An Analysis of the Theme of Class in the Hairy Ape
Eugene ONeills play The Hairy Ape tells the story of Yank, an American stoker on a steel steamship in 1922. In the play Yank is a hard-working and proud steel worker who feels secure in his position, and content with his identity. Yanks position and identity is put into question after Mildred Douglas, the companies presidents rich daughter is bored and enters the stokehole to encounter Yank. Overcome by this unfamiliar environment she cries out at Yank Oh, the filthy beast! and faints (192). With his security threatened he begins to question if he really belongs in this modern world. In the play, ONeill shows how the different class separations Upper, Middle, and Lower classes have changed with the industrial industry in American rapidly moving forward to alter the force of common labor. The character Yanks does not understanding the distinction between the different classes by the affects of the Industrial Age. Yanks departure from the IWW to establish hes value and worth in the social order thinking he is no longer a creator of steel, but a prisoner in a steel cage against the industrial giants of the world. The theme of The Hairy Ape shows the roles of the middle and lower classes against the industrial age, being placed and valued according to the social status in the world compared to the status of the upper class.
ONeill uses the character Mildred to symbolize the way the upper class treats the classes beneath them that begins to question Yank, a modern steel worker, the value and differences between the two classes during the Industrial Age. In the cramped quarters two people are introduced to Yank, an old Irishman called Paddy and another seaman called Long serve as alternatives of modern societies conscious. Paddy resents all stokeholes existence, saying that the steel workers job should be more connected to natural elements such as working under the sun and on a clean deck. Yank now feel caged in the steel like the apes in the Zoo. The cage is a symbol identifying many people, both men and women alike being stuck in their positions because the way the society at the time placed the value between classes structure. As Yank is suggesting that men are imprisoned by the steel, the importance of it is more applied by Mildred as her wealth comes from the steel. This shows that the middle and lower classes were the strength of the steamship and labor force that had the greater value and position in the world. ONeill describes Yank as a basic force behind the industrial society that depends upon the strength and force of the working class. Yank states, Im de muscles in steel, de punch behind it. We run de whole woiks. to clarify his value (177). This emphasizes the most important attribute in the industrial society. Mildred is the president of the Steel Companys rich daughter whose fortune was given to her from the hardship from the workers themselves without lifting a finger. Mildred becomes a thrill seeker, tries to be some use in the world and goes into the stokehole because she is so empty and insecure. She character describes the upper class society being the idle class that believes they are the only people that matter in the world where anything below is nothing. Mildred shivers abound entering the cramped quarters she is out of placed, in a cage that she doesnt belong to. As she faints at the site of Yanks his status is destroyed by a person in a higher position of the social order.
As Yank is taken out of his nature by the harsh words of Mildred, he proceeds to abandon his true nature, to become a thinker and reestablish his position in the world. Mildred had mentioned that leopards look good in the jungle, but in a cage as the spots stand out. Yanks hear voices and start to think, Spots on you like a leopard. (194) Yank is abandoning his true nature and stands out as artificial like the leopard in the cage. In the industrial society, the classes were described as the upper class being the thinkers and the lower classes being the workers. That the lowers classes didnt need to think, read, or write, just to do the work and let the rich worry about everything else. ONeill displays this by Yank trying to think like the upper class other than being primitive man. The seaman Long tries to make Yank see the struggle between the classes as Yank is only focus on his own sense of belonging. Yank tries to tear Mildred down with his brute force and muscle, but is held by the men in a cage in the same way an ape is to Fifth Avenue.
Yank still believes the problem is personal begins to see Longs point by observing the upper class society on Fifth Avenue. During a walk in Fifth Avenue as Long sees jewelry that could feed a starving family for a year, Yank sees them as pretty ornaments. As they walk down the street, the rich people ignore Yank as he is rebuffed. This exemplifies ONeills attempt to show Yanks reaction as he sees them as unreal and like manikins. The upper class would not associate with the lower class and via-versa because the upper class believed that the lower class was beneath them and not worth they time. ONeill presents this problem as Yank being the modern everyman using his brute force fixed in status without looking at the bigger picture. In scene six, Yank is now in jail in the position of The Thinker to try and break out of jail. Yanks mind becomes distorted as he looks like hes in a cage in the zoo as he realizes he cannot defeat Mildred as a person. ONeill shows us that despite the differences in the classes that we cannot change the way we perceive them. Yank finally understands her in jail, Sure-her old man-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! (217) Yank goes to the IWW to join there workforce because he believes it is a place that he belongs and blends into. The significance of this that he couldnt change who he was as he will always be a steel worker. As he is thrown out of the building he has no place for him to go. His final day Yanks goes to the monkey house at the Zoo. To talk to the gorilla and to free it to order to become one with nature as Paddy said before. Yanks cage is not physical, but the gorilla is better off as it doesnt belong to people. Yank attempts to join its brotherhood, but is killed by the ape and thrown in the cage as Yank is a man that belongs in the modern world.
The play shows the importance of a society class views and status in the industrial age and the impact it can have on the other classes. The treatment of that the upper class that treats others because of the persons class also factors in they views. Yank realizes that the earth does not belong to him, and that the bottom of society matters. In todays society, while the classes are similar more people in the upper and middle class are both thinkers and workers. The value of work is highly appreciated as both classes work together instead of separate. The theme of The Hairy Ape has show us the roles of the middle and lower classes, and how this society functioned its roles and values by the rapid change of the common labor in the industrial age.
O'Neil. (1994). Empereror Jones, The Hairy Ape. New York.