The Hairy Ape


Eugene O’Neill

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Exploitation, Oppression, and the Individual Theme Analysis

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.
Exploitation, Oppression, and the Individual Theme Icon

The Hairy Ape illustrates that capitalism often exploits individuals by setting them up to participate in their own oppression. Showcasing the ways in which Yank fails to recognize his disadvantages, O’Neill suggests that capitalist systems create false narratives about individuality and empowerment, ultimately convincing people like Yank that they are toiling for their own good when, in truth, their labor primarily benefits the wealthy. Yank believes that his work empowers him as an individual, and this is why he refuses to listen to his coworkers Paddy and Long when they try to convince him that they’re all merely “feeding [their] lives” to employers who don’t care about them. As Yank argues against this notion, though, he only demonstrates the extent to which he has internalized the very ideas that keep him from acknowledging his own oppression. As a result, his belief that he’s a valued individual is exactly what blinds him to the fact that he isn’t valued at all. In turn, O’Neill showcases how hard it is for a person to recognize their own disadvantages while existing in an exploitative system.

In the first scene of The Hairy Ape, O’Neill delivers a critique of capitalism by outlining the exploitative tactics of the capitalist (bourgeoisie) class. Before analyzing the play itself, it’s important to understand a key concept of The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, since O’Neill draws heavily from this text. Marx and Engels uphold that the bourgeoisie own the “means of production,” or everything (materials, facilities, machinery) required to create things that sell. However, these “means of production” are worthless in and of themselves, as workers are required to make actual sellable products. These workers are everyday laborers (the proletariat). According to Marx and Engels, then, the proletariat’s work is what generates wealth in society, but the bourgeoisie are the ones who reap the benefits. What’s more, Marx and Engels maintain that the bourgeoisie refrain from paying proletarians enough money to own the “means of production” themselves, effectively exploiting laborers and making sure they’ll never become upwardly mobile enough to benefit from their own work. In other words, the proletariat is the key to the capitalist class’s wealth, but the bourgeoisie will never share that wealth with them.

These ideas arise in The Hairy Ape when one of Yank’s fellow stokers, Long, tries to explain to him that they are all being exploited by the wealthy owners of the ocean liner. “Them’s the ones,” he says. “They dragged us down ’til we’re on’y wage slaves in the bowels of a bloody ship, sweatin’, burnin’ up, eatin’ coal dust! Hit’s them’s ter blame—the damned Capitalist clarss!” By saying this, Long points out that the wealthy people that make up “the damned Capitalist clarss” don’t care that everyone is “born free and ekal.” Rather, they only focus on forcing people like Yank and his coworkers to work as “wage slaves.” Of course, if the stokers refused to work for such low pay, the bourgeoise owners would have to pay them fairly, since they need people like them to operate their “means of production.” However, this would require people like Yank to refuse to continue working in such dismal and unjust conditions.

Unfortunately, this is something Yank is unwilling to do because he believes his role as a stoker is valuable in and of itself. As such, he’s uninterested in recognizing the patterns of exploitation and oppression that plague his world. Instead of stopping to consider Long’s critique, he buys into the competitive, individualistic spirit of capitalism. “I’ve listened to lots of guys like you, see,” he says to Long. “Yuh’re all wrong. 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?” Invigorated by thinking of himself as tougher and more able-bodied than the capitalist class, Yank unknowingly plays directly into the kind of thinking that the bourgeoisie depend upon in order to continue profiting off of people like him. “We run de whole woiks,” he insists, lampooning his coworkers for questioning their own importance. By framing Paddy and Long’s thoughtful criticisms of capitalism as nothing more than cowardliness, then, Yank ultimately makes it harder for his fellow proletarians to unite and effect change. 

O’Neill suggests that this kind of exploitative capitalism thrives when people like Yank and his coworkers refuse to think about the broader economic structures of their world. Even when Yank tries to join a labor union later in the play, he does so for the wrong reasons, signing up because he thinks doing so will help him get revenge on Mildred—a motive that only further reveals his inability to think about anything other than himself. Paddy, for his part, picks up on this individualistic mindset, mocking Yank by singing a traditional folk song that includes the lyrics, “I care for nobody, no, not I, / And nobody cares for me.” These two lines perfectly encapsulate the kind of individualistic thinking that the capitalist class needs the proletariat to adopt—after all, if no one in the working class “cares” about one another, then they won’t come together to fight against the exploitative economic system in which they exist.

Unfortunately, Yank is too caught up in this competitive and self-important mentality to even recognize Paddy’s irony, and so he merely says, “Dat’s de stuff! Now yuh’re getting’ wise to somep’n. Care for nobody, dat’s de dope!” Going on, he adds that he can “care for” himself. Wholeheartedly believing that he “run[s] de whole [works],” he sees no reason to challenge the economic system. Simply put, his belief that he is valuable is exactly what enables his bosses to continue devaluing him. In turn, O’Neill shows just how difficult it is to identify oppression while existing within the exploitative structures of capitalism.

