The Hairy Ape


Eugene O’Neill

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Themes and Colors
Pride, Identity, and Belonging Theme Icon
Exploitation, Oppression, and the Individual Theme Icon
Aggression and Stupidity Theme Icon
Progress and Happiness Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Hairy Ape, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Aggression and Stupidity Theme Icon

It’s hard to deny that The Hairy Ape centers around the fact that Yank is unintelligent. Indeed, the majority of the play’s plot-points are contingent upon his overall lack of intelligence. In many ways, then, it is a play about a man who doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to make his way through the world without getting himself into unnecessary altercations. In the absence of adequate reasoning and logical cognition, he turns to violence and aggression, which are celebrated in the ultra-masculine environment of the stokehole. Unsurprisingly, these aggressive tendencies eventually get Yank into trouble. However, it’s worth noting that he does try several times throughout the play to “think,” despite the fact that his fellow stokers discourage him from doing so. As such, O’Neill intimates that all humans—even those who discount the life of the mind—naturally engage in certain forms of philosophical inquiry. And since Yank dies largely because no one helps him work through his problems in a levelheaded way, it’s reasonable to say that The Hairy Ape outlines the dangers of ostracizing people because of their lack of intelligence.

The stokers who populate The Hairy Ape are aggressive and raucous, often resorting to violence to resolve even the most insignificant disagreements. This, O’Neill intimates, is simply a function of the hyper-masculine environment in which they exist, as he describes the stokehole in chaotic, visceral terms; “The room is crowded with men,” he writes in his opening stage note, “shouting, cursing, laughing, singing—a confused, inchoate uproar swelling into a sort of unity, a meaning—the bewildered, furious, baffled defiance of a beast in a cage.” What’s most interesting about this description is O’Neill’s attention to the ways in which chaos and raw energy can form “a sort of unity” and “meaning.” This suggests that calamity and aggression are the governing principles of the stokehole, a place where animalistic “bewilder[ment]” is common, an accepted mode of existence. O’Neill’s use of the word “baffled” is also noteworthy, since it carries connotations of confusion and an overall lack of comprehension, thereby indicating that intellectual thought does not reign supreme in the “furious” atmosphere of the stokehole. Instead, these men are busy “shouting, cursing, laughing, [and] singing,” acting like “beast[s] in a cage” instead of like thoughtful humans. 

O’Neill associates this beast-like aggression with intellectual simplicity. This outlook becomes evident when he describes the stokers’ physical appearance, writing, “The men themselves should resemble those pictures in which the appearance of Neanderthal Man is guessed at. All are hairy-chested, with long arms of tremendous power, and low, receding brows above their small, fierce, resentful eyes.” In this passage, O’Neill goes out of his way to portray the stokers as primitive, likening them to Neanderthals, who—although important in the evolution of homo sapiens—were thought to be less intelligent than modern humans. What’s more, O’Neill describes their eyes as “fierce” and “resentful,” two words that suggest they’re capable of sensing their own lack of intelligence, which they “resent” and try to cover up with “fierce” demeanors.

The idea that someone like Yank is capable of recognizing his own intellectual limits is made evident by the fact that he makes a concerted effort to “t’ink” several times throughout the play. As his coworkers drunkenly shout and sing, he says, “Nix on de loud noise. Can’t youse see I’m tryin’ to t’ink?” What, exactly, he’s trying to work out in his head isn’t clear, but the mere fact that he wants to sit by himself and reflect upon something is significant, as it implies that he isn’t entirely averse to intellectual thought. However, the aggressive and wild environment of the stokehole makes it hard for him to do this, especially since his coworkers mock him for trying to “t’ink.” “Drink, don’t think!” they chant until, finally, Long stands up for Yank and defends him by launching into his own thoughts, outlining rather complex ideas about their working conditions. Strangely enough, though, Yank immediately abandons his attempt to think, instead resorting to aggression and turning on Long. “Sit down before I knock yuh down!” he shouts. This exchange confirms that as soon as Yank encounters ideas he doesn’t resonate with, he abandons his attempt to “t’ink” and falls back into his “fierce,” macho persona.

Above all, Yank suffers because no one helps him develop his intellectual capacities. When he leaves the stokehole and ventures into the broader world, the aggression he has used as a crutch renders him unfit for society. As a result, he winds up in jail, and when he’s released, he finds himself with no one to turn to, since his stupidity makes it impossible for him to fit in. This, it seems, is partially why he goes to the zoo and tries to engage in a conversation with a gorilla, hoping that the animal will understand him. This is perhaps the only moment in the entire play that Yank shows his vulnerability by admitting his own lack of intelligence. “Tinkin’ is hard,” he confides to the gorilla. Unfortunately, the gorilla—like everyone else in Yank’s life—doesn’t care (or, in this case, can’t care) about helping him learn to work through his problems in intellectual, non-aggressive ways. And when the gorilla kills Yank, O’Neill underhandedly suggests that the primary tragedy of this man’s life rests on the fact that no one has nurtured his desire to think. In a cruel twist of fate, violence and aggression—the very things Yank uses to compensate for his stupidity—are what kill him, thereby making it impossible for him to “t’ink” at all.

