Skip over navigation

The Hairy Ape

Eugene O'Neill

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

How does O'Neill use voices and nameless characters in the play? How do these "voices" comment on the text?

O'Neill uses "voices" in The Hairy Ape to emphasize specific class structures and groups within the play. Yank aurally and physically stands out against these "voices," dramatically revealing his displacement and detachment from society at large. Yank does not "join in" with the other firemen laughing and joking in Scene One. On 5th Avenue Yank certainly does not "fit in" with the noise of the street goers, talking about church and monkey fur. And, lastly, Yank confronts voices, perhaps most strikingly, in Scene six as he sits in jail. The voices of Yank's inmates a nameless and faceless group that scorn and laugh at him. In each situation Yank encounters a force that opposes him, which he cannot "join."

How do symbols function within the Hairy Ape? Why do you think O'Neill chose to use such heavy symbolism in the text? How do they work thematically? Give specific examples of three symbols in the text, why you think O'Neill chose them and how they comment on theme.

Symbols within The Hairy Ape are an expressionistic means to communicate and indicate abstract ideas with concrete "things." For instance, Mildred's white dress symbolically represents the artificiality and detachment of the aristocracy. Her dress makes a literal black and white contrast between herself and the coal-dusted men. Another symbol, the Transatlantic Liner, reveals the world as a big boat—complete with a "first class" on the top deck and workers below in the bowels of the ship. Steel is yet another symbol in the play, simultaneously representing great strength, industrialization and the repression of the working class. These symbols are vital because they strengthen and heighten Yank's struggle and visually signify class structure and the effects of industry on the worker.

Why does O'Neill choose to place Yank in the position of Rodin's "The Thinker"? How does this comment on the life of the industrial worker and Yank's capability for thought?

Rodin's statue "The Thinker" is perhaps society's most distinguishable symbol of thought. By taking the "attitude" of the statue in the play Yank reveals his attempt to "ape" or copy thought. In reality he does not know how to do it otherwise. While he physically embodies the cultural symbol of a "thinker" he cannot think himself. Every time O'Neill's stage direction calls for the actor to take the position of "The Thinker" Yank has met an obstacle that cannot be tackled by any other means but thought—when Yank cannot process the realities before him. After Yank is thrown out of the I.W.W. he immediately gets into "The Thinker" pose. He is desperate to make sense of his situation and to understand why the union would throw him out. Because Yank cannot process the problems before him, he is sent reeling backward on the evolutionary path—unable to function in modern society.

The real ape in Scene Eight is the only other character that takes "The Thinker" position. The ape is not included in the class or social structures of the human world. Like Yank, he sits in a cage and perhaps wonders how he can join the rest of society and like his human counterpart, imitates what humans define as thought. The Ape, by sharing this habitual body position reflects on Yanks own animalistic state—his mode of thought is no more advanced than the ape's.

Suggested Essay Topics

Look at O'Neill's stage directions. How are they important to one's reading of the play?

Describe the language of Senator Queen's speech. What specific imagery and phrases might appeal to Yank? Why?

In your opinion, does Yank finally find a sense of "belonging"? Is "belonging" possible? How does Yank define "belonging"? Does this change throughout the text?

Mildred Douglas' father is said to work for two different steel companies. Why do you suppose O'Neill added this detail? How does is comment thematically?

How might the Transatlantic Liner be representative of a specific worldview?

How do characters feel about Hell? Pick two characters and compare their views on hell and how this is indicative of their class status.

Why would O'Neill describe Paddy as "extremely monkey-like"? What does this say about Paddy's character and history?

More Help

Previous Next
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?

Follow Us