In the stokehole, the stokers stand before the furnaces. Whenever a whistle sounds from high above—issued in the darkness by an unseen engineer—they throw open the furnace doors and are hit with the staggering heat of the coal fires. For a short interval, they throw coal by the shovelful into furnaces and then close the doors, at which point they take a small break and wait for the next whistle. Paddy—who apparently left the forecastle after all—complains about the difficult work, saying that he is “destroyed entirely,” but Yank chastises him for this attitude, saying that he might as well lie down and die. At this point, the engineer’s whistle sounds, and Yank urges his fellow stokers to get back to shoveling, saying, “Come on, youse guys! Git into de game! She’s gittin’ hungry!”
Once again, Yank is gung-ho about his job as a stoker. By suggesting that Paddy might as well be dead, he frames a person’s work ethic as a sign of vitality, ultimately implying that anybody who doesn’t want to contribute to the capitalistic system in which he exists is hardly alive at all.
As he shovels, Yank speaks admiringly about the power of the coal, taking pleasure in the idea that he’s causing the ship to move at amazing speeds. When they finally slam the furnace doors closed for another break, Paddy once again complains, and the engineer blows the whistle after hardly any time at all. Shaking his fist into the darkness, Yank says, “Take it easy dere, you! Who d’yuh tinks runnin’ dis game, me or you? When I git ready, we move. Not before!” Hearing this, his coworkers cheer him on, and he says, “He ain’t got no noive. He’s yellow, get me? All de engineers is yellow.” Disparaging the engineers in this way, he turns around and opens the furnace doors, flinging coal into the “blazing heat.” As he does so, Mildred comes down with the engineers, still clad in her perfect white dress.
Despite Yank’s pride, it’s hard to deny that he’s wrong when he says that he is the one “runnin’ dis game.” Of course, it’s true that he and his fellow stokers are integral to the entire operation of keeping the ocean liner running, but there’s no changing the fact that Yank is not the boss. Since he exists as a laborer in a capitalist system, he must answer to people who rank higher than him, but he refuses to think this way, instead exalting himself as his own boss and insisting that he’s the one who calls the shots even when this is blatantly untrue.
Mildred stands directly behind Yank, but he doesn’t see her. Even as he stoops to get a new shovelful of coal, the engineer blows the whistle again, sending Yank into a blind rage while the rest of the men halt and stare at Mildred (which is the reason the engineer has blown the whistle in the first place). “Toin off dat whistle!” Yank howls with his shovel raised over his head and his free hand beating his chest in a “gorilla-like” fashion. Going on like this, his anger mounts and mounts, until he finally says, “I’ll slam yer nose trou de back of yer head! I’ll cut yer guts out for a nickel, yuh lousy boob, yuh dirty, crummy, muck-eatin’ son of a—” Suddenly, he realizes that the other stokers are staring at something behind him, so he whirls around and strikes a violent pose.
It's worth noting that O’Neill describes Yank as “gorilla-like” in this moment of his anger. His aggression, it seems, makes him seem unhuman, a notion that is important to bear in mind as the play advances, especially since Yank becomes so sensitive to the ways in which people perceive him as beastly. In this moment, his anger overtakes him and throws him into a fit, one that demonstrates the extent to which he uses violence to cope with his harsh environment.
Ready to kill the engineer he thinks is behind him, Yank is astounded to see Mildred standing there in her white dress. She appears to him “like a white apparition in the full light from the open furnace doors.” As she stares at him, she is horrified by his “gorilla face” and his “small eyes,” which are “gleaming ferociously.” Letting out a scream, Mildred shields her face. “Take me away!” she says, backing into the engineers. “Oh, the filthy beast!” Having said this, she faints, and the engineers rush her out of the stokehole. As she retreats, Yank becomes enraged once more, feeling himself “insulted in some unknown fashion in the very heart of his pride.” “God damn yuh!” he yells, throwing his shovel at the door through which Mildred has just disappeared. As it falls to the floor, the whistle sounds again from overhead.
This is a rather complex moment. First and foremost, Mildred’s reaction to seeing Yank draws upon classist prejudices, as she is revolted by his dirtiness and brazen behavior, both of which she’s unused to encountering in the protected world of her wealthy life. However, it’s worth noting that her fear is also somewhat legitimate, considering that Yank is screaming out violent threats with his shovel raised above his head. As such, it’s easy to see why this would scare her, since this kind of aggressive behavior would frighten almost anybody.