What are the themes in The Hairy Ape?

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The Hairy Ape by Eugene O'Neill centers around a working-class character, Yank. Yank represents the paralysis of the industrial worker in 1922, though the themes of isolation, paralysis as related to class structure, and regression of humanity still make the play relevant.

Yank is described as a strong and brutish character, similar to that of an animal. He is used as a fireman on a Transatlantic Ocean Liner for the upper class. On the ocean liner he is ignored by the rich, and he is misunderstood by the poor men he works with. A sense of isolation exists as a theme in the play and as a characterization of Yank, himself.

Yank is paralyzed in his position as an animalistic worker that is used to drive society but is ignored by it. O'Neill uses Yank to describe the essential recession of humanity. Industrialization turned humans into beings more resemblant of animals than intellectualized beings. His argument is not only that the poor industrial workers are animalistic, but that the rich are also animalistic for failing to understand their human counterparts. Mildred is an example of this fact in the play, as she professes her need to help the poor but is unable to truly connect with classes other than her own.

O'Neill's play describes the unique tragedy of industrialization. Society drove forward and developed great technological achievements, but humanity regressed into a class structure that resembled animal hierarchy. Yank is pulled into a gorilla's cage and killed in the end of the play, symbolizing the impossibility of breaking free of our predetermined place in society.

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Yank in O’Neill’s play is degraded because of his working class status. Mildred’s disgust during their encounter on the ship highlights his brutish appearance and demeanor, even though her first impression of him is based on confusion.

Yank feels dehumanized and isolated at every turn in the play. Mildred calls him a beast, the men with whom he works don’t understand him, the jail treats him like a zoo animal, and the IWW doesn’t trust him. This psychological alienation compels Yank to seek connections elsewhere. When he comes across the caged gorilla, Yank mistakenly believes that he has more in common with the wild animal than with any other human.

However, even the caged gorilla does not accept Yank, crushing his ribs and leaving him in the cage to die. In this way, O’Neill suggests that man’s place in the industrialized world is lonely, and trying to connect with others is a futile pursuit.

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