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American Industrialism and Eugene O’Neill’s A Hairy Ape  

And much it grieved my heart to think What Man has made of Man. – William Wordsworth, Lines written in early Spring.  

“Say! What’s dem slobs in de foist cabin got to de wit us? We’re better men dan dey are, ain’t we? Dey’re just baggage. Who makes dis old tub run? Ain’t it us guys? Well den, we belong, don’t we? We belong and dey don’t. Dat’s all …” (p. 1245)  

          The latter above, are the words of Yank, the protagonist, the “hairy ape,” who thinks that he is an integral part of progress in the Industrial Age and looks to power and steel for his sense of belonging. This is the myth that the character “Yank,” in O’Neill’s expressionistic play, hovering upon the concept of naturalism, lives in; believing that he is a vital part of the social order. Yank’s view, of course, is pure illusion. The play uses its point of departure the shattering of a myth, and it is the purpose of this literary essay is to analyze the character of Yank, expressionistic and symbolic in nature, as he moves from delusion to self-realization; from believing that he is the force behind the steel to being the victim of steel himself. Each of the eight short scenes in Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape seeks to depict a stage in the psychic development of Yank, the hero of the play, and attempt to present in an expressionistic and symbolic manner his bitter struggle against a hostile universe. 

          The play opens with the drinking and singing scene at the fireman’s forecastle of an ocean liner. Yank, described as the most powerful animal there, “more sure of himself than the rest” (p. 1242), asserts and accepts his position, as stoker on the ship, of being great importance. Neither the nostalgic sentimentalism of Paddy nor the socialistic harangues of Long can shake his adamant convictions. He emphasizes that the present relies upon power and force and brute strength. The modern ship, which works on steel and coal, needs a new type of man who can cope with new forces, and Yank sees himself as this ideal type. He sees himself as the force that makes the engine move; the basic force behind industrial society. He boasted:  

I’m stream and oil for de engines. I’m de ting in noise dat makes juh hear it; I’m smoke and express trains and steamers and factory whistles; I’m de ting in gold dat makes money! And I’m what makes iron into steel! Steel, dat stands for the whole ting! I’m steel-steel-steel! I’m de muscles in steel, de punch behind it! (p. 1248)  

It is in the third scene Yank’s myth, that he is an integral part of progress; the all-important “bottom” of society is forever destroyed, when he is given his first glimpse of his actual, objective position in the social order.  

          Yank encounters Mildred Douglas, the blueblood, who comes “slumming” into the stokehole. Horrified at his bellowing and the coaldust-caked body of Yank, she cried, “Oh, the filthy beast!” and fainted. It is this chance, violent encounter with the neurotic and unsympathetic daughter of the rich, capitalistic class that opens Yank’s eyes to his true position; to the realization that he does not “belong” as he imagined he did. At first, Yank tried to seek a personal justification of his position, trying to reinforce his selfhood. He wondered:  

I scared her? Why de hell should I scare her? Who the hell is she? Ain’t she de same as me? Hairy ape, huh? I’ll show her I’m better’n her, if she on’y knew it, I belong and she don’t, see? (p. 1249)  

          Yank then began to see that the earth does not belong to him and those who “make it run”, but to a group that see in him and his kind a “filthy beast”, a “hairy ape”. It is at this point we are presented with Yank’s psychological crisis – his disharmony within his own self. Thus, in the following scene, Yank is seen assuming the posture of Rodin’s statue, “The Thinker”, trying to re-evaluate himself after hearing the words of Mildred. In this scene too Yank, in that posture, symbolizes the Neanderthal man trying to move into the position of the civilized man; by “trying to think”, and thus, suggesting the inhuman quality and monotony of the kind of life as such as Yank’s. Long, interrupting Yank, tries to interpret the previous scene as indicative of the struggle between social classes. Still, Yank sees the whole issue as a personal attack on him.  

