, such as good deeds, education or philosophy to get close to God and the abundant life, but unfortunately he fails. God is good and gracious, so God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to incarnate as a man to save His people. On the Cross, Jesus Christ died in our place to pay the penalty for our sins. Jesus' blood cleansed our sins,and he became the mediator for humans' returning to the embrace of God as well as a bridge between God and the human beings .

The pattern of sin-punishment-repentance- salvation in the Bible produces a profound influence on O'Neill's creation. It is clearly reflected in his expressionistic masterpiece The Emperor Jones. Jones was a black slave who suffered severe oppression and exploitation under white people. He was once auctioned like an animal at the market and then sent in a dark and smelly salve ship to the United States. After he arrived at the United States, Jones worked as a coolie on a train. He murdered Jeff because of gambling and was imprisoned. Being whipped by a jail guard, Jones was angry and killed the white guard and then fled to an island in the West Indies where he put the white man's greed and fraud values into practice. …

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