In The Hairy Ape, Eugene O’Neill tells a cautionary tale about the effects pride can have on a person’s sense of self. At the beginning of the play, Yank relishes his identity as a competent stoker on an ocean liner, bragging that he’s “part of de engines” and exalting his role of shoveling coal into the furnaces. However, his pride isn’t as enduring as it seems, and his ego suffers a considerable blow when Mildred—the daughter of a steel tycoon—visits the engine room and calls him a “filthy beast.” This insult ruins Yank’s self-esteem, causing him to wonder if anyone values him at all. Indeed, his fragile ego drives him to seek revenge on Mildred and the upper class, and this ultimately takes him away from the ship—the only place where people actually do accept him. As such, he soon finds himself searching for a sense of belonging, and this search eventually leads to his death. What he fails to understand is that his delicate ego has blinded him to the fact that in the engine room he was sure of himself and accepted by his peers. That he dies trying to find something he already has, then, suggests that it’s futile and dangerous for people to allow vanity to so thoroughly destabilize their conception of themselves and surrounding social environments.
At the beginning of The Hairy Ape, O’Neill frames Yank not as an outcast, but as an able-bodied worker who is well-respected by his peers. He even provides a stage note that refers to Yank as “the most highly developed individual” amongst his fellow stokers, who look up to him as a role model. What’s more, he takes pride in his work. Comparing himself to Paddy, who complains about the hardships of life as a stoker, Yank revels in himself, going out of his way to emphasize that he is made for these conditions. Indeed, Yank brags that, although the engine rooms are hellish, he “belongs” here because his identity is wrapped up in the act of shoveling coal. “Hell in de stokehole?” he says. “Sure! It takes a man to work in hell.” Having established that he is exactly the kind of man suited “to work in hell,” he goes one step further and suggests that he’s integral to the entire operation of running the boat, saying, “It’s me makes it roar! It’s me makes it move!” He also says that the world needs people like him to keep it going. “Everyting else dat makes de woild move, somep’n makes it move,” he says. “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’s obvious that Yank not only thinks he “belongs” in the stokehole, he also derives a sense of purpose from his work, which he believes makes the world “move.” As such, O’Neill emphasizes the extent to which Yank invests himself in his identity as a stoker.
However, Yank’s sense of self isn’t as assured as it seems. This is made apparent by how unsettled he is when Mildred visits the stokehole and, upon laying eyes on him, calls him a “filthy beast.” At first, Yank is filled with rage and a desire to take revenge. After the incident, he expresses his anger to the other stokers, saying, “Tink I’m goin’ to let her git away wit dat stuff? […] I’ll fix her!” Following up on this, he goes to Fifth Avenue, hoping to find Mildred so he can spit in her face and show her that she can’t simply come into his environment and insult him. However, he soon realizes he won’t be able to find Mildred, so he tries to start fights with the wealthy strangers walking by on the sidewalk. Despite his efforts, though, no one engages, and this destabilizes him more than Mildred’s original insult. At least Mildred’s reaction acknowledged his presence, albeit in an offensive way. By contrast, Yank feels invisible in the streets of Manhattan, and even when he finally gets arrested, his fellow prisoners laugh at him and don’t revere him in the same way that the men in the stokehole do. As such, the audience sees that Yank’s pride and thirst for revenge have led him astray, ultimately putting him in a position in which he feels undervalued and alone.
Searching for acceptance, Yank tries to join a chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World union, but this doesn’t give him the same sense of belonging he used to have in the stokehole. The people at the IWW understand that he’s trying to join for the wrong reasons, so they throw him onto the street, where he sits and says, “So dem boids don’t tink I belong, neider.” With this, it becomes clear that Yank is looking first and foremost for a community that will accept him. However, it’s worth noting that no one ever said he didn’t “belong” in the stokehole in the first place. After all, he was celebrated amongst his peers and saw himself as the lifeblood of the engine room. Unfortunately, though, he’s unable to move beyond Mildred’s comment, which so thoroughly shook his sense of self that he has now forgotten about the community to which he already belongs.
Although Mildred’s conception of Yank as a “hairy beast” rattles him to his core, his quest beyond the ocean liner ironically ends with him accepting that he is a “hairy beast”—an acceptance he reaches when he goes to the zoo and speaks to a gorilla, telling the beast, “Yuh get me.” Of course, this sense of camaraderie is misplaced, but Yank only realizes this after the gorilla breaks his back. “Even him didn’t tink I belonged,” he says just before dying. It’s worth noting how ridiculous this statement is, since it should be rather obvious that Yank doesn’t belong among apes. Instead, it’s easy to see where he does belong: in the stokehole, where he was in the very beginning of the play and where people respect him. But Yank has let his vanity—his desire to prove himself in the eyes of people like Mildred—obscure the fact that he was originally happy with his identity and social environment, and this leaves him feeling like an outcast when, in reality, his entire journey to find himself has been unnecessary and ill-advised.
Pride, Identity, and Belonging ThemeTracker
Pride, Identity, and Belonging Quotes in The Hairy Ape
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.
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.
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?
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!
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. […].)
The impression to be conveyed by this scene is one of the beautiful, vivid life of the sea all about—sunshine on the deck in a great flood, the fresh sea wind blowing across it. In the midst of this, these two incongruous, artificial figures, inert and disharmonious, the elder like a gray lump of dough touched up with rouge, the younger looking as if the vitality of her stock had been sapped before she was conceived, so that she is the expression not of its life energy but merely of the artificialities that energy had won for itself in the spending.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.