          Thus, at the end of the scene, he tries to re-establish his own sense of belonging by condemning Mildred. Yank compares the muscles in his arms with the disgusting skinniness of the girl. He then threatens to leave immediately and “bust de face offen her”. Here, Yank believes that with the use of brute force alone he can regain his sense of security in the world. Nevertheless, his dangerous intention was stopped by the men around him; in the same manner a captured ape would be held. Scene five takes Yank and his desire for vindication to Fifth Avenue, symbolic of the core of Mildred’s world. Long has brought him there to help him develop some type of social consciousness: “I want yer to awaken yer bloody class consciousness.” Here, Long wants Yank to get even with “her kind”, that is, Mildred’s kind; the rich upper class. Nevertheless, Yank could not think the way Long wanted him to – in terms of interclass conflict.  

          Yank’s self-justification is only aimed at the individual (Mildred); hence, the materialistic emblems of the upper class found at Fifth Avenue, New York City do not have any effect upon him. He sees the jewelry there attractive; while Long points out to him their prices and thinks that one piece will buy food for a starving family for a year. But when Yank discovers the price for a piece of fur made from monkey fur, he becomes enraged. He feels that this is a personal insult to him. He interprets this in terms of himself: “Trowing it up in my face! Christ! I’ll fix her!” (p. 1262) At the end of this scene, Yank, attempting to show his worth and might, and proving his identity (built on brute force), began to insult the passers-by who came out of the nearby church. He asserts that he belongs amid all this steel, but that these people do not belong. In the process, he tries to attack one man and naturally, this leads him to the prison cell.  

          Scene six seems to present a crucial point in the development of Yank’s self-realization. He began to understand the nature of his own delusion. He now sees himself as, instead of being the force behind the steel, he is now the victim of the substance. Now, reduced to, the status of a domesticated ape, having been robbed of his humanity, and his pride in his work, Yank reacts bitterly against the very steel with which he has previously declared his kinship:  

“He made dis-dis cage! Steel! It don’t belong, dat’s what! Cages, ceels, locks, bolts, bars – dats what it means! – holding me down” (p. 1268).  

          In the prison Yank learns about the IWW, an organization with which he can identify and belong. He now sees his role as a destroyer, tearing down the industrial pillars of society which has dehumanized him. But, when he presents his objectives to the IWW, he is thrown out as a spy, and discovers that he does not belong there. In the last scene, the next day after being thrown out of IWW, Yank, in his last attempt to find a place to belong to, goes to the monkey house at the zoo. He stops to talk to a large gorilla “squatting on his haunches on a bench much the same attitude as Rodin’s “Thinker”. At this point, Yank is finally convinced of his social dispossession. He then decides to free the animal and join him in brotherhood. But even the gorilla rejects Yank and kills him.  

          Before he dies, the “hairy ape” mourns: “He got me, aw right. I’m trou. Even him didn’t tink I belonged. Christ, where do I get off at? Where do I fit in?” (p.1274).    

Yank realized just as he was dying that he belonged in the cage that the gorilla has thrown him in. He is where he really belongs, and here is the identifiable structure he sought. Thus ends the life of Yank, symbol of the modern man, caught in the mechanical development of society, his individuality lost. Yank, deluded by his belief that he is the force behind the steel, at the final scene of the play, came to a point of realization that he is indeed a victim of steel and can no longer find his place in nature.  

          Through the eight short scenes, O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape presents Yank’s psychic development. Expressionistic and symbolic in form, it has succeeded in depicting Yank, the protagonist, as an outcast of his society, and whose rootless, bitter struggle against a hostile society is symbolic of the tragedy of the modern man; lost in the indifferent world of industrialization. 

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DR AZLY RAHMAN grew up in Johor Bahru, Malaysia and holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in International Education Development and Masters degrees in six fields of study: Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies, Communication, Creative Non-Fiction, and Fiction Writing. He has written more than 350 analyses/essays on Malaysia. His 30 years of teaching experience in Malaysia and the United States spans over a wide range of subjects, from elementary to graduate education. He is a frequent contributor to scholarly online forums in Malaysia, the USA, Greece, and Montenegro.

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