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Aggression and Stupidity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Aggression and Stupidity appears in each scene of The Hairy Ape. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Aggression and Stupidity Quotes in The Hairy Ape

Below you will find the important quotes in The Hairy Ape related to the theme of Aggression and Stupidity.
Scene One Quotes

The room is crowded with men, shouting, cursing, laughing, signing—a confused, inchoate uproar swelling into a sort of unity, a meaning—the bewildered, furious, baffled defiance of a beast in a cage. […]

The treatment of this scene, or of any other scene in the play, should by no means be naturalistic. The effect sought after is a cramped space in the bowels of a ship, imprisoned by white steel. The lines of bunks, the uprights supporting them, cross each other like the steel framework of a cage. The ceiling crushes down upon the men’s heads. They cannot stand upright. This accentuates the natural stooping posture which shoveling coal and the resultant over-development of back and shoulder muscles have given them. The men themselves should resemble those pictures in which the appearance of Neanderthal Man is guessed at. All are hairy-chested, with long arms of tremendous power, and low, receding brows above their small, fierce, resentful eyes.

Related Characters: Yank, Paddy, Long
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

Dis is home, see? What d’yuh want wit home? (proudly) I runned away from mine when I was a kid. On’y too glad to beat it, dat was me. Home was lickings for me, dat’s all. But yuh can bet your shoit no one ain’t never licked me since! Wanter try it, any of youse? Huh! I guess not.

Related Characters: Yank (speaker)
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

Wanter know what I t’ink? Yuh ain’t no good for no one. Yuh’re de bunk. Yuh ain’t got no noive, get me? Yuh’re yellow, dat’s what. Yellow, dat’s you. Say! What’s dem slobs in de foist cabin got to do wit us? We’re better men dan dey are, ain’t we? Sure! One of us guys could clean up de whole mob wit one mit. Put one of ’em down here for one watch in de stokehole, what’d happen? Dey’d carry him off on a stretcher. Dem boids don’t amount to nothin’. Dey’re just baggage. Who makes dis old tub run? Ain’t it us guys? Well den, we belong, don’t we? We belong and dey don’t. Dat’s all. (A loud chorus of approval. Yank goes on.) As for dis bein’ hell—aw, nuts! Yuh lost your novie, dat’s what. Dis is a man’s job, get me? It belongs. It runs dis tub. No stiffs need apply. But yuh’re a stiff, see? Yuh’re yellow, dat’s you.

Related Characters: Yank (speaker), Long
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene Three Quotes

There is a tumult of noise—the brazen clang of the furnace doors as they are flung open or slammed shut, the grating, teeth-gritting grind of steel against steel, of crunching coal. This clash of sounds stuns one’s ears with its rending dissonance. But there is order in it, rhythm, a mechanical regulated recurrence, a tempo. And rising above all, making the air hum with the quiver of liberated energy, the roar of leaping flames in the furnaces, the monotonous throbbing beat of the engines.

Related Characters: Yank
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

He whirls defensively with a snarling, murderous growl, crouching to spring, his lips drawn back over his teeth, his small eyes gleaming ferociously. He sees Mildred, like a white apparition in the full light from the open furnace doors. He glares into her eyes, turned to stone. As for her, during his speech she has listened, paralyzed with horror, terror, her whole personality crushed, beaten in, collapsed, by the terrific impact of this unknown, abysmal brutality, naked and shameless. As she looks at his gorilla face, as his eyes bore into hers, she utters a low, choking cry and shrinks away from him, putting both hands up before her eyes to shut out the sight of his face, to protect her own. This startles Yank to a reaction. His mouth falls open, his eyes grow bewildered.

Related Characters: Yank, Mildred Douglas
Related Symbols: Mildred’s White Dress
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene Four Quotes

And there she was standing behind us, and the Second pointing at us like a man you’d hear in a circus would be saying: In this cage is a queerer kind of baboon than ever you’d find in darkest Africy. We roast them in their own sweat—and be damned if you won’t hear some of thim saying they like it! (He glances scornfully at Yank.)


’Twas love at first sight, divil a doubt of it! If you’d seen the endearin’ look on her pale mug when she shriveled away with her hands over her eyes to shut out the sight of him! Sure, ’twas as if she’d seen a great hairy ape escaped from the Zoo!

