The Hairy Ape as a modern tragedy

Question: Discuss The Hairy Ape as a modern tragedy.


The tragedy is a kind of drama that shows the reversal of the hero’s fate. Almost all of Eugene O’Neill’s (1888-1963) works in American literature are tragedies. He is not, however, the author of the tragedy of Aristotelian tradition. Rather, he is a modern tragedian, such as J. M. Synge (1871-1909) in British literature. His eminent work “The Hairy Ape” is a modern tragedy.

The hero not a man of high rank

Aristotle suggests that the hero of the tragedy must be of high rank, a king or prince so that the downfall and poetic justice can be shown in proper order. But the modern tragedians are starkly opposite to the Aristotelean concept. All the modern tragedies including “The Hairy Ape” have a protagonist of lower or middle. In British English literature, Maurya who is the protagonist of the one-act tragedy “Riders to Sea” by J. M. Synge belongs to the privileged class. Likewise, the hero of the tragedy “The Hairy Ape”, Robert Yank Smith who is a giant stoker belongs to the working class.

Having no tragic flaw or hamartia

Modern tragic characters do not possess hamartia like classical tragic heroes. Tragic flaw or hamartia means an error in judgment or negligence of the reality for which a classical tragic hero’s reversal of fate gets started. This traditional Aristotelian concept is not found in our hero Yank who does not have his own fault. But rather he is conflicted with his environment and he is dominated by sundry evil social forces which lead him to a tragic death.

A great tragedy of the proletariat

A modern tragedy represents the problems, ambitions, and aspirations of common people. To put it differently, it is the drama of the proletariat class. “The Hairy Ape” is a tragedy of great significance that focuses on the problems, ambitions, and aspirations of working-class people. The proletarian wants to get recognition and their only ambition is to lead a life of hand to mouth. But when they are neglected, they cannot forget it, and sometimes revenge becomes the only ambition of their life which is a great problem. The protagonist of the tragedy Yank was very happy and satisfied at the outset of the play. But he becomes upset when the young lady of the capitalist class neglects him, his life gets U-turned and revenge becomes the only ambition of his life. Thus, the tragic downfall comes to his life when he goes to embrace a hairy ape in the zoo.

Simple plot

Aristotle who is the father of criticism divides the plot of tragedy into two categories such as simple and complex. He also prefers complex plot too simple but in modern tragedy, a simple plot is preferable. “The Hairy Ape” has been written in a simple plot though there is somewhat complex.

Irony and sarcasm

The stark contrast between classical tragedy and modern tragedy is the use of devices. The classical tragedy typically contains elements such as hubris, hamartia, or catharsis. On the other hand, modern tragedy uses irony and sarcasm. Eugene O’Neill in “The Hairy Ape” shows his mastery for applying irony and sarcasm. He harshly criticizes class distinction and the capitalists. The play is packed with irony. The giant stoker Yank goes to the office of the Workers Party for help, but he is thrown away because of his incapacity of bribing.

Having more than one central character

In modern tragedy, we get more than one central character. Robert Yank Smith is the tragic character of the play, but we cannot neglect Paddy, Long, and Mildred Douglas too.

Realistic time spans

Contemporary society is presented in modern tragedy. From this perspective, modern tragedies can be called representative and universal having far-reaching effects on the social systems of the world. “The Hairy Ape” focuses on the evils of the society which are produced because of the dominating and greedy nature of the capitalists. Even the institution that has been formed for the help of the proletariat class is also corrupted. Such presentation is iconic in all modern tragedies.


In light of the above discussion, “The Hairy Ape” is really a paradigm of modern tragedy because of its subject matter, themes, and other components – realistic time spans, irony and sarcasm, and so on.

S Ridoy Kumar
S Ridoy Kumar
Articles: 78

Leave a Reply

error: Sorry !!