How many themes do you find in The Hairy Ape? Discuss.


O’Neill combines a variety of themes in the single drama The Hairy Ape. Elucidate.


What are the themes that you find treated in The Hairy Ape? Briefly discuss them.


The Hairy Ape combines various themes. Discuss.


How many themes have been integrated in The Hairy Ape? Discuss.


The Hairy Ape 4Answer: In literature, “theme” refers to the central or dominating idea, the message implicit in a work. M.H. Arams has defined theme in the following terms, “…the term is more usefully applied to thesis or doctrine which an imaginative work is designed to incorporate and make persuasive to the reader.” The theme of a work is an abstract concept, seldom stated directly, but most often indirectly expressed through recurrent themes, actions, characters and symbols and must be inferred by the reader or spectator. In other words, theme is a comment, an observation or insight about the subject.

Eugene O’Neill is a great dramatist and he has treated a good variety of themes in the drama The Hairy Ape. The themes of a work of art may sometimes be manifold, and the present drama is such a work. It combines the themes of illusion and reality, alienation and quest for identity, disintegration of human civilization, the degeneration of human psyche, and human regression by industrialization, which stands out prominently in the play.

The characters of the drama are carried away by some ‘romantic ideal’ which proves ultimately destructive. Yank, the hero of the drama, seems to be imbued with the ideal of modern machine civilization; he has too much respect for it, and his feelings, there and ideas are largely influenced by it. At the same time re are realistic elements in the drama. The realistic pictures of the contemporary society are also given sufficient focus. The sufferings of the stokers of the stokehole within a limited space are depicted realistically.


The resounding theme of The Hairy Ape is the human regression by industrialization and technological progress. 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 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 physical work, which has in turn caused a general deterioration of the worker, into a Neanderthal or Ape-like 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 of Yank—the play marks this regression from a Neanderthal on the ship to an actual ape at the zoo.

Another important theme in is play is the theme of alienation and quest for identity. Yank is found to be quite confident and proud of his superior strength from the beginning. We find in the drama Yank is detached from home, though he says he belongs to the ship. This is quite ironical and has a satirical purpose from the point of view of the author. He is satisfied with the present condition as a stoker. He is the dominating figure among the stokers by virtue of his superior physical power. His sense of belongingness is shattered when Mildred Douglas meets the stokers in their stokehole. Mildred is horrified by the environment of the stokehole and especially by the horrible ape-like appearance of Yank. She faints, but while being carried out of the stokehole she throws the remark, “the filthy beast” at Yank. Later on Paddy, a fellow stoker told him that she looked as if “she had seen a great hairy ape escaped from the zoo.” Yank feels flagrantly insulted, and loses his sense of belonging and wants to take revenge on the girl by killing her. So far he has been complacent. Happy and satisfied with a sense that he belonged to the ship and his co-workers were his social mates. But Mildred’s remark shakes the very foundation of his euphoria or sense of well-being, his feeling that he is the necessary and vital part of a social system. He realizes that he does not belong. He loses his self-identity. He tries hard to regain his identity. He wants to get Mildred in the Fifth Avenue, and not getting her, attacks some people there. He is taken into custody for violence and put into jail. After release he goes to I.W.W. and wants to be a member of it and destroy the rich people’s establishments as a measure of getting back his identity by violent means. He is also rejected there. At last he goes to the gorilla, addresses him as his brother and is killed; he is not accepted by the society of the apes either.

The Hairy Ape thus focuses on Yank’s loss of faith and belief in him as well as in the world in which he lives. In search of his identity Yank discovers that he is alone’ and that the world is impossible to live in. The steel is no power within him, but only a prison around him.

The disintegration of modern civilization is another important theme. 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 has become 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 his finger to that socio-economic system which tends to degrade humans into beasts.


In the beginning of the drama we see Yank, a worker in the stokehole of a large ship. He identifies himself with the steam and smoke and steel. He is satisfied with his state of existence. He has a sense of belongingness to the ship. But Mildred’s remark about him as the filthy beast shakes the very foundation of his faith in machines and sense of belongingness. His disillusionment about the machines contribution to the progress of human condition and the society dependent on those conditions begins. He tries to take revenge on Mildred. In his search for identity he realizes that he is alone. He thought that he was the creative element in the ship, but now it is all dark.

The degeneration of human psyche is another theme of this drama. Yank suffers, but not alone. The rich class also comes under the degenerating influence of the machine age. Mildred Douglas is a decadent, aimless product of the society. The people who come out of the church are gaudy marionette, yet there is something of the relentless horror of Frankenstein in their detached, mechanical unawareness. They are devoid of mind, soul and will. Modem machine and technology have rendered them spiritually dead. This world is a spiritual wasteland.

Several themes are thus found to have been combined in the drama The Hairy Ape. The dramatist has skillfully handled this combining of different themes.