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The Hairy Ape

Eugene O'Neill

Character Analysis

Character List

Themes, Motifs and Symbols


The struggle of Yank, a fireman who works aboard a Transatlantic Liner, is the subject of The Hairy Ape. Yank, real name is Bob Smith, was born in New York City. Yank does not reveal many details of his family history, but, from what he does say, it is clear that it was painful. His mother died of the "tremens" and his father, a shore-worker, was abusive. Yank tells Long that on Saturday nights his parent's fighting was so intense that his parents would break the furniture. Ironically, his parents made him attend church every Sunday morning. After his mother died, Yank ran away from home, tired of lickings and punishment.

In the beginning of The Hairy Ape, Yank seems fairly content as, if not proud to be a fireman. He defends the ship as his home and insists that the work he does is vital—it is the force that makes the ship go twenty-five knots an hour. Mildred Douglas's reaction to Yank is the catalyst which makes Yank come to class awareness. His attempt to get revenge on Mildred Douglas widens to revenge on the steel industry and finally the entire Bourgeois. Throughout this struggle Yank defines "belonging" as power. When he thinks he "belongs" to something he gains strength, when Yank is rejected by a group, he is terribly weak. However, Yank is rejected by all facets of society: his fellow firemen, Mildred, the street goers of 5th Ave., The I.W.W., and finally the ape in the zoo. Yank symbolizes the struggle of modern man within industrial society—he cannot break class or ideological barriers, nor create new ones. Yank is the outsider, and eventually just the freak at the zoo for people to cage and point at.

Mildred Douglas

Mildred Douglas, the picture of piety and service, is anything but. Mildred is the pale and feeble daughter of the owner of Nazareth Steel. She has been lavishly spoiled and enjoyed every possible privilege money can buy. In college, Mildred studied sociology and is on a crusade to help the poor. Mildred has previously worked with the disadvantaged people in New York's Lower East Side. Mildred's Aunt is accompanying her to Europe where she will embark on more service projects. While on the Ocean Liner Mildred asks permission to visit the lower portions ship to view how the "other half" (Yank and the firemen) live. As if on a trip to the zoo, she wears a bright white dress down into the stokehole, ignoring the Engineer's warning that is will get dirty from the coal dust.

Although Mildred should be considered the antagonist of The Hairy Ape, she is equally victimized by class as Yank. Though Mildred has more education and cultural experience than Yank, she still cannot escape her cultural identity. Mildred describes herself as the waste of her father's steel company, as she has felt the benefits, but not the hard work that brought them. She shares with Yank the need to find a sense of usefulness or belonging—the fate of both characters were decided before they were born. Thus, Yank and Mildred desperately search to find an identity that is their own.

The failure of both these characters lies in their conscious and unconscious refusal to shed their values and knowledge while searching for a new identity. For example, Mildred will not change out of her white dress and Yank's coal dust is saturated into his skin.


Although Paddy only appears in The Hairy Ape in two scenes, he is an essential element of the play. Paddy is an old Irishman who likes to drink heavily, and he is known for his rendition of "Whiskey Johnny" and spouting philosophy and stories of the past when intoxicated. Although Paddy is quite a thinker, O'Neill describes Paddy's facial features as "extremely monkey—with the sad, patient pathos of that animal in his small eyes." Of the men on the ship Paddy could be considered the "extreme-monkey" because he has been doing labor jobs longer than most of the firemen—labor jobs fit for monkeys.

Paddy brings historical perspective to The Hairy Ape. His extensive monologue in Scene One details how shipping used to be aboard Clipper Ships. Without Paddy's presence the audience would not have as much perspective about the revolution brought about by machines. Paddy has experienced life on the sea that was free, where he was empowered and valued. Paddy, unlike many of the men, knows what it is like to not do slave labor.

Yank's continual references to Paddy as "dead" and "old" and not "belonging" with the other men aboard the Ocean Liner reveals Yank's own rejection of freedom. The acceptance and attachment to the modern-ship machine enslaves men like Yank. The need for belonging, without the knowledge of what else to belong to, is dangerous as exemplified by Yank's encounter with Mildred.

Paddy's characterization of Mildred in Scene Four demonstrates that he has real knowledge of the Bourgeois lifestyle. Paddy's description of Mildred's look and fainting spell in the stokehole defines Yank's own opinion of Mildred. Paddy's experiences let him have real opinions. While the development of one's opinion is definitely a process of age, it is also a benefit of freedom.

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conflict in scene I of the hairy ape

by inafree, October 30, 2013

What conflict are there in the scene I of the hairy ape play?


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