What are the symbols in The Hairy Ape?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The biggest symbol in the play is the ape which takes Yank's life at the finale. It is both a double for Yank yet also the final sign that he is utterly alone.

Yank himself is constantly likened to an ape due to his physical strength, lower class, simple manner of speaking, and labor-heavy job. Monkey imagery abounds, with Yank noticing a coat made of monkey fur in a shop window and at one point trying to use a lamp post as a club to attack someone.

At the end, Yank goes to the zoo and encounters an ape in a cage. He frees the ape and tries to shake hands with it, feeling it is his brother since both are looked down upon and imprisoned (the ape literally, Yank spiritually); however, the ape kills him and throws him in the cage.

The ape is a double for Yank, representing how he is viewed by the upper classes and imprisoned within an unforgiving, unfair class system. However, the ape's rejection of Yank also sets Yank apart from it. The ape is only concerned with survival; Yank is more human because he is concerned with abstract notions such as belonging and self-worth. The ape does not care.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are three main symbols in Eugene O'Neill's play "The Hairy Ape."

One symbol which is predominant is the figure of the ape itself. Not only is the word ape used in the title (which is a clue to its relevancy), apes are everywhere (or referred to many times) throughout the play. Yank acts like an ape and is constantly compared to an ape.

Another symbol in the play is Rodin's statue "The Thinker." This symbol is important because Yank constantly worries about thinking. He desires the ability to have the ability to think in the way that the statue does (or how he thinks the statue thinks). Yank uses the pose of "The Thinker" to show his struggle with thinking and his obsession with the practice of thinking.

The last symbol in the play is the use of steel. Steel can be considered in two very different ways. First, steel is strong and powerful. It is when he is placed in challenging situations where he imagines his strength being like steel. Contrastingly, steel is also an image of oppression. Cages are made out of steel, and the bars of a steel prison are inescapable. Both Yank's cage and the cage of the apes are made out of steel.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial