What's the contrast between land and sea in The Hairy Ape, & what are the implications from the expressionist technique?

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celtic1108 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In life, Eugene O'Neill was extremely amazed with the sea and long for it as a cathartic means for escape. It is easy, with a psychoanalytical view to see the connection between O'Neill's life and O'Neill's works. He seemed unable to separate the two sides of himself making a wonderful, heartbreaking dichotomy ripe for investigation. The main focus of the play is on the boorish Yank who prefers his home slaving on the ship at sea to one on land. In his sea home, Yank is clearly the alpha-male. He feels this sense of power that few workers would have had within society at this time. At sea, Yank feels at home just as O'Neill always commented on himself. O'Neill's works have this idea of the sea bring peace to the tormented mind and the sea being home. Mildred, dressed in white, broke Yank's image of his home. By calling him "filthy beast" and a "hairy ape" she forces Yank to see how the rest of the world, outside of his home, views him. Being confronted with this reality, Yank must amend this wrong. In a sense, Yank needs to save face. If the upper class thinks that it can walk over the lower class, Yank will prove it wrong. As he and Long walk the New York streets, Yank acts more like an animal, bumping in to people and being rude. Once he is released from his cage (the ship, the sea) he is unsure how to act and runs purely on emotion (instincts). After being arrested, Yank learns that Mildred's father created his metaphorical prison of a laborers and his actual prison cell. This serves to only release the beast more, causing him to bend the bars and escape. Free from all his prisons, Yank does not know what to do. After various other stops, Yank befriends a caged gorilla. Yank has now accepted his animalistic persona relating himself to his captured "brother". He releases the gorilla which in turn kills Yank. O'Neill has a lot to say about the sea, but in the play he advocates the sea's ability to return a man's humanity that the land/society slowly take away.