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In Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, the character Yank is used to portray the suppression of the human spirit and the degradation of the working class. Throughout the play, Yank’s sense of belonging defines both his character and his state of mind. Yank seems to describe power as belonging, and although he claims to belong to many groups it is through his own lack of intelligence that he inevitably finds himself isolated and powerless once again. While powerless, Yank usually acts out violently against the environment around in an attempt to prove himself. In this constant cycle we see the tragedy of Yank’s character and what he represents; he cannot belong because he is unintelligent, and he is unintelligent because he is from the working class and therefore does not belong. In this way, O’Neill is able to criticize the inescapable and oppressive nature of the American social hierarchy.
The opening of The Hairy Ape is the only instance in which Yank has any sense of belonging. However, he is ignorant to the fact that through this sense of belonging as a fireman he is constrained both physically and figuratively. Not only is Yank literally cramped below the more exclusive passenger decks, his work is more reminiscent of a machine than a man. Yank even seems proud to admit that he is “smoke and express trains and steamers and factory whistles” (O’Neill 1057). Yet at the same time, Yank dismisses the idea of belonging to a clipper ship as the equivalent of death. Although the clipper ship is presented as a representation of an organic community that emphasizes teamwork and human relationships, Yank takes comfort in the fact that the Ocean Liner would not move without him, which implies his role as a cog in the machine of the ship and society itself. Like a cog in machine, Yank is unable to escape from his position in society. It is only through the appearance of Mildred that Yank seems to realize all that he is not. By seeing an individual on a higher social level than him, Yank finally realizes that there is more to life than the oppressive lower decks of his ship. Yet even then Yank is unable to rationalize his anger towards Mildred, as he takes the position of Rodin’s “The Thinker” but remains unable to think rationally. After his sense of belonging was challenged, he remained powerless to reflect and act on the situation.
In the end Yank decided to leave the ship and his sense of belonging not because it oppressed him, but to seek out and challenge Mildred and the threat to his power that she represented. While on 5th Avenue, Yank becomes increasingly class conscious as he realizes how different he is from those around him. As his sense of belonging dwindles, Yank attempts to assert his power over the residents of 5th Avenue. “I belong, dat’s me! See dat building goin’ up dere? See de steel work? Steel, dat’s me! Youse guys live on it and tink yuh’re somep’n. But I’m in it, see!” (1074). However, Yank’s sense of belonging is shattered when the higher-class citizens choose to ignore his rants and even his physical presence entirely, instead classifying him as just another unintelligent commoner. Ironically, their emotionless reaction is reminiscent of a machine, just as Yank was aboard the Ocean Liner. This serves O’Neill’s purpose in criticizing the social standard of the time; he is saying that there is no reason for the implementation of separate social classes.
After punching a bystander for no apparent reason, Yank is taken to a prison where he again fails to belong to the environment around him. While attempting to gain a sense of control above the other prisoners, Yank rambles on about how they are simply in a zoo meant for animals. This causes the prisoners to reject Yank, but they do help him to once again widen his target from class consciousness to the steel company owned by Mildred’s family. A newspaper convinces Yank that through violence he will be able to regain a sense of belonging and power in the Industrial Workers of the World organization. The irony of this passage is especially prevalent; Yank promises to destroy all steel even though he described himself as being made of steel on numerous occasions. This shows Yank’s self-destructive and ignorant behavior. Even when Yank tries to realize his goal by belonging to the IWW, his ignorance fails him once again as he is rejected for being “too stupid” (1081). It is here that Yank finally realizes that through his powerlessness he is being oppressed, saying “So dem boids don’t think I belong, neider Aw, to hell wit ‘em!…Steel was me, and I owned de woild. Now I ain’t steel, and de woild owns me” (1081).
This conflict leads Yank to try and find a sense of belonging one last time, with the hairy ape in the zoo. Yank is able to relate to the ape more than any other character in the play. Yank admires the ape for nothing more than his physical prowess and their shared status at the bottom of the social ladder. “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” (1083). However, even the ape rejects Yank as he tries to belong, choosing instead to physically and figuratively crush him. At this point Yank finally finds his place of belonging in his last moments, isolated and alone in the cage of the hairy ape.
The main issue with O’Neill representation of the working class through Yank’s character appears to be its almost hypocritical nature. Yank is oppressed as a human being, but through the text it seems as though he deserves little better. Yank is without a doubt unintelligent and barbaric, and throughout The Hairy Ape this does not change. Because of this, O’Neill seems to be criticizing both the working and upper class. However, this is not the case. In a way, Yank is not responsible for his actions because of his lack of intelligence. He is the only character that remains open to belonging in almost every situation in which he is placed; it is the members of that environment that choose to reject and oppress him.
This leads to O’Neill’s main criticism in The Hairy Ape, that the inclusive nature of American society leads to the oppression of the working class. Yank’s complete and utter lack of intelligence seem to place him in a below-low class, to the point where he is unaccepted even by the hairy ape in the last scene of the play. Yank’s journey is tragic, for despite his lack of intelligence he has the potential and will to belong to the society around him – if only society would have him.
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