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Home » » Discuss the major themes of The Hairy Ape

The major themes of this play are the effect of industrialization, the frustration of the class and the idea of belonging. The resounding theme of The Hairy Ape is the effect of industrialization and technological progress on the worker. Industrialization has reduced the human worker into a machine. The men are programmed to do one task, are turned on and off by whistles, and are not required to think independently. Today, the job of the coal stoker is actually done by a machine. Workers are thus forced into jobs that require nothing but grunt work and physicality labour, which has, in turn, caused a general deterioration of the worker into a Neanderthal or Apelike state. This is made clear by O’Neill’s stage direction, which indicates that the Firemen actually look like Neanderthals and one of the oldest workers, Paddy, as “extremely monkey-like.” The longer the Firemen work, the further back they fall on the human evolutionary path—thus Paddy, one of the oldest, is especially “monkey-like.” As a whole, the play is a close investigation of this regressive pattern through the character Yank. The play marks his regression from a Neanderthal on the ship to an actual ape at the zoo. 

The second major theme of this play is the frustration of class. Mildred and Yank are representative of the highest and lowest societal classes—as Long would term it, the bourgeois and the proletariat. However, while Mildred and Yank’s lifestyles are extremely different, they share similar complaints about class. . Mildred describes herself as the “waste product” of her father’s steel company. She has reaped the financial benefits of the company, but has felt none of the vigour or passion that created it. Mildred yearns to find passion—to touch “life” beyond her cushioned, bourgeois world. Yank, on the other hand, has felt too much of the “life” Mildred describes. Yank desires to topple the class structure by re-inscribing the importance and necessity of the working class. Yank defines importance as “who belongs.” 

Class limits and determines both Mildred and Yank’s financial resources, educational opportunities, outlook on life, and culture. The Hairy Ape reveals how deeply and rigidly class is Inscribed into American culture and the cultural and financial boundaries it erects. 

The motif and idea of who “belongs” and the idea of “belonging” are continually reinforced throughout The Hairy Ape. Yank equates “belonging” with power and importance and uses “belonging” as a way to reverse societal power structures. In Scene One, Yank claims that he “belongs” to the ship, as opposed to the passengers in first class who are merely “baggage.” Yank also associates “belonging” with an individual’s usefulness and functionality. The firemen “belong” because they make the ship run and are essential to its workings. . 

Yank is especially affected by Mildred because she presents a world and class which he cannot belong to. After their meeting, the play essentially follows Yank in his quest to find belonging, finally leading him to the monkey-house at the zoo. Yank’s inability to think not only reveals his regression to,a lower animal form, but also renders him unable to adapt to or defend himself in the world beyond the ship. 


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