Related Characters: Paddy (speaker), Yank, Mildred Douglas, Second Engineer
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene Five Quotes

LONG—(as disgusted as he dares to be) Ain’t that why I brought yer up ’ere—to show yer? Yer been actin’ an’ talkin’ ’s if it was all a bleedin’ personal matter between yer and that bloody cow. I wants to convince yer she was on’y a representative of ’er clarss. I wants to awaken yer bloody clarss consciousness. Then yer’ll see it’s ’er clarss yer’ve got to fight, not ’er alone. There’s a ’ole mob of ’em like ’er, Gawd blind ’em!

YANK—(spitting on his hands—belligerently) De more de merrier when I gits started. Bring on de gang!

Related Characters: Long (speaker), Yank, Mildred Douglas
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

LONG—(excitedly) Church is out. ’Ere they come, the bleedin’ swine. (after a glance at Yank’s face—uneasily) Easy goes, Comrade. Keep yer bloomin’ temper. Remember force defeats itself. It ain’t our weapon. We must impress our demands through peaceful means—the votes of the on-marching proletarians of the bloody world!

YANK—(with abysmal contempt) Votes, hell! Votes is a joke, see. Votes for women! Let dem do it!

Related Characters: Yank, Long
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

Many police whistles shrill out on the instant and a whole platoon of policemen rush in on Yank from all sides. He tries to fight but is clubbed to the pavement and fallen upon. The crowd at the window have not moved or noticed this disturbance. The clanging gong of the patrol wagon approaches with a clamoring din.

Related Characters: Yank
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene Six Quotes

“They plot with fire in one hand and dynamite in the other. They stop not before murder to gain their ends, nor at the outraging of defenseless womanhood. They would tear down society, put the lowest scum in the seats of the mighty, turn Almighty God’s revealed plan for the world topsy-turvy, and make of our sweet and lovely civilization a shambles, a desolation where man, God’s masterpiece, would soon degenerate back to the ape!”

Related Characters: Yank, The Prisoner
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene Seven Quotes

SECRETARY—President of the Steel Trust, you mean? Do you want to assassinate him?

YANK—Naw, dat don’t get yuh nothin’. I mean blow up de factory, de woiks, where he makes de steel. Dat’s what I’m after—to blow up de steel, knock all de steel in de woild up to de moon. Dat’ll fix tings! (eagerly, with a touch of bravado) I’ll do it by me lonesome! I’ll show yuh! Tell me where his woiks is, how to git there, all de dope. Gimme de stuff, de old butter—and watch me do de rest! Watch de smoke and see it move! I don’t give a damn if dey nab me—long as it’s done! I’ll soive life for it—and give ’em de laugh! (half to himself) And I’ll write her a letter and tell her de hairy ape done it. Dat’ll square tings.

Related Characters: Yank, Mildred Douglas, The IWW Secretary
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

So dem boids don’t tink I belong, neider. Aw to hell wit ’em! Dey’re in de wrong pew—de same old bull—soapboxes and Salvation Army—no guts! Cut out an hour offen de job a day and make me happy! Gimme a dollar more a day and make me happy! Gimme a dollar more a day and make me happy! Tree square a day, and cauliflowers in de front yard—ekal rights—a woman and kids—a lousy vote—and I’m all fixed for Jesus, huh? Aw, hell! What does dat get yuh? Dis ting’s in your inside, but it ain’t your belly. Feedin’ your face—sinkers and coffee—dat don’t touch it. It’s way down—at de bottom. Yuh can’t grab it, and yuh can’t stop it. It moves, and everything moves. It stops and de whole woild stops. Dat’s me now—I don’t tick, see?—I’m a busted Ingersoll, dat’s what. Steel was me, and I owned de woild. Now I ain’t steel, and de woild owns me. Aw, hell! I can’t see—it’s all dark, get me? It’s all wrong!

Related Characters: Yank (speaker)
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene Eight Quotes

On’y yuh’re lucky, see? Yuh don’t belong wit’ em and yuh know it. But me, I belong wit ’em—but I don’t, see? Dey don’t belong wit me, dat’s what. Get me? Tinkin’ is hard—(He passes one hand across his forehead with a painful gesture. The gorilla growls impatiently. Yank goes on gropingly.) It’s dis way, what I’m drivin’ at. Youse can sit and dope dream in de past, green woods, de jungle and de rest of it. Den yuh belong and dey don’t. Den yuh kin laugh at ’em, see? Yuh’re de champ of de woild. But me—I ain’t got no past to tink in, nor nothin’ dat’s comin’, on’y what’s now—and dat don’t belong. Sure, you’re de best off! Yuh a bluff at talkin’ and tinkin’—a’most git away wit it—a’most!—and dat’s where de joker comes in.

Related Characters: Yank (speaker)
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis: