Jung's incest fantasy and the deleterious nature of pipe dreams in the late plays of Eugene O'Neill

Robert F Meade, Fordham University


In the late plays of Eugene O'Neill, pipe dreams are characters' wish-fulfillment fantasies of the people they might become if their bad fortunes were reversed. But the frustration of trying to realize an unattainable fantasy erodes the characters' already flawed sense of self and makes more pronounced the painful discrepancy between their real and ideal selves. Pipe dreams thus prove self-defeating because their aggregate effect is to intensify rather than to alleviate the characters' sense of failure. Through Psychology of the Unconscious, Carl Jung's seminal work on the universal mythological motifs of the psyche (later revised as Symbols of Transformation, Vol. VIII of Jung's Collected Works, we see how pipe dreams are avoidance behaviors similar in cause and effect to the "incest fantasy", the universal desire to return to the mother womb. The term "mother" is understood metaphorically as meaning the depths of the unconscious, and "incest fantasy" as describing the psyche's regressive longing to be reborn through the mother. While regression to the mother can be constructive, Jungian psychology suggests that productive adulthood can be achieved only through a willingness to give up the easy indolence of infantile regressions and to take up again the challenge of forging a destiny in which problems are confronted even if not always resolved. Because O'Neill's characters typically escape their problems by fleeing into the womb of the past, their pipe dreams inhibit constructive interaction with the present and undermine the emotional wholeness or well-being they were meant to sustain. Continued longing for the mother womb paralyzes their drive toward psychic autonomy and creates a corresponding anxiety every bit as debilitating as that which they initially sought to avoid. The late plays of O'Neill radically question the efficacy of this kind of regressive fantasy and the integrity of a "self" sustained by such a fantasy by implicating pipe dreams as idiosyncratic psychological motifs causing personal, familial, societal, and ultimately universal deleterious effects.

Subject Area

American literature|Psychology|Theater

Recommended Citation

Meade, Robert F, "Jung's incest fantasy and the deleterious nature of pipe dreams in the late plays of Eugene O'Neill" (1994). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9425195.