September 30, 2009

The representation of tragedy today has adapted itself to more humanistic, base and symbolic concerns. Often, they are commentaries on society just as much as they are on the nature of man. Eugene O'Neill's greatest creation The Hairy Ape dramatises the vision of the tragic and alienated condition of men in the modern complex social system. The play symbolises the struggle of modern men within industrial society following an individual's (Yank) baffled search for identity, to recover his sense of belongingness by overcoming his sense of isolation or alienation from society. The play concludes with resignation at the tragic end of that quest.

The Hairy Ape is a tragedy of modern times, having no conventional hero of the classical or Aristotelian tradition. The play presents an antihero, possessing no extraordinary quality or tragic flaw. The protagonist, Yank (Real name Bob Smith) is not a man of high position like Oedipus of Sophocles; rather he is an everyman character. He is a humble stoker in a ship whose duty is to shove fuel into the furnace of ship's engine. He works long hours in the ship’s low roofed stokehole. He is beastly, filthy, and coarse. He is a burly, sometimes menacing figure who has difficulty with thought. He is potent, proud and dominating, and considers physical strength as the lifeblood of his universe. He feels proud being an integral and vital part of the ship's motion and loves his work and the ship more than the others. He is the dominating figure among the stokers by virtue of his superior physical power. He is complacent, happy and satisfied with his present condition as a stoker with a sense that he belonged to the ship, he is something, and his co-workers were his social mates.

He does not have any tragic flaw, but he suffers and faces demise because he is in conflict with his environment, with certain social forces that are much stronger than him. He struggled hard against the forces but he could not win. Mildred Douglas's reaction to Yank is the catalyst which makes Yank come to class awareness. Yank is especially affected by Mildred because she presents a world and class which he cannot belong to. Her remark shakes the very foundation of his sense of well being, his feeling that he was the necessary and vital part of a social system. He feels very much insulted because Mildred does not respect or even value the essentiality of his role in a small world of stokehole. Like Adam he is aware of his own nakedness and must leave the garden. The illusion of belonging drops away and he becomes aware that he is fatally caught between earth and heaven. He feels utterly alianated from society and identifies himself as an outsider who does not deserve to belong here.

The Hairy Ape by Eugene O'Neill

Obsessed by excessive anger Yank decides to avenge the rich girl by killing her. He visits the Fifth Avenue to fulfill his resolution. He attacks people there and is put into prison, where he comes to feel that he is a hairy ape. After his release from the prison he visits a zoo where tries to befriend a gorilla whom he addresses as ‘brother’ and tries to embrace him. The gorilla crushes him and throws him into the cage. Yanks dies there miserably like an animal. After his demise the writer comments that at last he found his identity and knows where he belongs.

Throughout this struggle Yank defines ‘belonging’ as power. When he thinks he ‘belongs’ to something he gains strength, when Yank is rejected by a group, he is terribly weak. However, Yank is rejected by all facets of society: his fellow firemen/stokers, Mildred, the street goers of Fifth Avenue, the I.W.W., and finally the ape in the zoo. Yank symbolises the struggle of modern man within industrial society—he cannot break class or ideological barriers, nor create new ones.

The Hairy Ape is a penetrating and concentrating tragedy on human predicament in the modern age. The subtitle ‘A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life’ is merely ironical. It points the satirical intent of the playwright. The rich class might look at it as comedy because a beastly man dies. But the playwright’s intent is that we should think over the question, why such a powerful man belonging to the working class dies. He is a victim of the mechanical social system. His death should arouse pity and sorrow for a human being though ordinary.
Tanvir Shameem Tanvir Shameem is not the biggest fan of teaching, but he is doing his best to write on various topics of language and literature just to guide thousands of students and researchers across the globe. You can always find him experimenting with presentation, style and diction. He will contribute as long as time permits. You can find him on:


  1. I was looking for some ideas on The Hairy Ape and came to your blog. This essay helped me prepare my lecture for the 4th year students at a college.
    When I came to know that you also studied at National University, I got much interested to browse through the pages. It's a great blog with good content and excellent design.

  2. thank u. And proud to u as an NU student

  3. Thank you so much!! Your blog helped me a lot! A great deal of information indeed


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