Theme of Belongingness in The Hairy Ape

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      The Hairy Ape describes the utter failure of an uneducated American to ‘belong’. The primitive hero can never ‘belong’ to the super-civilized heroine. Frederick I. Carpenter rightly remarks: “Almost by definition, the primitive hero can never ‘belong’ to the super-civilized heroine: the title, the characterization, the dialogue, the scenery, and the stage directions all emphasize this”.


      O’Neill’s social vision is seen at its best in his superb handling of the theme of belonging in the modern world. He feels that a poor person man like Yank has no place in this highly industrial set-up and he remains an outsider from the beginning to the end of his life. For O’Neill, man remains a searcher, having no clear-cut destination. He moves from pillar to post in search of some center of belonging, but he fails to find any roots anywhere. Although he works round-the-clock for its betterment, yet he suffers from the feeling of deliberate neglect and indifference.

      In The Hairy Ape, Yank’s persistent efforts to belong foil to bear any fruit. His bitter experiences of the privileged class have opened his eyes to its selfish mentality as a whole and he realizes in the end that the workers have no place in the modem industrial society. Although they are ever-ready to do anything for their rich bosses, yet they have no present or future in a society which is being solely governed by them. The play shows the problem of belonging is very intricate and it is bound to create tragic tensions in the modern-day world. Yank is a voice of protest against the material success of the Machine Age.


      Yank is the unchallenged hero of the stokers in the beginning of the play. He symbolizes the strength and determination of the working class. He has animal physique which is the source of terror for his fellow workers. He is proud of his superior strength and claims himself to be the master of the world. He frequently boasts of controlling the machines which keep the world running. He draws his strength from the steel floor. Yank celebrates power, particularly his own, and is least interested in sentiments, womanhood, and domesticity. He derives satisfaction in his demanding work and is completely at home in the modem world of machinery. He feels he belongs to the industrial world and is a vital part of it. Unlike other stokers, he thinks that he is indispensable to the smooth and effective functioning of the ship. Moreover, he claims himself to be its chief driving force:

I’m at de bottom, get me! Dere ain’t nothin’ further. I’m de end! I’m de start! I start somep’n and de world moves! It - dat’s me!...And I’m steel-steel-steel!

      It is Yank’s pipe-dream or illusion which sustains his interest in life.

      Yank, a true devotee of work, considers himself as the force behind the moving ship. Dedication to work keeps him aloof from romantic imagination.

     Nothing troubles Yank; he never thinks of God or fate, of home or society. He has no place in his heart for the romantic past of Paddy, nor has any idea to consider the sense of beauty. His only pride is that he ‘belongs.


      Yank’s encounter with Mildred Douglas, the daughter of a steel magnate, in the stokehole shatters his dream of belongingness. On seeing the dust-ridden figure of Yank, the white-dressed lady faints but the timely interference of the engineers narrowly saved her from falling. She calls Yank a ‘filthy beast’ and is terrified by his ugly and terrifying appearance and asks the engineer to carry her away from the stokehole. Yank thinks Mildred to be a ghost in white dress. Yank is hurt beyond limits and his sense of belongingness suffers a severe jolt. He feels extremely angry, humiliated and deeply confused. His great physique is transformed from a mark of impervious strength into a positive liability or at best a false token of security. Yank “feels himself insulted in some unknown fashion in the very heart of his pride”. From that point of time, Yank will not eat, sleep, or wash and sits alone in the pose of Rodin’s “The Thinker”. A fellow stoker informs Yank that Mildred’s expression was as if she had faced a hairy ape who has just managed to escape from the zoo, a description that haunts Yank day-in and day-out.

      Yank’s steadfast conviction about his identity and sense of belonging is shattered, not by the hard blows of the ruling class but by a glance leveled by a weak, frivolous woman. This is the greatest blow to Yank’s belief as well as to his concept of belongingness. He begins to think that he, who is so proud of his strength, suffers humiliation at the hands of a woman, and the woman who, physically so weak and faint, should have, in turn, appreciated his masculinity. His bodily strength which has claimed superiority although has been identified with the bodily strength of an animal. Body, which has been his only source of pride, becomes a prison for him. After that crucial incident, he no longer feels that he ‘belongs.’ Therefore, he tries to escape from the prison where he cannot be content to ‘belong.’


      Yank’s search for a new identity and his urge for belongingness subsequently lead him to Fifth Avenue for taking revenge on the upper aristocratic society which Mildred represents.

      Yank goes with Long to Fifth Avenue to take revenge on Mildred for publicly humiliating him in the stokehole and calling him a “hairy ape”. He would not mind murdering her for her rude and uncivilized behavior He is determined to show Mildred that he is in no way inferior to her. Long wants Yank to understand Mildred’s insult as a condition of the class structure.

