Characters Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 546

Robert Smith

Robert Smith, known as Yank, the chief coal stoker on a ship bound for Europe. A Neanderthal type with a strong back and hairy, powerful arms, Yank is a man of apparent personal confidence who sees himself as doing the real work of the world, in contrast with the ineffectual, wealthy tourists who travel above deck in first class. He is an honest laborer, proud of his vitality and usefulness in the world of industry, sure that he “belongs” in a way the idle rich never could. His pride is crushed, however, when Mildred Douglas, an empty-headed society social worker, sees him at work in the hold and calls him a beast. Thwarted in his attempts at revenge on her for this insult, he goes to his death in the cage of the Central Park Zoo ape that he has come to see as his brother.

Mildred Douglas

Mildred Douglas, the daughter of the president of the board of directors of the shipping lines and a passenger on Yank’s ship. A delicate, haughty twenty-year-old, Mildred has dabbled in social work in the slums of New York City, almost as a voyeur looking with fascination at how the poor survive. She exhibits a certain vacuity in the face of life; she is stubborn, unfeeling, and even cruel. By flirting with the ship’s stewards and through outright lies, she gets permission to see the stokers at work in the hold, only to faint with horror at the sight of Yank’s blackened, sweaty body and his menacing glance in response to her screams.


Aunt, a traveling companion to Mildred. She is a pompous, fatuous dowager, pretentious in dress and actions. Her demeaning comments serve to goad Mildred on in her foolish demand to observe the stokers at work.


Paddy, a fellow stoker. He is an old sailor, yearning for the bygone days of sailing ships, when men stood tall in the clean wind and sun rather than huddled below decks shoveling dusty coal to feed the raging fires of the hellish furnaces.


Long, another stoker. Like Yank, Long is angered at the insult of being exhibited before Mildred as a lower-class social phenomenon. He accompanies Yank to upper Fifth Avenue in an attempt to convince him that Mildred, on whom Yank is so eager to have vengeance, is no more than a representative of the entire class of the callous wealthy and that it is the class that he must fight rather than the individual.

Second Engineer

Second Engineer, a young officer on Yank’s ship. Having been forced into taking Mildred on the tour of the ship’s stokehold by her lies to the captain, he is witness to her crushing treatment of Yank when she calls him a hairy beast.

Secretary of the Industrial Workers of the World

Secretary of the Industrial Workers of the World, a labor organizer concerned with fair wages and good working conditions for the common laborer. Yank approaches him with a plan to sabotage the Douglas steel plant as an act of revenge on Mildred Douglas. The secretary rejects his plan forcefully. Once again, Yank is shown that he does not “belong,” even among the common laborers with whom he so closely identifies himself.


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Yank is a foot soldier in the industrial revolution, a fireman (one who tends the massive furnaces that power the ship) who boasts that he loves the hellish heat of the stokehole in which he works. He is a caricature of masculinity, the ultimate macho man—he disdains anything soft or "sissy" and makes fun...

(This entire section contains 226 words.)

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of anyone he sees as being less than his ideal of a strong man. It is his physical strength that sustains him, the only thing on which he can depend, his only source of pride.

Yank starts the play feeling superior to others because of his physical prowess, though he slowly comes to realize that this strength makes him seem like an animal. When he is first introduced to the idea of being a hairy ape he likes it, but he soon finds that the label causes him trouble. He eventually strives to rise above that role, struggling to understand the world and his place in it. For all his efforts at higher thinking, however, he's not successful at figuring it out; his resulting confusion often sends him into uncontrollable rages. Unable to clearly see himself, Yank projects his own doubts and faults on others. When he says others don't belong in society, he is really announcing his own alienation. He only begins to realize his true state as he dies.

Other Characters

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

Mildred Douglas Mildred is a vision in white, appropriate for the upper-class promenade deck which she inhabits. She is young and idealistic and at the same time oddly aware that her idealism is without real impact or significance. She has a history of social activism and empathy for the lower class in spite of the wealth accumulated by her steel tycoon grandfather and father, whose millions were made by the sweat of workers such as Yank. There is a hint of guilt in her inquiry into the state of the workers, but her interest lacks, as her aunt has criticized, vitality. She shrinks back from the brutal sight of the stokehole and Yank, the quintessential fireman.

Mildred's Aunt The aunt is accompanying Mildred on the ship and obviously has little sympathy with her niece's charitable tendencies. This lack of sympathy exhibits itself in banter between the two women when the aunt criticizes her niece for being insincere, suggesting that artificiality is a much more natural pose for Mildred.

Paddy Paddy is a worker on the ship and the voice of the past. He spends his time in reverie, remembering the pleasure he derived from sailing in the old days, when he could feel the wind and the waves; he longs for the simplicity of a time gone by. He has only reluctantly gone on to the new mechanized form of water travel. He is old and tired and wants time to reflect, to sit with his pipe. Paddy acts as a counterpoint to Yank's brute strength and calls to mind an earlier day before industrialized society wrought dehumanized creatures such as Yank and inhuman working conditions such as those found on the ship.

Second Engineer The Second Engineer takes Mildred to the stokehole, while cautioning her about the dirt she may encounter. He suggests that she change her outfit.

Robert SmithSee Yank.

Guard His role is to keep the prisoners in line. He is faced with Yank, a very strong and surprisingly out of control prisoner.

Long Criticized by Yank for his Socialist leanings, Long still has much in common with Yank. He also sees the dehumanization that is occurring and ties it to the importance of the machine. He agrees with Yank when he sees the people in first class, who represent the ruling class, as being the people who have enslaved the workers by putting them in front of the brutal furnace. While Yank goes off to glory in his position with the furnace, Long proposes socialist solutions to the problem of dehumanization and enslavement. His propositions are rejected by Yank.

Union Secretary The Secretary greets Yank with open arms but then is suspicious about his reasons for joining the union. He baits him with questions that Yank is too stupid to circumvent and then throws the brute out, suspecting that he is a plant from the police or the secret service.




Critical Essays