Vision & Philosophy of Life: in The Hairy Ape

Also Read


      O’Neill was not a philosopher having any well-defined philosophy The Hairy Ape. He was never in favor of or against any particular school of thought. No attempt has been made on his part to preach any doctrine or to support any movement or cause. It can be conceded that O’Neill lack any absolute intellectual originality. He may not possess any lofty or sublime ideas, yet his approach to life is very deep and thought-provoking.


      O’Neill’s quest is aimed at the discovery of the ultimate meaning of man’s existence on earth. His chief concern has always been with the eternally tragic predicament of man and his failure to adjust himself in life. There is the utter lack of any sustaining faith in the present times; there is also complete loss of faith in the traditional religions. Man is faced with the problem of existence and his inability to deal with it in a satisfactory manner. He is equally unaware of the fact whether he is an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ in life. Man’s chief dilemma is that he has no clear-cut purpose to be realized in life.


      O’Neill’s conviction is that man suffers from an acute sense of alienation in this world. He finds himself completely isolated in the modem spiritually sterile universe. All the protagonists of O’Neill’s plays feel isolated, alienated, and frustrated for lack of center or of belonging. O’Neill frankly admits: “His work reveals a keen sense of loss of connection with God, nature, society, family, and father”. The tension in his works is directly linked with the struggle against alienation. It is gathered from his plays that a man has to face tough times in a world without God, without love, and without trust in life. In The Hairy Ape, Yank suffers from an acute loneliness, which in spite of his best efforts, he fails to overcome it. 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 ironically not without sacrificing his life.


      There is a constant tension between the real and the ideal in O’Neill’s works. Illusions incapacitate action and yet without them life becomes unbearable. Dreams are a powerful means of denying or overlooking the harsh realities of life. Illusions make us see things in their true perspective. Illusion and reality are not opposed to each other in O’Neill’s plays. A stage-illusion ultimately becomes a life reality. O’Neill tells us: “Any victory we may win is never the one we dreamed of winning. The point is that life in itself is nothing. It is the dream that helps us fighting, wiling-living”. O’Neill is never in favor of running away from life but impresses upon us that life must be faced in a bold and heroic manner.


      Dreams are indispensable and they sustain our interest in life. Illusion and reality together make life. Illusions are also realities, the only difference being that they are subjective. Reality often becomes so unbearable that one should have one illusion or the other to make life worth-living. Illusions are destructive but they are also necessary.


      O’Neill has very little hope for man or society in the philosophy of materialism. His dramas present a strong and persistent reaction against its destructive implications. It has always rejected the Philistine world of American society and business. He has found man a big loser, both physically and spiritually, in his pursuit of money. O’Neill finds materialism as opposed to free life and against forming harmonious human relations. For him, materialism is a corrupting influence, devoid of any human content-love or sympathy. Yank calls the capitalists ‘baggage’ and lifeless who can never belong. He calls the rich church-goers “Bums! Pigs’ Tarts! Bitches!” when they refused even to look at him” when he tried to block their way in the Fifth Avenue. Long blames the Capitalists for making them “wage slaves in the bowls of the bloody ship, sweatin’, bumin’ up, eatin’ coal dust”. He calls those who travel in first class cabins ‘lazy, bloated swines’. O’Neill is all for the ideal perfection and for him only the non-material satisfaction of work matters in life.


      O’Neill also deals with the problem of existentialism in this world. He presents a stark, existentialistic picture of life and existential problems are frequently dramatized in his works. It is the turmoil of a whole generation that finds its artistic presentation in O’Neill’s plays. O’Neill studies man in his immediate situation or context and the way it affects his life. He depicts in a very systematic and convincing manner the depth of man’s human anxiety and despair about fate and death, emptiness and meaninglessness, etc. He dramatized the feeling of anguish which threatens modem man’s psyche and adds to his crisis. In The Hairy Ape, Yank’s final defeat reveals all the anguish, guilt and despair which are the direct outcome of modern man’s search for selfhood and belongingness in this hostile world.


      O’Neill’s too much pre-occupation with illusions has a ring of pessimism. The picture of life as presented in his plays is bleak and pessimistic. Carl Van Doren has rightly observed: “O’Neill’s view of life, it now seems clear, is of something which unaccountably frustrates the individual spirit”. The world depicted by him is essentially one of sorrows and suffering. In the words of S.K. Winther: “His pessimism is of a man in this world in which he must live and justify himself; if life is to have a meaning. His pessimism is born of man, not of God or the universe”. O’Neill’s view of life is poetical and it illuminates even the most sordid and mean. He looks at the worst only to suggest a way out of the evils of the contemporary age. His is not an unrelieved philosophy, of pessimism.


      O’Neill is a “pessimistic optimist” and he has always hoped for the best. His .contention is that a “work of art is always happy” and it aims at discovering the truth and helps us in getting rid of illusions. O’Neill’s affirmative philosophy of life is not a withdrawal but a call back to life. He strikes a characteristic note of affirmation, of faith in man and God and of joy in living. The urge to live will constantly assert itself a man’s search to discover the meaning of life will continue in the face of death and destruction. O’Neill heroes show hope even in the most hopeless situations. They do not bow down before the forces of evil and destruction and keep up their attitude of defiance against them.


      O’Neill had no faith in an institutionalized religion and he was dissatisfied with religion which he found to be antiquated and obsolete. He saw his God as deaf-blind and merciless - a Deity who returned hate for love revenged Himself upon those who trusted Him. “Religion is so cold”, the nine-year old Eugene said. At the age of 18, when he was at Princeton, he said: “If there is God, let him strike me dead”. At 15, he decided to stop attending church. He rebelled against the Puritan way of life and thinking.


      O’Neill’s rejection of religion was never total or final. Tom F. Driver rightly remarks: “O’Neill was anti-religious only in so far the quest is concerned; he was extremely religious in terms of the quest itself’. He always sought comfort in religion. His revolt was actually a search for a substitute faith. O’Neill was an agnostic in search of redemption.


      O’Neill is a pure dramatist who has never intended to present any specific philosophy of life in his plays. He was never for or against any ideology or philosophy of life. O’Neill’s approach to life is quite critical and unbiased and is devoid of any subjectivity. He is a consistent critic of the philosophy of capitalism which begins and ends with the ruthless exploitation of the hard-pressed working classes. He has graphically presented the dehumanization of the poor employees at the hands of the merciless privileged moneyed-classes. The central thrust of O’Neill’s quest is to discover the ultimate meaning of man’s life on earth. He deals with the problem of man’s alienation in this hostile world in which he is denied any identity or individuality. The conflict between reality and illusion is all pervasive in O’Neill’s social plays which produce tragic tensions in them. Dreams/illusions are very vital for denying or overlooking the soul-killing realities of life and provide a safe perspective for visualizing things/persons in their true perspective. Illusion and reality together constitute life and sustain man’s interest in it. Illusions are destructive but they are also necessary for making a person oblivious of his limitations. A note of pessimism runs throughout O’Neill’s plays. The picture of life as presented in his plays is quite bleak and pessimistic. But O’Neill’s pessimism is skin-deep only because he is a pessimistic optimist. O’Neill’s philosophy is not an escape but an affirmation of life with all its limitations. This is clearly affirmed in his “hopeless hope” which is undoubtedly not a denial but an acceptance of life. O’Neill’s concept of religion/God is quite ambivalent because he fails to find any satisfactory answer to the unwarranted sufferings and deaths that destabilize man’s life on earth. O’Neill’s doctrine of Eternal Recurrence points to the extension of man’s life after death on earth.

Previous Post Next Post