Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 455

The Hairy Ape explores two common, interrelated themes in modern literature: personal isolation and alienation. Eugene O’Neill masterfully translates these themes into Darwinian terms, choosing a protagonist so low on the evolutionary scale as to be almost indistinguishable from the real apes. Yank has found his place, his womb, as it were, in the protected environment of the stokehold, a place where no more developed human would care to be.

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As a simple stoker, Yank makes his meager contribution to society, and it, in turn, takes care of him until the fateful day that Mildred Douglas, a do-gooder, a not-so-liberal liberal, leaves her protected world to enter Yank’s for a brief moment. In the twinkling of an eye, Mildred makes Yank see what he really is. Having already been shown to be prone to fixations, he develops an obsession about Mildred and her kind that ultimately destroys him. He wants to destroy all that Mildred is and stands for, but her society is stronger than his. It is organized against the likes of Yank, and he does not stand a chance against it.

The great irony in the play is that Mildred’s society barely knows that the Yanks of the world exist. A day after she sees Yank and faints from the shock, Mildred will be back in her normal routine; the dirty, sweating, half-naked stoker will remain but a vague, mildly unpleasant memory for her. Meanwhile, the poison of Yank’s hatred for the Mildreds of the world boils within him, and he swears a vengeance that society—Mildred’s society—will not allow him to execute.

The Fifth Avenue scene represents total rejection. Yank is an unpleasant distraction to be overlooked, rather than confronted, by the people he affronts. When he finally oversteps the limits and hits one of the pillars of this well-dressed, Sunday-strutting society, he is removed officially but still ignored. Yank has no way to command the recognition he craves, and without doing so he cannot wreak his vengeance on society.

Similar rejection at the IWW office reinforces Yank’s alienation and confirms his suspicion that he does not belong. He then seeks from his ancestral simian cousins the recognition his more highly evolved fellow humans deny him, only to realize that he belongs in neither world. In an early version of the play, O’Neill did not have Yank die in the monkey house but had him return to his ship, which became his prison. O’Neill decided, however, that the best dramatic possibility for this play was to have Yank die, to have the life crushed out of him by a creature not quite of his own kind but at least very much like him.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 875

Class Conflict
Yank is the epitome of the lower class, the working poor. He has the brawn but not the brain. He and his peers put their shoulders to the wheel and make the great capitalist machine run; they provide the sweat and muscle that will push America to the forefront of the industrial age. The system exploits these efforts, reaping great profits for those who own the machines but offering little reward for those who operate them.

Although Yank initially envisions himself above the first-class passengers on the ship—reassuring himself with the knowledge that without people like him the ship would not run—he comes to realize that the rich are getting richer from his efforts while his own rewards remain paltry. It is Mildred's father who owns the steel works and the ship line. And it is people like Mildred who can afford the furs and diamonds on Fifth Avenue. They are living the good life by exploiting the workers.

It is this realization that he is only a cog in the machine and not the center of the industrial universe that plants the first seeds of Yank's disillusion. Before...

(The entire section contains 1330 words.)

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