Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Hairy Ape

Yank is a hairy ape. In Eugene O’Neill’s play The Hairy Ape, his main character, Yank is struggling to find where he belongs, fighting to prove to Mildred and ultimately the upper class that he is not an animal.

Throughout The Hairy Ape, Yank and the other fireman who work in the Transatlantic Liner are compared to animals or Neanderthals. The stage directions in scene I, describe the men as “Neanderthal” men are “hairy-chested” (251). Paddy’s face is “extremely monkey-like with all the sad, patient pathos of that animal” (254). In scene III, the men are again described as having “inhuman attitudes of chained gorillas” (269).

Yank is at first proud of his power and his place in the world. Though he realizes that he apart of the lower class, he argues that he is the one who makes the ship move, and therefore “belongs.” Long, another fireman on the ship, is not so comfortable with how things are. He points to the Bible and says that “All men is born free and ekal” and that all of them, and ultimately the lower class are “on’y wage slaves in the bowels of a bloody ship” (256). Yank dismisses Long’s rant and his religion, and calls him “yellow.” Paddy, an older fireman, joins in on the conversation, agreeing with Long. He compares himself and all of them as being “caged…like bloody apes in the zoo” (259). Yank again disagrees, saying that “We move, don’t we? Speed, ain’t it?...We split dat up and smash trou—twenty-five knots a hour!” (262)

Yank first questions his previous attitudes when Mildred, the daughter of the president of Nazareth Steel, insults him. She decides to come down from the upper deck (where the upper class stay) to see the bowels of the ship out of curiosity, as well as to defy her aunt. She is shocked at Yank’s attitude and appearance, who is unaware that she is behind him. Yank curses as he shovels coal into the furnace, angry that the whistle from above is being rung by the engineer, telling the men to shovel the coal faster. Yank, enraged, “brandishes his shovel murderously over his head in one hand, pounding on his chest, gorilla-like, with the other” (272). Mildred almost faints, calling Yank a “filthy beast” (273).

Though Yank is continuously compared to a beast, he is also described as a “highly developed individual” (252). In the first scene, he berates the other firemen for making noise, telling them “Can’t youse see I’m tryin’ to t’ink?” (254). At the beginning of Scene IV, after being insulted by Mildred, Yank’s stage directions say that he is “brooding…seated forward on a bench in the exact attitude of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’ ” (274). Yank constantly thinks. He is compared to Rodin’s “The Thinker” throughout the play, at the beginning of scene VI, and again in scene VII.

Yank struggles between being an animal and a being a human being at the same time. He is aware enough to want to find his place in the world, but not enough to know any answers. The Hairy Ape is certainly a comment about the social order and class issues, but it goes deeper than this. We are all like Yank, we are all, really, apes. Yank is confused not because he is the only hairy ape, but because those of the upper class pretend that they are not. After his contact with Mildred, Yank asks the others “ain’t she de same as me?” (279)

Etta Worthington states in her essay An Essay for The Hairy Ape:
On the surface The Hairy Ape might seem to be a fairly political play. There is a marked contrast of the sweaty fireman whose brute strength propels the ship that provides diversion and pleasure to those privileged class denizens who inhabit the upper deck. There is obvious reference to the exploitation of the workers. But The Hairy Ape…is really about the existential condition of man, namely that humans rarely feels like they fit in, that they are always essentially alone and separate.

Worthington brings out that reading The Hairy Ape without analyzing it thoroughly will make it seem that the play is just about social issues. The Hairy Ape is about more than this, however; it is about the state of all of mankind, about how each human experiences this isolation. We are all really animals, unable to know absolute truths, while still possessing a mind and the capability to question and to wonder.

In The Hairy Ape, Yank decides to take action. He at first tries to take out his anger on the upper class. In scene V, Yank goes with Long to Fifth Avenue, waiting for the rich to come out of church. Long wants to talk with them, while Yank wants to start a riot. Long eventually leaves when Yank gets out of hand. Yank is unable to move the upper class, however. When they come out of church and into the streets, Yank insults them, calling them names. It does not faze any one; in fact the rich are not aware of Yank’s presence at all. Yank then gets physical, punching a man who is trying to get on a bus. The man is hardly fazed, and is only a little annoyed because he has missed his bus.

The rich citizens are all enamored with the monkey fur for sale in the store windows, which enrages Yank. Yank is the monkey, the ape, and he sees the fur being sold as a personal insult, as if the fur was taken from one of his brothers.

Yank then tries to join the I.W.W., or the Industrial Workers of the World, who are suspected of causing riots. When Yank tries to join, he is very enthusiastic, and talks of making trouble for the rich. He is suspected of being an undercover cop, and is kicked out. The secretary of the I.W.W. calls Yank a “brainless ape” (302).

In the last scene, Yank goes to a zoo, where he talks to a gorilla. Yank frees him from the cage, and the gorilla hugs and crushes Yank, putting him in the cage. Yank dies there, where he “perhaps…at last belongs” (308). Yank belongs more with the gorillas than with his own kind. But he doesn’t belong completely with the gorillas either, because he is a “thinker.” Yank, therefore, does not belong anywhere. This is Yank’s paradox, and the paradox of mankind.

Works Cited:

A.R. Gurney, ed. Four Plays by Eugene O’Neill. New York: First Signet Classic Printing, 1998.

Worthington, Etta. "An essay for The Hairy Ape." Drama for Students. Detroit: Gale. Literature Resource Center. Web. 20 Feb. 2010.


  1. I can't think of hairy apes without thinking of Book IV of Gulliver's Travels. Yahoo!

  2. I would like to know what is the relation you see between them both, please