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Exploitation, Oppression, and the Individual ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Hairy Ape related to the theme of Exploitation, Oppression, and the Individual.
Scene One Quotes

This is ’ell. We lives in ’ell,—Comrades—and right enough we’ll die in it. (raging) And who’s ter blame, I arks yer? We ain’t. We wasn’t born this rotten way. All men is born free and ekal. That’s in the bleedin’ Bible, maties. But what d’they care for the Bible—them lazy, bloated swine what travels first cabin? Them’s the ones. They dragged us down ’til we’re on’y wage slaves in the bowels of a bloody ship, sweatin’, burnin’ up, eatin’ coal dust! Hit’s them’s ter blame—the damned Capitalist clarss!

Related Characters: Long (speaker), Yank
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:

Yerra, what’s the use of talking? ’Tis a dead man’s whisper. (to Yank resentfully) ’Twas them days a ship was part of the sea, and a man was part of a ship, and the sea joined all together and made it one. (scornfully) Is it one wid this you’d be, Yank—black smoke from the funnels smudging the sea, smudging the decks—the bloody engines pounding and throbbing and shaking—wid divil a sight of sun or a breath of clean air—choking our lungs wid coal dust—breaking our backs and hearts in the hell of the stokehole—feeding the bloody furnace—feeding our lives along wid the coal, I’m thinking—caged in by steel from a sight of the sky like bloody apes in the Zoo! (with a harsh laugh) Ho-ho, divil mend you! Is it to belong to that you’re wishing? Is it a flesh and blood wheel of the engines you’d be?

Related Characters: Paddy (speaker), Yank
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:

Everyting else dat makes de woild move, somep’n makes it move. It can’t move witout somep’n else, see? Den yuh get down to me. I’m at de bottom, get me! Dere ain’t nothin’ foither. I’m de end! I’m de start! I start somep’n and de woild moves! It—dat’s me!—de new dat’s moiderin’ de old! I’m de ting in coal dat makes it boin; I’m steam and oil for de engines; I’m de ting in gold dat makes it money! And I’m what makes iron into steel! Steel, dat stands for de whole ting! And I’m steel—steel—steel!

Related Characters: Yank (speaker), Paddy, Long
Page Number: 151
Explanation and Analysis:

PADDY—(begins to sing the “Miller of Dee” with enormous good nature)

“I care for nobody, no, not I,
And nobody cares for me.”

YANK—(good-natured himself in a flash, interrupts Paddy with a slap on the bare back like a report) Dat’s de stuff! Now yuh’re gettin’ wise to somep’n. Care for nobody, dat’s de dope! To hell wit ’em all! And nix on nobody else carin’. I kin care for myself, get me! (Eight bells sound, muffled, vibrating through the steel walls as if some enormous brazen gong were imbedded in the heart of the ship. […].)

Related Characters: Paddy (speaker), Yank
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene Two Quotes

After exhausting the morbid thrills of social service work on New York’s East Side—how they must have hated you, by the way, the poor that you made so much poorer in their own eyes!—you are now bent on making your slumming international.

Related Characters: Mildred’s Aunt (speaker), Mildred Douglas
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

Please do not mock at my attempts to discover how the other half lives. Give me credit for some sort of groping sincerity in that at least. I would like to help them. I would like to be some use in the world. Is it my fault I don’t know how? I would like to be sincere, to touch life somewhere. (with weary bitterness) But I’m afraid I have neither the vitality nor integrity. All that was burnt out in our stock before I was born. Grandfather’s blast furnaces, flaming to the sky, melting steel, making millions—then father keeping those home fires burning, making more millions—and little me at the tail-end of it all. I’m a waste product of the Bessemer process—like the millions. Or rather, I inherit the acquired trait of the byproduct, wealth, but none of the energy, none of the strength of the steel that made it.

Related Characters: Mildred Douglas (speaker), Mildred’s Aunt
Page Number: 156
Explanation and Analysis:
Scene Three Quotes

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

Hinsultin’ us, the bloody cow! And them bloody engineers! What right ’as they got to be exhibitin’ us ’s if we was bleedin’ monkeys in a menagerie? Did we sign for hinsults to our dignity as ’onest workers? Is that in the ship’s articles? You kin bloody well bet it ain’t! But I knows why they done it. I arsked a deck steward ’o she was and ’e told me. ’Er old man’s a bleedin’ millionaire, a bloody Capitalist! ’E’s got enuf bloody gold to sink this bleedin’ ship! ’E makes arf the bloody steel in the world! ’E owns this bloody boat! And you and me, Comrades, we’re ’is slaves! And the skipper and mates and engineers, they’re ’is slaves! And she’s ’is bloody daughter and we’re all ’er slaves, too! And she gives ’er orders as ’ow she wants to see the bloody animals below decks and down they takes ’er!

Related Characters: Long (speaker), Yank, Mildred Douglas
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

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

Here the adornments of extreme wealth are tantalizingly displayed. The jeweler’s window is gaudy with glittering diamonds, emeralds, rubies, pearls, etc., fashioned in ornate tiaras, crowns, necklaces, collars, etc. From each piece hangs an enormous tag from which a dollar sign and numerals in intermittent electric lights wink out the incredible prices. The same in the furrier’s. Rich furs of all varieties hang there bathed in a downpour of artificial light. The general effect is of a background of magnificence cheapened and made grotesque by commercialism, a background in tawdry disharmony with the clear light and sunshine on the street itself.

Related Characters: Yank, Long
Page Number: 173
Explanation and Analysis:

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

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: