Theme of Alienation and Quest for Identity in The Hairy Ape

Theme of Alienation and Quest for Identity in The Hairy Ape

The Hairy Ape Themes

Alienation: The Major Theme of O’Neill

Man is a gregarious animal. A sense of stability, of security, of belongingness is necessary for his happiness and tranquility. He must have his moorings somewhere, in some home, in the love and affection of parents, friends and other relatives. When this sense of ‘belongingness’, this sense of harmony, is lost for one reason or the other, man suffers from a feeling of insecurity and loss of confidence. He feels orphaned, defrauded and at bay. There was little stability of background in O’Neill’s own life and this accounts for the fact that alienation or loss of identity is the basic theme of most of his major plays. Alienated from their immediate environment, feeling lonely and isolated and unhappy, his characters constantly search for identity, for belongingness, and disintegrate and decay, when they fail to achieve such identity.

Yank’s Initial Sense of Belongingness

Alienation and search for identity is also the basic theme of the Hairy Ape; In the opening scene of the play, we find that Yank is quite confident and proud of his superior strength. He exercises great authority over his fellow- stokers, who respect his superior physical capacity and obey him and are afraid of him. Yank is quite satisfied, for, as he himself puts it, he ‘belongs’, while they do not ‘belong’. He harbours no destructive romantic illusions. He does not seek any escape into a romantic past of Paddy’s dream, or the Utopia of Long’s dream when the present wrongs would be righted through constitutional means. He is in perfect harmony with his work, and proud of the fact that he can eat smoke and coal and make the ship run at 24 knots an hour.

The Shattering Confrontation with Mildred

But Yank’s sense of security, his sense of belongingness is soon shattered as he is confronted with Mildred Douglas who looks at him as if he were an ‘hairy ape’ and who calls him a filthy beast. It is now that Yank becomes aware of the fact that he does not “belong”. He finds out that while he has been doing his work the world has been gradually but quite rapidly revolutionized by machinery, a revolution that has not carried him with it. He finds that a new world which disregards human rights and aspirations has left him stranded. The one thing which made his life endurable was that he felt that he “belonged”, that he was a necessary, vital and human part of a social order. But now he realises that he counts for nothing as an individual. Says Winther, “If he could have reasoned it out clearly, he would have known that. as soon as a machine known as an automatic stoker could be invented, he would be thrown overboard. He would have known that the progress of invention is for the benefit of those who exploit the workers and not for the good of society as a whole. And this is not Yank’s problem alone, but the problem of our whole social system. There are literally millions of men and women who are blood relations of Yank in this modern industrial world. Like Yank they have grown up in the faith that they “belonged”:

“that they were a necessary and respected part of a social order, but they have lived to find out that they are nothing of the kind.”

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Yank in the Fifth Avenue

Like Yank in the Fifth Avenue, countless others stand on the sidewalks of the world, desolate, abandoned, even hated and despised for being something they did not ask to be. “They are forced to listen to the empty talk which flows like a garbage-choked river from the vacuous minds of the protected ones.” Like Yank they must listen, as he listened one bright Sunday morning on Fifth Avenue, while the fat ones came past him talking of the church service in the following manner:

“Dear Doctor Caiaphas! He is so sincere!

What was the sermon? I dozed off.

About the radicals, my dear-and the false

doctrines that are being preached.

We must organize a hundred per cent American bazar

And let everyone contribute one-hundredth percent of their income tax.

What an original idea!

We can devote the proceeds to rehabilitating the veil of the temple.

But that has been done so many times.”

Nothing could reflect more clearly than does this scene the utter bankruptcy. of the modern system to deal with the problem that confronts Yank and millions of others. The system has evolved beyond control and each day the gap between Yank and his needs grows wider. More and more the Yanks of the world realise that they do not belong.

The Psychological Impact of the Machine Age

In The Hairy Ape O’Neill reveals himself in sympathy with this search for identity. According to Winther, in this play the dramatist examines in full the psychological implications of the machine age. His predecessors might have shown how Yank lost his job and finally through starvation was led to crime to support himself and family, or some similar theme. But it should be remembered that Yank’s problem was not loss of work. He could have had all the work he wanted. Furthermore, O’Neill does not appeal to the emotions by having Yank lose a sweetheart, mother, or children. Yank is alone as far as any family connections are concerned. It is not work that Yank is seeking. What Yank wants is to know that he “belongs”. He wants to find out what it is that has happened to the world which separates him from the realization that what he is doing is a necessary and a fitting part of the life of the world.

In pursuit of the answer to this problem he receives blows and insults no insult greater than that which is expressed in the typical speech of the senator who attributes to the workers all the sins of which he and his class are guilty. The real danger to modern civilization is the stupidity and timidity of the ruling classes. Therein lies the real drama of this play. Yank is more than an individual. He is a symbol of the deep protest that rises like a wave against the whole structure of modern civilization. He is man crying out against a system which has not only exploited man’s body but his spirit as well. The play is not a protest against low wages and unemployment, but it is a condemnation of the whole structure of machine civilization, a civilization which succeeds only when it destroys the psychological well-being of those who make it possible. It is this which gives the play universality and enlists the sympathy and understanding of the audience.

Yank was not concerned about distribution-vitally important as that is he wanted to be a creative part of the social structure, and no man working in the stokehole of a liner, or making the two hundred and fifty-sixth part of a shoe in regulation eight-hour shifts can ever “belong” in the same sense that man belonged as a creative worker in the eighteenth century. Yank is a protest against the mordant success of the machine age.

Yank’s Rejection by the I.W.W.

O’Neill makes this clear as Yank moves from one defeat to another, striving vainly to find some answer to his problem. In prison he heard of the I.W.W. and thought to find among them an answer. They threw him into the street, just as the Communists of today would deny him a place. “The Communists would not accept Yank, because Yank is an individualist, not a party man. What he wants is to be a creative worker proud of what he as an individual has created.”


Yank’s speech after he has been thrown from the I.W.W.’s headquarters is an explicit summary of the whole situation. O’Neill shows that wages, distribution, shorter hours and all the rest of it is no solution. Yank in the pose of Rodin’s “The Thinker” reviews the whole situation, ending by admitting that his greatest crime was that of being born. Yank speaks, referring first to the men who threw him out into the street.

Yank’s Rejection by the Hairy Ape

Yank is rejected by society, he does not belong to the world of man. But he cannot exist in isolation. He must have his moorings somewhere, if not in the world of man, then at least in the world of the brutes. Since Yank cannot move back and belong to man, he must move down and seek companionship with the brute creation. Perhaps he would belong there. Search for identity becomes an obsession with him and ultimately it takes him to the Zoo. There he stands face to face with a gorilla in its cage, talks to it as to a brother because he thinks that they both belong to the same club, the “Club of the hairy apes”. He shakes hand with it and sets it free. But alas! The gorilla crushes him to death. It does not think that Yank ‘belongs’. Yank’s quest for identity, fittingly ends with his death.


In short, The Hairy Ape dramatizes an important aspect of the human predicament in the machine age. Man does not live by bread alone, spiritual health and well-being are also necessary. Man can be lonely even in a crowd. The tragedy of Yank is the tragedy of millions in the modern age.

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