Symbolism in the play The Hairy Ape.


Discuss The Hairy Ape as a symbolic play.


How effective is the use of symbols by O’Neill in the drama The Hairy Ape?


Comment on the use of symbols in the drama The Hairy Ape.


Discuss the symbols used in the drama The Hairy Ape.


The Hairy ApeAnswer: Symbol refers to anything that signifies or stands for something else. In literature, a symbol is usually something concrete, for example, a place, a character, an action, an object that stands for or suggests something abstract. A symbol is when it is created by an individual author as something new, something which has not so far been used by any other author. A symbol is universal when it is generally accepted or understood. A private symbol carries significance of the author’s own ideas in a special way. For example, light and dark are universal symbols. They symbolize good and evil. The use of symbols or symbolism enables a writer to suggest vast concepts within a short space. It lends depth and breadth to the topic that a writer deals with. The Hairy Ape is a symbolic play and O’Neill has used symbolism with great effect here. The setting, the characters, especially Yank, the incidents, the title language itself are symbolic.

An important aspect of O’Neill’s technique is his conscious and studied use of symbolism. It is done with care and designed to extend the scope and meaning of the play beyond the limited boundary of straight forward realism. Winther says about O’Neill’s symbolism

“……. symbolism has lent a poetic quality to O’Neill’s prose; it has universalized his theme; and it has added an emotional quality to his realism. This method has made it possible for him at any moment in his writing to depart from the orderly logical language of prose into the psychological sequence of imaginative language. He has been able to remain true to the realism of his characters, and at the same time suggest those strange warnings, inductions, fantastic ideas that play on the periphery of consciousness, or lie buried in the sub-conscious, but at times assert themselves with painful vividness. He lays down no inflexible dogma but for himself he needs the wider field and the deeper, often dimly felt, meanings that some form of symbolism will give…The drama to him is a powerful medium through which the dark surging of man’s inner life sheds for a moment it’s unreal mask. His plays show the unreal reality, the concealed truth; they give form and substance to the dream; they land to that airy nothing which is in reality everything.”


As for the setting of The Hairy Ape O’Neill has used symbolism. The very description of the stokehole conveys an impression of cramped space. It stands for over-populated, uncomfortable, present day civilized world. The ship and its engine indirectly speak of the advancement of the world in respect of science and technology. The iron bars of the prison and the cage in which the gorilla is kept suggest, on the other hand, the degenerated state of the civilization brought about by science and technology itself. The sky scrapers in the Fifth Avenue symbolizes the sky high ambition of modern civilized world in respect to material development.

The characters are also symbolic. Yank, the protagonist of the drama, is a complex symbol—he symbolizes the animal nature of man, then the proletariat class, the have-nots, and the individual worker, the primitive Neanderthal Man and every man. He has the instinct and impulses which man has inherited from his biological ancestor, his quick savage reaction to his insult, and desire to kill the insulter. He represents the working class people who have to work in the most depressing conditions as well as the individual worker with his distinctive personal power, here physical. He is again a primitive Neanderthal man, with hairy chest, receding brows, and long, powerful arms. He is the hairy ape. He symbolizes also every man as a victim of the circumstances of life which the modern civilization creates.

Mildred Douglas symbolizes the rich capitalist class who lives a life of comfort and luxury, but are anemic, incapable of vigorous action or originality. The people that come out of the church are gaudy marionettes, yet with something of the relentless horror of Frankenstein’s in their detached, mechanical purposeless life in the modern civilization.

The incidents themselves are symbolic. The confrontation between Yank and Mildred symbolizes the modern class conflict between the rich and the proletariat. It signals the beginning of Yank’s disintegration and the loss of the sense of belonging. The last scene suggests Yank’s regress from man to animal. The embracing of the gorilla means his sense of identification with the animal world and his being killed by the gorilla signifies he cannot fully belong to the animal world. He is virtually nowhere.

The language used in The Hairy Ape is also symbolic. Mildred called Yank a “filthy beast” and she looked towards him as if she regarded him as an hairy ape. Yank feels insulted in the very heart of his pride. Henceforth, the feeling that he does not “belong” becomes an obsession with him and it is this obsession which results in the disintegration of his personality. This obsession of Yank is symbolized by his frequent use of the word “belong”. Indeed, the word is repeated throughout at regular intervals, so that the theme of alienation is driven into the consciousness of the audience, as if with the rhythmic beast at a hammer. By means of clipped and uneven phrasing of Yank’s speeches, with the words “belong” or “I do not belong”, interspersed throughout, the dramatist has effectively conveyed Yank’s agitation at his sense of alienation. The growls and roars of the gorilla interspersed throughout Yank’s speech suggest an approximation to a conversation between man and beast.


The very title The Hairy Ape is symbolical of Yanks degeneration into an animal like being, and his language is that of a half-human, half animal being, closely resembling the growls, and roars of the gorilla.

Symbolism is an all-pervasive technique used by the dramatist in The Hairy Ape. He has employed symbols in almost all the major elements of the play. The very setting of the drama lays the background for the symbols in the other elements. It has set the tone and color to the general symbolic atmosphere of the play, so that the symbols in the other elements look relevant and consistent with each other as constituent elements of the whole. The characters being another major element in a drama are also symbolic. They owe most of their histrionic significance to their symbolism. They stand out bold against the broad horizon of the play by virtue of their quality of being symbolic. Even the incidents are symbolic, and the interrelationship of characters and incidents are largely established through the medium of symbolism. Consistent with the whole plan, the language itself is symbolic, and the drama has its impact upon the mind of the audience through its symbolic language. And even the very title is not devoid of symbolic significance.

The dramatist is able to encompass vast concepts within a small space by the use of symbols. His technique of using symbols widens the meaning and significance of the play, and lifts it from the plane of individuality to the plane of universality.