Symbolism in The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neill

Symbolism in The Hairy Ape

Symbolism in The Hairy Ape

Symbolism: Its Nature and Function

Symbolism may be defined as the use of any part of a play- character incident, setting, language, etc.- to suggest an idea or ideas not conveyed by the surface story. In this way, the use of symbolism enables a dramatist to enclose vast concept within little space. It enables him to suggest the deeper reality and the profounder significance of his theme. It imparts depth and richness of texture to his plays. Even in his earliest plays O’Neill had used symbolism. However, it is in The Hairy Ape and other subsequent plays that symbolism has been used with great effect and mastery. Symbolism runs throughout the play from the beginning to the end.

Yank as a Complex Symbol

Yank, the central character in the play, is a complex symbol, as he symbolizes not one, but a number of ideas. First, Yank is a stoker and he symbolizes their most perfect individuality. He is superior to them in muscle and strength, and he is more adjusted to his work than they are. He is the ideal stoker, an ideal to which all stokers should try to approximate. Secondly, he symbolizes the proletariat, the have-not, working in most difficult and oppressive conditions, producing the wealth on which the rich flourish and live in luxury.

Thirdly, he symbolizes the animal-nature of man, the instinct and impulses, which man has inherited from his biological ancestor, the hairy ape. He is hairy chested and has immense physical strength. Fourthly, he stands for the primitive in perfect harmony with nature, with his work and with his environment. Fifthly, he symbolizes Everyman, his attitudes and impulses, and what happens to him is happening to man everywhere in the modern machine age.

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Confrontation with Mildred: Its Symbolic Significance

Mildred Douglas symbolizes the rich capitalist class living an artificial life of comfort and luxury, enervated and anaemic, incapable of any originality or vigorous action. The confrontation of Mildred and Yank symbolizes the modern class conflict, the confrontation of the rich capitalist class and the proletariat, gradually becoming class conscious and clamouring for rights. This confrontation results in Yank’s loss of belongingness, symbolic of the modern workers’ loss of harmony, and creative joy in his mechanical work, a work in which the individual worker plays as insignificant a part as a clog in a machine. His feeling of frustration and alienation is symbolic of the feeling of the industrial worker in the contemporary machine age. His personality begins to disintegrate, and he feels he is a prisoner in a cage of that very steel which he himself has produced. The stokehole, the foreman’s-castle, the Fifth Avenue sky-scrapper, the cell in the prison all made of steel, are all symbolic of the ‘cage’ in which man is imprisoned in the contemporary materialistic and commercialized age.

Language as Symbol

The language used is also symbolic. Mildred called Yank a ‘filthy beast’, and she looked towards him as if she regarded him as a ‘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 beats of 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 Symbolic Value of the Setting

The setting of the play is equally symbolic. Thus in the very first scene the description of the stokehole is intended to convey an impression of cramped space, of over-crowding. Yank and the other stokers are not quite human. There is something ape-like about them. This is symbolized by the following description:

“The men themselves should resemble those pictures in which the appearance of Neanderthal Man is guessed at. All are hairy- chested with long arms of tremendous power, and low, receding brows above their small, fierce resentful eyes. All the civilized white races are represented, but except for the slight differentiation in colour of hair, skin, eyes, all these men are alike.”

Yank is the only character in the play who comes to life; the other characters merely provide the setting which throws the personality of Yank into sharp relief. They are reduced to a mere chorus of voices, a mere insignificant chatter symbolic of the idle gossip of everyday, social life. It also suggests the monotony and dreariness of modern life and its deadening effect on human sensibility. The stokehole, the sky-scrapper in the Fifth Avenue, the prison cells etc., are equally symbolic and suggestive of Yank’s increasing sense of himself as a hairy ape, confined within a cage of steel which he himself has produced. Similarly the picture of the denizens of the Fifth Avenue,

“The crowd from church enter from the right, sauntering slowly and affectedly their heads half stiffly up, looking neither to right nor left, talking in toneless, simpering voices. The women are rouged, calcimined, dyed, 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 in their detached, mechanical unawareness” is equally symbolic. It stands for the mental vacuity, and the mechanical, purposeless nature of life in the machine age.

Symbolism in the Last Scene: Its Defect

The action of the play develops rapidly through eight short scenes, and the symbol of Yank as an ape receives increasing emphasis. In the last scene, the symbol is visually presented, in the shape of the gorilla in its cage. Since the fateful moment of his confrontation with Mildred, Yank has always seen himself as a hairy ape, the obsession has continued to grow, and now it confronts him visually in the form of the gorilla with whom he shakes hands and whom he calls a brother. It is all so weird and fantastic, and so unconvincing. It might symbolize psychological regression, a psychological retracing of the stages of human evolution from the ape, but we will have to acknowledge that this theatrical and melodramatic scene fails to secure the involvement of the readers. It is an error of judgment on the part of the author: to feel with Yank in his perplexity now, as we did before, we must also feel sympathy and respect for the animal, and this is hardly possible. During this scene, we stand outside the play. We hear every remark as outsiders, because we hear it without feeling. The emotional crisis of the opening of the cage in such an atmosphere arrives as an anticlimax.

“That Yank can go neither forward nor backward is a remote idea that might well defy a delicate poetic elucidation, which the writer can’t give it here because of the restrictions in the dialogue of his illiterate characters. Are we to see the cage as a destiny for society, and ourselves a Yank, just as Yank sees himself as the gorilla? None of this is successfully dramatized.”


In short, The Hairy Ape is a symbolic play in which character, setting and dialogue all combine to interpret man’s fate in the contemporary world. By the use of symbolism the dramatist has universalized his theme. It is a play which would always give thrills to theatre-audiences.

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