Symbolism in the Hairy Ape the Hairy Essay

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Symbolism in the Hairy Ape

The Hairy Ape is an expressionist play by Eugene O'Neill and was produced and published in 1922. It is a symbolic work that deals with the themes of social alienation and search for identity in the presence of technological progress (Cardullo 258). The play speaks to the industrialization that was taking place during that era. In an expressionistic play, the number of characters is kept minimal and attention is focused on a central figure with other supporting characters included but not individualized or fully developed. They serve merely as background voices to help highlight the central character's conflict. Most characters are simply representative types or members of groups and symbolic of class structures in society.

Yank, the central character and hero of The Hairy Ape, is a representative of modern workers who felt socially alienated and questioned their purpose and position in larger society. O'Neil uses Yank and other characters to symbolize all the ways in which industrialized man has lost his sense of harmony with nature and his overall purpose. Yank is symbolic of modern humanity in an industrialized society - a comment about the ways modern civilization has affected psychological well-being and robbed mankind of pride in his work.

Yank is presented as the brutal, ignorant and profane leader of the stokers huddled in the cramped living space of a transatlantic liner. All of the stokers symbolize the end-product of a society that has become passive in an age of machines. They do not recognize that their quarters resemble the steel framework of a cage or that they themselves resemble primitive man (Cardullo 259). When the play opens, Yank is identifying himself with steel, a symbol for motion and speed which he likens to his own life. He declares: "I'm smoke and express trains and steamers and factory whistles & #8230;.
. And I'm what makes iron into steel; steel dat stands for the whole thing! And I'm steel-steel-steel! I'm de muscles in steel, de punch behind it!" (The Hairy Ape: A Comedy of Ancient and Modern Life in Eight Scenes. The Modern Library of the World's Best Books, New York, page 98.) This is where he feels he belongs.

O'Neill is suggesting that all human beings in the modern, industrialized world are somehow distorted. Workers are reduced to the level of animals living in inhumane conditions. Similarly, the rich are distorted and presented as mere puppets that are out of touch with reality. The vanity and ineptness of the privileged is symbolized through Mildred Douglas, daughter of the ship's owner. She ventures into the stokehole in an attempt to go slumming and is ultimately shocked by the conditions and atmosphere. She even faints upon a course exchange with Yank. Mildred and her family are symbolic of the artificiality created by the mechanized world (Cardullo 260). Further, the encounter with Mildred reveals to Yank that there is a privileged and elevated world that exists and in which he does not belong. Suddenly his illusion that he is a part of the engine or the moving force behind it is shattered. He has become completely adapted to and comfortable with his garish environment and begins to believe his friend Paddy who affectionately refers to….....

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