The Hairy Ape studies the contemporary civilization as a spiritual and cultural wasteland. Discuss.
The Hairy Ape is a socio-economic criticism. Discuss.
Why do you think that The Hairy Ape is a socio-economic criticism? Give reasons for your answer.
Answer: From a study of the life of Yank, the protagonist of the drama, it transpires that he is a victim of the disintegration of the, modern civilization. The modern civilization is virtually a spiritual and cultural wasteland. This is due largely to the social and economic system prevailing in the present day world. The dramatist has pointed a finger to that socio-economic system which tends to degrade man into a beast.
O’Neill has thought a great deal about man in relation to his social environment and in one play after another he has criticized the whole structure of the contemporary American society. In the opinion of writer, “It is not man as an individual alone that concerns O’Neill; it is man in a social order, tortured, starved, disillusioned, thwarted and driven to disaster by the forces of a system which cares nothing for the general welfare of society.”
The world revealed by Eugene O’Neill is tragic because it is without intelligent social organization. Ignorance, brutality, selfishness, greed and hatred are the dominant forces in the world of O’Neill. The multitude of men and women who pass by in the imagination as one tries to vision the sum total of life that O’Neill has presented in his plays, is a sorry lot. As O’Neill emphasizes, the cause of this misery, “is a social system which is destructive in itself, which thwarts every effort to achieve happiness, which puts a value on misery and pain as a good in itself, and worst of all encourages and rewards everything that is predatory and destructive, condemning beauty, well-being and happiness as a sin.” The main trend in O’Neill’s social criticism is negative. He not only condemns all society as it is, but also rejects all solutions for making it something better.
In the beginning of the drama The Hairy Ape we see Yank, a stoker in a large ship, is quite satisfied with his state of existence. He has a sense of belongingness to the ship. He identifies himself with the smoke and steel and steam. But his confrontation with Mildred disturbs his sense of belongingness. Mildred’s remark about him as the filthy beast shakes the very foundation of his faith, and sense of belongingness. His disillusionment about the machine s contribution to the progress of human conditions begins. He tries to take revenge on Mildred, and struggles hard to regain his former sense of belongingness. In his search for identity, he finds out that he is alone, and the world is impossible to live in. He realizes that steel makes the ship and the ship represents power, but it also makes the cage in which he is imprisoned.
Yank thought that he was the creative element in the ship but now it is all dark. Groping blindly he asks himself, “Where do I get off say, where do I go from here?” He asks the gorilla, “Ain’t we both members of de same club—de Hairy Apes?” Thus he surrenders himself to the self image, of which he can be conscious, that is symbolized by the ape and the cage.
The problem of Yank is not only his but of everyman in the modern world. Yank is more than an individual. He is a symbol of the deep protest that rises like a wave against the whole structure of the modern civilization. He is a man crying out against a system which has not only exploited man’s body but his spirit as well. The play is not a protest against low wages and unemployment, but it is a condemnation of the whole structure of machine civilization, a civilization which succeeds only when it destroys the psychological well-being of those who make it possible.
In the present play, O’Neill presents a problem that has broader implications than the immediate success or failure of Yank. Yank becomes aware of the fact that he does not “belong”. He finds out that while he has been doing his work the world has been gradually, but quite rapidly transforming. He realizes that a new world which disregards human rights and aspirations has left him stranded. The one thing which made his life endurable was that he felt he belonged, that he was necessary, vital and human part of a social order. But now he realizes that he counts for nothing as an individual. If he could have reasoned it out clearly, he would have known that as soon as a machine moved by an automatic stoker that could be invented, he would be thrown overboard. He would have known that the progress of invention is for the benefit of those who exploit the workers and not for the good of society as a whole. In The Hairy Ape O’Neill reveals himself in sympathy with this search for identity?
Other characters in The Hairy Ape are also the victims of the degenerating influence of the machine age. Mildred Douglas is a decadent, aimless product of society. She dabbles in social work. And the people of the rich class who come out of the church are gaudy marionettes, yet there is something of the relentless horror of Frankenstein’s in their detached, mechanical unawareness. They are devoid of mind, soul and will. All people, both rich and poor, have lost purpose of a life, a desire for creative and useful activity. Modern machine and technology have rendered them spiritually dead. This world is a spiritual wasteland.
In The Hairy Ape O’Neill has shattered the contemporary American euphoria and hope of a bright future that great writers like Walt Whitman and Emerson envisaged. The dramatist found all these feelings of well-being and optimism as mere figment of imagination. What the optimistic writers and thinkers considered as progress and welfare was looked upon by O’Neill as a terrifying intrusion of the seeds of degeneration. The advancement of civilization is symbolized by the initiation of the machine into the modern science and technology, and steel symbolizes its whole paraphernalia. But O’Neill’s feelings were otherwise. He felt differently from the advanced thinkers and writers of his time. Through this drama The Hairy Ape he has given a horrifying picture of the effects that the marching age–the so-called age of progress based on the advancement of science and technology has already brought about and will still further aggravate it in future. Yank stands for the average human being in the present drama, and his co-workers in the stokehole stand parallel to him, though not his exact equals. Instead of being the advanced kind of human beings as a product of the modern civilization, they have utterly degenerated into the primitive animal-like Neanderthal man. Instead of going forward in time along with the so-called civilization, they have gone far backward into the barbarism of the distant past. O’Neill has indicated the whole structure of the contemporary civilization as being the cause of the enormous regress of mankind through the character of Yank along with his co-workers in the drama The Hairy Ape.