What is irony? Discuss how O’Neill has used irony in the drama The Hairy Ape?


O’Neill has used irony as a dramatic technique in The Hairy Ape. Discuss.


Discuss how successful is O’Neill in using irony as a strategy in his drama The Hairy Ape?


Do you think that O’Neill has been successful in using irony in The Hairy Ape?


Analyze the use of irony in the drama The Hairy Ape.

The Hairy ApeAnswer: Irony is, in its broadest sense, the recognition of the incongruity or difference between what is and what seems to be, between reality and appearance. Irony can be of various types, of which the principal are verbal irony, situational irony, and structural irony. A work of literature may contain one or many types of irony at the same time.

Irony is used as a strategy and as an organic structure in the drama The Hairy Ape. The very framework of the drama is ironic, and the playwright has achieved the desired effects through the various types of irony here.

The subtitle of this tragedy A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life is ironic. The subtitle of a book is usually explanatory or descriptive. Though it is a grim tragedy of a proletariat, it has been named a comedy. Of course, Yank’s appearance and conduct seemed to Mildred as that of a hairy ape. Here, view of Yank as a hairy ape might create a comic perspective, but the ultimate end of Yank’s life in the cage of a gorilla is profoundly tragic. The sense of tragedy becomes all the more intense because of the apparent irony. The juxtaposition of the words “ancient” and modern” in the title is also ironical because it produces a sense of ludicrousness: how “ancient” can be “modern”?

In the first three scenes of the drama Yank shows a strong sense of belonging to the ship, his harmonized, autonomous self, his energy and contentment in the cramped space of the stokehole, are placed in ironic contrast with the lifeless bars and bunks, the stokehole and later with the ill-adjusted colleagues Paddy and Long. The normal human life is crushed under the cramping ceiling of the stokehole till human beings undergo a diminishing of the human faculties. This also holds an ironic contrast with humans’ normal freedom and development.


Yank regards the ship as more than his home. He belongs to it and lends movement to it. His fellow stoker Paddy talks of the past from a pang of nostalgia, and protests against Yank’s talks about belonging to the ship saying, “Oh, there were fine beautiful ships in those days—clippers with tall masts touching the sky—five strong men in them—men that were sons of the sea as if it were the mother that bore them…It was in those days that men belonged to ships, not now.” At this Yank gets into a rage, and advances on Paddy threateningly, but suddenly checks himself, lets his hands fall to his sides, and launches into a long speech against Paddy’s nostalgic statement. He says that they are bugs, nutty as a cuckoo. He (Paddy) has been pulling all that rubbish. That is all right. Only it is dead. Paddy, he says, does not belong any more. He is too old to belong. All foolish statements about nights and days, all crazy tripe about stars and moons, all that crazy tripe about suns and winds, fresh air and the rest of it. O hell, that’s all foolish dream. Paddy is dead, but he is living. He is part of the engines. The engines move twenty-five knots an hour. He moves with the engines. He means that which is the essence of all things. The engine and the coal and the smoke and all the rest of it. Paddy cannot swallow coal, swallow coal and dust, but he can. That is fresh air for him. That’s food for him.

His sense of belonging to the ship is ironic because the ship itself is something unstable, moving on the bosom of the sea, and is subject to many hazards. Moreover, he seems to regard himself as one who is in complete control of things. But when Mildred visits the stokehole, and makes an obnoxious remark about him that he is a “filthy beast”, Yank finds the stokehole no more livable and goes out of it. He realizes now that the outside world, the wide expanse of the ocean and Mildred’s society, are all beyond his control. He feels like nobody despite his tremendous physical strength.

After the irony concerning the existence of the material aspects of Yank’s being and his surroundings, come his efforts to behave like a man. Though he tries to think, like a human being, because thinking power differentiates man from animals, he cannot think properly and acts like an unthinking beast.

Mildred’s attitude towards the black color is romantic; she says she likes the black clouds when it contrasts with the shinning sky. But ironically when she sees Yank’s body blackened with sweat and toil, she conies to hate him, regard him as a filthy beast. Mildred, again, goes to visit the workers in order to help them by sympathizing with him. But when she visits, she comes to hate Yank.

The evolutionary process of gradual development of the human species from the animal species is also ironically reversed. Yank, human being, becomes caged animal, the hairy ape. He regresses in to the racial, atavistic and biological past.


The strollers of the Fifth Avenue seem more inclined to wonder and admire the monkey furs than a real human being like Yank. They are so insensible, though as human beings they are expected to have enough sensibility that they react like mechanical objects making the identical response when Yank bumps into them.

Finally, Yank thinks himself an ape, though he fights against the idea all through, and addresses the gorilla at the zoo as his brother. But even the gorilla does not accept him as his brother, and crushes him to death. Death at the hands of someone whom he regards as “brother” is really ironical.

The whole structure of the drama is conceived within the framework of an irony in the life of its protagonist, Yank. Within this general framework other ironies are also accommodated. For example, the irony involved in the situation of Mildred’s visit to the stokehole, in order to find the conditions of the workers and to help them by doing something for their welfare. But ironically, instead of being an agent of their help, she becomes a victim of their terrifying appearance, and faints from the horror of the scene. Paddy’s nostalgic account of the conditions of the ships on the sea in the past in the context of the vast expanse of cosmic beauty of the whole creation is in ironic contrast with the horrible confinement of the workers in the narrow stokehole of the ship. In this way even a very small situation or incident in the drama seems to have an ironical implication.

We see that all through the drama irony has been used as a principle of structure, and the success of the drama is largely due to this all-pervasive irony very artistically employed by the dramatist.