Hickey, in a misguided attempt to give his wife, Evelyn, some peace, has murdered her. He arrives—barely in time for Harry's 60th birthday—cold sober. He is determined to convince his old drinking buddies, all roomers at Harry Hope's, that they must dismiss their pipe dreams, as he has. They should face up to their problems in order to function productively in the real world. However, as the play progresses, Hickey shares more about the event that has changed his life. After years of drinking and cheating on his wife, he could no longer bear to see her misery and enduring faith in him. Her death has put an end to his guilt and their shared unhappiness. At the end of the play, he takes full responsibility for the choices he has made.
Larry was Rosa's lover and a companion to her son. He vows that he is finished with politics and tries to avoid overtures by Don Parritt, Rosa's son. Parritt, who was seven when he last saw Larry, is looking for a confidant or, perhaps, a confessor. Nonetheless, Larry shies away from resuming a parental role with the young man. Larry's clarity includes the recognition that he is doomed to always see "with pity the two sides of everything." He is a good man with an anarchist's habits who prefers, like the others, the numbing effects of liquor. However, over the course of the play, Larry becomes less and less able to stand aside from reality. His complicity in Parritt's eventual suicide forces Larry to realize he actually influences the world around him.
As the play begins, Harry Hope's last name summarizes what he offers the ragtag group of pipe dreamers who frequent his saloon. In their alcoholic camaraderie, they find hope in their dreams of reclaiming past successes. By the end of the first act, the seeds of despair are sown for the group and for Harry himself. Unable to acknowledge that he can't leave the saloon, Harry rationalizes away Bessie's death in the same way Hickey rationalizes his wife's death. The occasion of the gathering in the play is Harry's 60th birthday. All of the roomers wait for Hickey to pay for their drinks and get drunk with them. Harry, under Hickey's tutelage, agrees to leave the building and go out for a walk. However, he finds he can't change his behavior.
Parritt is full of anger at always coming second to politics with his mother, which led him to report her to the police. An anarchist responsible for a bombing, Rosa Parritt is in prison and likely to be executed for her crime. Don is guilt stricken and seeks Larry Slade's help. Unable to get Larry's attention long enough to confess, Parritt succumbs increasingly to his guilt in parallel to Hickey's incremental revelation of his crime. Ultimately, with Larry's grudging approval, Parritt takes responsibility for his own future and commits suicide.