Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” explores several major themes, including the alienation and dehumanization of the working class, the struggle for identity and belonging, and the destructive consequences of class conflict.
One of the most prominent themes in the play is the alienation and dehumanization of the working class. The character of Yank, a ship laborer who feels disconnected from society, embodies this theme. Yank is portrayed as being more comfortable with the machinery of the ship than with his own humanity. He feels that he is nothing more than a “hairy ape” and that his worth is defined solely by his ability to work. Yank’s sense of alienation is further exacerbated by the upper class, who view the working class as inferior and treat them accordingly.
The struggle for identity and belonging is another key theme in the play. Yank’s journey is a quest to find his place in the world, to understand who he is and where he belongs. Yank’s sense of self is tied to his physical strength and his ability to work, but he comes to realize that these attributes are not enough to give him a sense of identity and purpose. His encounter with Mildred Douglas, a wealthy woman who looks down on him, forces him to confront the fact that he is not a part of her world and never will be. This realization leads Yank to question his own identity and to feel even more alienated from society.
The theme of class conflict is also central to the play. Yank’s violent outbursts and his eventual imprisonment for attacking Mildred Douglas highlight the destructive consequences of class conflict and the sense of hopelessness felt by working-class people who believe they are powerless to change their situation. O’Neill critiques both the upper and middle classes for their indifference to the struggles of the working poor and for their complicity in perpetuating the systems of oppression that keep the working class in poverty.
Another important theme in the play is the quest for social justice and equality. Yank’s encounter with the IWW, a labor organization that seeks to unite workers across industries and borders, represents the potential for social change and the need for a more inclusive and empathetic social order. O’Neill critiques the limitations of the labor movement of the time, but also highlights the importance of solidarity and the need for working-class people to band together in the face of oppression.
Finally, the theme of fate and determinism is also present in the play. Yank’s tragic journey can be seen as the result of a deterministic worldview that suggests that his fate is predetermined by his social status and his class. Yank’s tragic flaw, his inability to understand the nature of his own identity and his place in society, leads him to a tragic end that seems inevitable. The play suggests that Yank’s fate is not only determined by his own limitations, but by the larger social and economic forces that keep him and the working class in a state of perpetual alienation and oppression.
In conclusion, “The Hairy Ape” explores several major themes related to the struggles and alienation of the working class, the quest for identity and belonging, and the destructive consequences of class conflict. O’Neill’s use of symbolism and his biting critique of modern society underscore the importance of social justice and the need for a more inclusive and empathetic social order. Through its exploration of these themes, “The Hairy Ape” remains a powerful and timeless work that speaks to the ongoing struggles of the working class and the need for social justice and equality.