The Hairy Ape takes place during a time of change, when the industrial revolution was still altering the way the world operated. However, O’Neill suggests that change is not valuable in and of itself, and he emphasizes the fact that certain kinds of progress can negatively affect human happiness and welfare. For instance, Paddy—a jaded stoker who works alongside Yank—yearns for the past because the hellish conditions of his working environment are the direct result of industrialization. In many ways, Paddy’s job of shoveling coal into a furnace to power a commercial ocean liner is a perfect representation of the paradoxical nature of progress: the more technology supposedly changes society for the better, the more people like Paddy are forced to take jobs that diminish their self-worth and happiness. What’s more, O’Neill upholds that the even the people making money from this industrialized progress aren’t always happier because of their economic prosperity. To that end, Mildred—who’s part of a family that made its name at the beginning of the industrial revolution—is discontent with her life, and so she romanticizes the idea of experiencing hardship, fetishizing people like Paddy because her own existence isn’t fulfilling. By spotlighting the fact that Mildred’s wealth can’t make her happy, O’Neill illustrates that innovation and progress are not inherently valuable because they do not provide people with a genuine sense of fulfillment.
Before examining the ways in which the characters in The Hairy Ape conceive of change, it’s worth considering the time period’s obsession with progress. By the 1920s—when O’Neill wrote The Hairy Ape—the industrial revolution had thoroughly altered the way the world operated, having introduced machinery that enabled people to work faster and travel farther. Part of this revolution included the introduction of transatlantic commercial vessels, which operated using steam engines that were powered by coal. This technological advancement was not quite as efficient as it may have seemed, since entire teams of people were required to shovel coal into furnaces in order to power the engines. This is the world in which Paddy and his fellow stokers toil, all in the name of progress and advancement.
Relegated to the scorching heat of the engine rooms, Paddy knows that his work goes largely unnoticed by the majority of society, since the ocean liner’s passengers never encounter the stokers and, therefore, can go on believing that the industrial revolution has brought society nothing but prosperity, happiness, and efficiency. And though the introduction of the steam engine did indeed benefit society (at least in an economic sense), there’s no denying that this kind of change was not as ideal or uncostly as it may have appeared.
Part of the reason Paddy is unhappy is because he remembers a time before the world was dominated by steam engines. “Oh, to be back in the fine days of my youth,” he says. “Oh, there was fine beautiful ships them days—clippers wid tall masts touching the sky—fine strong men in them—men that was sons of the sea as if ’twas the mother that bore them.” Reminiscing about working on sailboats instead of monstrous steamships, Paddy talks about the past as if everyone around him has forgotten what it’s like to live in the natural world. He upholds that sailors used to be “sons of the sea,” as if the ocean itself were their mother. This stands in stark contrast to the terrible conditions of the dirty and mechanical engine rooms. “Work—aye—hard work—but who’d mind that at all?” he says. “Sure, you worked under the sky and ’twas work wid skill and daring to it.” In this moment, Paddy discounts the value of working on a steamship, even if such vessels are capable of going faster and holding more people. For him, such progress isn’t categorically good. He’d rather do “hard” and skillful work under the sun at a slower pace than waste away below deck with “the bloody engines pounding and throbbing and shaking” around him. Unlike most people in his society, the only kind of change Paddy is interested in is a return to the past, as he doesn’t believe that the industrial revolution has brought along anything but misery.
O’Neill provides an even more compelling example of the downsides of industrialization by presenting Mildred, a young woman saddled with ennui despite her opulent wealth. Bored and unhappy, Mildred sets herself to the task of “discover[ing] how the other half lives,” essentially romanticizing poverty and perversely wishing that she herself could experience what it would be like to be poor. “I would like to be sincere, to touch life somewhere,” she tells her doubting aunt. “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.” Outlining her family’s upward trajectory, she says that she is “a waste product” of the entire process of making steel. “Or rather,” she continues, “I inherit the acquired trait of the byproduct, wealth, but none of the energy, none of the strength of the steel that made it.” In other words, she believes that wealth itself has “burnt out” the “vitality” and “energy” of her “stock.”
Mildred thus reinforces Paddy’s idea that the changes brought about by the industrial revolution haven’t necessarily made the world a better, happier place. Instead, these changes have thrust the economy forward in ways that don’t create actual happiness. Nothing, it seems, compares to Paddy’s days above deck on the open ocean—a happiness that has nothing to do with progress. In this way, O’Neill outlines the dangers of embracing change without preserving the elements of life that give humanity a sense of “vitality.”
Progress and Happiness ThemeTracker
Progress and Happiness Quotes in The Hairy Ape
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.