Write a note on O’Neill’s art of characterization.


O’Neill’s characters are mere types. Do you agree? Give reasons for your answer.


Discuss the art of characterization of O’Neill as you find in The Hairy Ape.


What ideas of O’Neill’s art of characterization do you gather from a study of O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape?


The Hairy Ape 4Answer: The term “art of characterization” means the method by which an author creates the external and internal features of imaginary persons. There are three basic methods of characterization. The first of them is called the “tells” method in which an author gives direct description of physical appearance and explanation of character traits and attributes. The second method is called the “shows” method in which the author presents characters in action without interpretive comment. By the third method, an author represents a character’s inner self, the author describes the thoughts and emotions triggered in the character by external events. In a novel, all the three methods may be followed.

E.M. Forster has introduced popular new terms for an old distinction in discriminating between flat and round characters. A flat character is two-dimensional, and is built around a single idea or quality, and is presented in outline and without much individualizing detail. Such a character may be fairly adequately described in a single phrase or sentence. On the other hand, a round character is complex, particularly in temperament. He is as difficult to describe with any adequacy as a person in real life. He is capable of surprising us, like most people. He is three-dimensional. Almost all dramas and narratives have some characters who serve as mere functionaries and are not characterized at all, as well as other characters who are quite flat.

The Hairy Ape is an expressionistic drama in which the playwright has tried to express emotions, moods and other aspects of inner experience by externalizing them through the use of non-realistic devices. The character whose experience the writer is concerned with is Yank. The other characters serve only to constitute the background which throws into sharp relief the personality of Yank.


Yank, in the beginning of the drama, is seen to have been conceived realistically. The external details of the appearance, gesture, movements and postures are graphically described. O’Neill’s major characters generally suffer from some obsession that leads them to their catastrophe. Yank’s obsession is a feeling of insecurity and insignificance, after his encounter with Mildred, a girl belonging to the upper class society, who throws the remark “the filthy beast” at him. He loses his sense of belongingness to the ship, and Paddy’s conjecture that Mildred’s look at Yank during her visit to the stokehole meant as if she were looking at a great hairy ape escaped from the zoo. He wants to take revenge on the girl by killing her. He goes to the Fifth Avenue, trying to find her, but not finding her attacks people there. He is sent to jail, where he feels that he is an ape, and tries to break open to join I.W.W. but is rejected. At last he goes to the zoo, and addresses a gorilla as his “brother”, and holds out his hand to embrace. The gorilla does embrace him, but crushes him to death. This is the fate of Yank, and his obsession has been graphically presented.

Yank has been individualized, but he has also become a type, a symbol of the frightful decay and degeneration of spiritual values in a material and mechanized civilization. Yank has been depicted also as everyman, a type which represents every individual human being with particular predicament. Yank is typical of the isolated and alienated proletariat in an urbanized and industrialized civilization all over the world. Yank is both individual and typed. According to Edwin Engel, “he is typical of the modern man, who continues redundantly—to be brutalized by machinery and industry.” He has not only become a machine; he has also lost faith in himself, but of the other characters who are found in the stokehole are just shadowlike. Only two of them have been given names, Paddy and Long, who represent different viewpoints regarding their present state and the state of contemporary machine age. They do not like Yank to think. That means they have lost their mental faculties as a result of the influence of the machine age. The other stokers have not been given any names. They are merely a chorus of voices; they speak together, and taken together they are expressive of the simple animal-like existence of the stokers. Thus as Yank sits thinking they advise him in unison: “Drink, don’t think.”

Mildred Douglas and her aunt have been depicted as the representatives of the artificial, bloodless and enervated capitalists, the symbols of artificiality, luxury and ease. Mildred has been pictured merely as an instrument of providing a shock to Yank by making a remark, “the filthy beast” about him. Yank’s mental state undergoes a profound change by this remark, and this change ultimately leads him to his tragedy and death.

The people of the rich class of the Fifth Avenue are mere autonomous, lifeless shadows. They are mere abstractions, they move about as if in a dream. They give an impression of the mechanical nature of the modern life. “The crowd from church enters from the right, sauntering slowly and affectedly, their heads held stiffly up, looking neither to the right nor left, talking in toneless, simpering voices. The women are rouged, calcimined, dyed, and overdressed to the nth degree. The men are in tail coats, tall hats, spats, canes etc. A procession of gaudy marionettes, yet with something of the relentless horror of Frankenstein’s in their detached, mechanical unawareness.” As they move about, they speak in chorus, and entirely ignore the existence of Yank, and thus help to heighten Yank’s sense of his own insignificance and his feeling of insecurity.


The prisoners whom Yank meets in the Blackwell Island are also shadowy. They have not been given any individuality. They are merely voices providing Yank with the information regarding the I.W.W. The Secretary of the I.W.W and other people in the office are equally lacking in individuality. The secretary talks of the use of constitutional means only and rejects the use of dynamite and violence as suggested by Yank. He represents the proletariat, touched and corrupted by politics as contrasted with Yank who stands for a class of workers still uninfluenced by politics, still enjoying its primitive animal-like simplicity.

Since The Hairy Ape is an expressionistic drama, only the character of Yank has been rendered life-like, combining the qualities of an individual and a type. All the other characters have been created merely as types representing some ideas or characteristics.

Properly speaking, even the character of Yank has not been fully three-dimensional, though it is quite life-like. It has not got the depth and roundness of a Hamlet or a Becky Sharp, or an Emma Bovary. Some of the other characters are flat, like the character of Mildred or her aunt, and some others are still less than flat, they are like shadows, or marionettes. However, within the length of a drama of this sort, O’Neill has given to hip character sufficient depth according to the importance of each character in the drama.