      Yank’s sense of belongingness suffers another jolt when he fails to block the passage of the church-goers in the Fifth Avenue to take revenge on Mildred and her class. But the world to which Yank enters is an artificial, materialistic world, a type beyond his knowledge, where people lead a mechanized life. There he also tries desperately to impinge his identity on the so-called upper class society: “Yuh don’t belong...I belong.... get me!” He fails to impress his strength on the fashionable people of Fifth Avenue. He wants to show to the rich white Fifth Avenue society that he belongs and it does not belong. But he is totally ignored by the church-goers who have no time even to look at him. His experience in Fifth Avenue makes him aware of the ground reality, because this world is far away from the people of his low and deplorable stature. He becomes more helpless than before and this helplessness in a crowded civilized world compels him to seek recognition through his second nature i.e. violence. Finally, he finds himself landed in jail after assaulting a person of the privileged class.


      In the prison-cell, behind the steel bar, Yank starts realizing the naked reality of life. He feels that his power and strength, with which he has been identified throughout, is nothing but a false ego, merely a dream and an illusion. The force which he has thought strength steel - is in reality no strength at all. The idea that he is steel, he belongs to steel as steel belongs to the industrial world, is completely falsified. He now becomes aware that the power, which constitutes his basic strength, does not belong to him; instead, it belongs to Mildred’s Father:

“Sure- her oldman-President of de Steel Trust -makes half de steel in de world-steel-where I tought I belonged- drivin’trou- movin’in dat- to make her- and cage me in for her to spit on! Christ”.

      Yank’s dilemma is that he can neither reconcile himself to the world not revenge himself upon it.


      Yank’s urge for belongingness, his search for identity, further carry him to the office of l.W.W., an organization which fights for the cause of the industrial workers. Unfortunately, there too he fails to find any satisfactory answer to his dilemma of belongingness.

      Yank goes to the office of l.W.W. to get himself enrolled as the member of the union, but his suspicious behavior and evasive replies landed him in deeper trouble. When asked about his aim of joining the union, the Secretary is stunned to know that he wants their help to blow up the steel plant owned by Mildred’s father to take revenge on Mildred for humiliating him. They suspect that he is a paid spy hired by some industrialist. Yank is finally thrown out of the office of the union for his destructive mission. What he finally discovers after being tossed ignominiously out of the door is that nowhere does he belong.


      Search for identity becomes an obsession with Yank, and it finally leads him to the zoo where he stands face to face with a gorilla in its cage and begs for its companionship. Yank finds a strike between himself and the gorilla. He admits before the gorilla that he is luckier than himself. Unlike the gorilla, he is caged forever and has no chance to escape from this life of humiliation and confinement:

“She wasn’t wise dat I was ia a cage, too-worser’n yours sure-a damned sight-cause you got some chance to bust loose-but me-”

      Yank envies the gorilla’s ability to avoid thinking and defining his place in the world. He frankly admits even the position of Gorilla better than his; belongs! Sure! Yuh’re de on’y one in de woild dat does, yuh lucky stiff!” Suddenly, Yank takes a tool from under his coat and jimmies open the gorilla cage. The freed animal embraces Yank in a deadly hug, breaking his ribs and squeezing the air out of his lungs. Yank dies as O’Neill’s final stage direction suggests that, “perhaps, the Hairy Ape at last belongs”. Ironically, he finds peace only in death, in the arms of a gorilla.


      The leading theme of The Hairy Ape is the quest for identity in the modern times and man’s failure to find any suitable place in the world. Yank suffers from an immense loneliness, which in spite of his best efforts, he fails to overcome. The play is a powerful indictment of the modem civilization in which man has lost his sense of belonging which used to be his chief asset in the past. Yank is the predominant symbol of modern man’s quest of identity - a quest which intensifies his sufferings and leaves him all the more confused and disenchanted. Man can belong, but not without sacrificing his life. For O’Neill, man remains a searcher, having no clear-cut destination. He moves from pillar to post in search of some center of belonging, but he fails to find any roots anywhere.

University Questions

Write a note on the theme of The Hairy Ape.

“Urge to belong to the driving force in The Hairy Ape”. Examine.

The Hairy Ape is a play about belongingness. Elaborate and illustrate.

“The leading theme of The Hairy Ape is the quest for identity in the modern times and man’s failure to find any suitable place in the world”. Discuss.

“The basic theme of The Hairy Ape is alienation and quest for identity.

The Hairy Ape is a powerful indictment of the modern civilization in which man has lost his sense of belonging which used to be his chief asset in the past.

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