Do you think that The Hairy Ape is the dramatization of human predicament in the modern age? Support your answer.
The Hairy Ape presents the theme of isolation/ alienation and the quest for identity of an individual in the modern complex social system?
The Hairy Ape treats the theme of man’s sense of belongingness in the modern world. Elucidate.
Answer: The Hairy Ape studies the theme of isolation or alienation or the loss of the sense of belongingness of Yank, the protagonist of the drama. Man is a social animal. He wants a home, a family to belong to, and sympathy, friendship and fellow feeling for the members of the society to which he belongs. But when this sense of belongingness to home, family, or society is shattered, a man suffers greatly. Yank, the protagonist of the play, loses his sense of belongingness and feels alienated and isolated from his family and society at large. As a result, he undergoes terrible sufferings and ultimately dies almost like an animal.
The real theme of the play is social alienation or isolation and search for identity. Man has lost the sense of harmony in nature, he is unable to establish harmony with his fellowmen, his work has grown soulless, and mechanical and he feels lonely and isolated, a mere insignificant part of big machine, and not a human being busy in creative, purposeful activity. As Eugene O’Neill himself has explained, The Hairy Ape was propaganda in the sense that it was a symbol of man, who has lost his old harmony with nature, the harmony which he used to have as an animal and has not yet acquired in a spiritual way. Thus, not being able to find it on earth or in heaven, he’s in the middle, trying to make peace, taking the worst punches from lot of ’em…’ Yank can’t go forward, and so he tries to go back. This is what his shaking hands with gorilla meant. But he can’t go back to “belonging’ either”.
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 his present condition as a stoker. He is the dominating figure among the stokers by virtue of his superior physical power.
The first Scene presents Yank as having a great faith in him, and as having an equally great sense of belonging to the stokehole and the engine. He identifies himself with the steam and smoke and steel: “I’m smoke and express trains and steamers and factory whistles; and I’m what make iron into steel; steel dat stands for the whole thing! And I’m steel—steel! I’m de muscles in steel, de punch behind it!”
Yank readily accepts man’s new situation in the industrial world. However, he completely fails to realize that the great material progress has been achieved at the cost of spiritual values; thereby sending man back to his primitive cave days, reducing him, in the process, to a hairy ape. Civilization has turned a vicious circle. The mechanical life has led to a loss of human identity. Yank, in his desire to “belong”, identifies himself with the smoke, with steel and the like.
Then suddenly his illusion is broken and he is thoroughly confused. His disillusionment begins.
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 stoke she remarks, “the filthy beast” at Yank. Later on Paddy, a fellow stoker said 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 happy, complacent 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 was the necessary and vital part of a social system.
Yank wants to take revenge on the girl for his insult. He goes out to the Fifth Avenue to kill Mildred, but not finding her; he attacks people there, and is arrested and put into prison. The words “hairy ape” haunts him. In the prison, lie feels like being an ape and tries to break open the prison bars. When he is released from prison, he goes to I.W.W where he is rejected and ejected out of the office. Then he goes to the zoo, and visits a gorilla put in a cage. He tries to befriend him, calls him “brother”, and tries to embrace him. The gorilla crushes him, and throws him into the cage. Before death, he invites people to look at him as an original hairy ape from the wilds.
The Hairy Ape is thus centered on Yank’s loss of faith and belief in himself as well as in the world in which he lives. Yank, in his search for identity, discovers that he is alone, lonely and the world is impossible to live in and secondly, that steel is no power within him, but a prison around him.
Yank had thought that he was the creative element in the ship—the working man—but now “it’s all dark” and groping blindly he asks; “Where do I get off—say, where do I go from here?” Ironically enough, he ends up at the zoo and, creeping close to the gorilla, he asks, “Ain’t we both remember of de club de Hairy Apes?” And as Doris Falk suggests Yank surrenders himself to the, “only self-image of which he can be conscious—that symbolized by the ape and the cage.” It is here that his sense of disillusionment is complete.
From the time he was insulted by Mildred, to the time of his death, he has been in search of identity, to recover his sense of belongingness 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.
From the account given above, The Hairy Ape may be considered, through the tragedy of Yank, and through his utter disillusionment about his having a solid sense of belonging, a dramatization of the human predicament in the modern age. Like Yank, every individual is having a false sense of belonging to his work place, his home and country, and is trying hard to keep up with the ideal that such a sense of belonging connotes. But in doing so, he actually goes through a process of disillusionment; he realizes that what he believes to have possessed, what he has worked for throughout his life, are all chimeras which seem to be constantly receding into the more distance, the more he approaches them or the more they seem to be within his grasp.
The drama has a strong grip on the psyche of the audience because every member of the audience comes to identify himself with Yank—the dramatist’s extraordinary art makes it possible—and Yank’s sufferings serve to open his internal eye to his own predicament. Though every man is not like Yank, a worker in a ship’s stokehole, but he feels like being a Yank for the moment towards the close of the drama. Like Yank he seems to be imprisoned within his own workplace. Like Yank he seems to have some ideas about self—identity and belongingness. Like Yank he suffers in his struggle for realizing his identity and ideals. Like Yank he experiences an utter sense of isolation and alienation from his own workplace, his own home and society. He imaginatively foresees a tragic death in the condition of utter loneliness and alienation.