Justify the title of the drama The Hairy Ape.
Do you think that the title The Hairy Ape is appropriate for the drama? Give reasons for your answer.
What is the significance of the title of the drama The Hairy Ape?
Answer: The title of a literary work should be suggestive of its main theme, or it is titled after the protagonist’s name. In the drama, The Hairy Ape, the theme of Yank’s degeneration in the process of his quest for his identity, into an ape-like being has been dealt with. Throughout the drama he is obsessed with the words “the hairy ape” with which people addresses him. The play ends with Yank’s being placed in the cage of a gorilla, where, according to the writer, he belongs. The play has also a subtitle: A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life. The subtitle is ironical, and it fits the main theme of the tragic play in an ironical, reverse way.
Yank is the protagonist of the play. He has enormous physical strength, but pristine simplicity of mind. He is hairy-chested with long arms of extraordinary power. On the whole he is broader, fiercer and more powerful than others in the stokehole. He has physical strength and capacity for destruction like a hairy ape. An ape is the embodiment of physical strength and primitive simplicity. It has little brains, but a lot of sinews and muscles. It is incapable of thought and knows only the use of physical force, by which it can cause great destruction. It is exactly these qualities which Yank has. He can work for long hours unfatigued and can inhale smoke and coal unaffected.
In the beginning, we find that he is quite in harmony with his work, quite confident of himself and proud of his superior strength as he says again and again he “belongs”. But his sense of belonging is soon shattered when Mildred remarks, after seeing him, “the filthy beast.” Yank feels insulted at the very heart of his pride, when he is later told; she looked at him as if he were a “hairy ape”. Till the very end of his life he cannot forget this remark.
When Mildred Douglas, a student of sociology, visits the stokehole, she faints partly from the heat and partly from the horrifying look of Yank. While being carried out of the place, she makes a disgusting remark at Yank, saying, “Oh, the filthy beast”. Yank feels utterly insulted and roars out “God damn, yuh!” He is mad with rage and wants to take revenge on her. He broods over the method of taking revenge upon Mildred. Long suggests going to the court of law. Paddy instigates him by saying that Mildred meant to say she saw a great hairy ape escaped from the zoo. Yank bursts out into uncontrollable rage, swearing he would blow her brains out and teach her a lesson. Afterwards, he broods over the words “hairy ape” and loses his sense of belonging to the ship. He does not shave or clean himself. He gets more and more like a hairy ape. He starts behaving like a hairy ape. He goes over to the Fifth Avenue, the place of the rich people, intending to kill Mildred there. Not finding her he attacks some people in the street. Somebody calls the police. Yank is arrested and sent to jail on Blackwell Island.
The phrase “the hairy ape” becomes an obsession for him, and in the prison he thinks that he is a hairy ape and tries to break away by pulling out the prison bars. One prisoner suggests that he should join the I.W.W that aims at destroying the society and turning men back into apes. When Yank is released from the prison, he goes to join the I.W.W. The secretary thinks that he is a spy and tells him to go back to whoever is giving him blood money for killing people. But seeing that Yank has gone into a stupor, he calls him a “brainless ape” and ejects him out of the office. Yank feels like storming the door, but feels impotent and sits brooding there. A police comes and tells him to go away. Yank goes to the zoo. A gorilla is squatting on a bench in the same way as Rodin’s “The Thinker”. Yank talks to it, about knocking the rich people out of the earth. He breaks the lock of the cage and addresses the gorilla as “brother”. The gorilla steps out, wraps his huge arms around him and crushes him hard. Yank falls down in a heap. The gorilla throws him into the cage and walks off menacingly. Before dying, Yank says, “Christ, where do I get off at? Where do I fit in?” The author comments “The Hairy Ape at last belongs.”
The Hairy Ape thus focuses on Yank’s loss of faith in his identity. 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. Steel makes the ship, which represents power, but it also makes the cage for imprisoning people like Yank. From the time Yank was insulted by Mildred, to the time of his death, he has been in search of identity, to recover his sense of belonging by overcoming his sense of isolation or alienation from society. But he failed. After his death the writer comments that at last he found his identity and knew that he belonged to the ape’s cage.
The sub-title of the play is A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life. The ancient life is represented by the gorilla and the modern life by Yank. Yank regresses and degenerates into an ape-like being. So the title and the sub-title are appropriate since they are consistent with the theme, as well as the protagonist’s mental degeneration to an ape-like being. The main title of the play The Hairy Ape represents Yank’s confusion of identity, and his death still in that confusion. His last remarks, “Even him (gorilla) didn’t think I belonged,” and “Christ, where do I get off at? Where do I fit in?” indicate this confusion. This finale of Yank’s life leaves him in confusion, and leaves the audience with the realization of the forceful irony of the title; Yank is obviously a human being, is obviously not a hairy ape, but the dramatist ironically names the play in that way. The subtitle, A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life is also ironical. Yank’s life is obviously a tragic life, and the audience should have no doubt about it; nowhere in the play are the audience induced to burst into laughter, let alone the tragic death of Yank at the end. From the dramatist’s vision of life the life of a modern average man like Yank should be profoundly tragic, because through him we find that a human being has been reduced to an animal-like, ape-like being as a result of the pressures of the machine age. Too deep a grief produces ironical laughter in a human being. The author means something like that. That a human being has become an animal is too deep a tragedy for us to cry; it makes us laugh out of that profound grief. Therefore, both the title and the subtitle are appropriate.