The Hairy Ape is a social satire

Question: The Hairy Ape is a social satire- discuss. Or, evaluate The Hairy Ape as a socio-economic satire.


Eugene O’Neil (1888-1953) has an antipathy to capitalism which has been attacked in his proletariat expressionist modern tragedy “The Hairy Ape” published in 1922. During the modern period, an entire genre of literature has limned the social problems and O’Neil is not anomalous of this tradition, but his technique is satirical.


Satire refers to criticize or ridicule people’s stupidity or vices particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues. According to Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, the term satire is used to show the faults in a person, an organization, a system, etc. So, several satirical aspects as to society and economy are found in the play “The Hairy Ape” though it has been written in form of tragedy. Now the play has been recounted as social satire or socio-economic satire.

Psychological aspects of modern people

The first and foremost satirical matter of the play is the psychology of modern people. O’Neil has shown anomalous mastery of applying satire because satire is commonly used in comedy, but he has done it in tragedy. The following aspects of human psychology have been harshly satirized.

The passionless or animalistic nature

O’Neil has presented that the rapid change of society due to the industrialization has been passionless or animalistic from top to bottom. The protagonist of the drama Yank is really passionless because he forcefully stops the sentimental song of a stoker.

“Far away in Canada,

Far across the sea,

There’s a lass who fondly waits

Making a home for me”

So passionless heart is abominable human psychology in conformity with the playwright. Miss Mildred is also animalistic who is the symbol of aristocrats because a beast-like human being can call another human being a “filthy beast”.

The practice of power or exploiting nature

The workers and capitalists have been rebuked by O’Neil. Yank is the dominator of the working class. He is undoubtedly an agile worker, but he has showy nature. If his opinion is not accepted, he becomes violent such as to Paddy and in a threatening tone, he tells Paddy:

“Aw! Look out who yuh’re givin’ the bark!”

The capitalists practice power and exploit the workers just for pelf and power which is damnation for society and humanity.


Sundry types of obsessions and illusions such as belongingness, pride, despair, and isolation of Yank have been taken under criticism. As Yank is the symbol of every human being, through his character all of the people of modern times have vividly been disdained in case of having such traits. Faults and follies are the inborn puzzles of human character, but it is really abominable to be obsessed with pessimism as it creates emotional violence. The money-making tendency of the capitalists has been attacked. So human beings have lost all the connection with life.

Satire on religion

According to Doris Alexander, the play has satirized the church. The church substitutes political conversation for Christianity and methods of making money for concern with the meaning of life and death. So, religion has become an agent for capitalism.

Satire on government or politics and organization

In the fifth scene at Fifth Avenue on a beautiful Sunday morning, Yank attacks the capitalists for taking his revenge but at that, the people only request him saying “I beg your pardon”. The government’s service for the wealthy marionettes is exemplified by police who function to keep the workers from disturbing the wealthy. Yank is arrested and thrown in prison on Blackwell’s Island. The police’s irrationality is mocked by O’Neil.

I.W.W which is Industrial Worker of the World is a union for the workers’ safety and identity. Yank goes there with hope for help, but he is rejected and robbed half a dollar by the secretary of the organization and once again a police officer treats him very roughly when he asks the policeman about his whereabouts.

Yank: (In a vague mocking tone) Say, where do I go from here?

Policeman: (Giving him a push-with a grin indifferently): Go to hell.

So, he does not have left anything for his identification and goes to the zoo and finally faces his death with a huge agony of soul.


Thus, by the harsh satire, O’Neil has provided the message that industrial society is fit enough for dehumanizing the citizens. He has focused on the fault aspects of American society in which people are obsessed with pelf and power for a better future and try to establish authoritarian power.

S Ridoy Kumar
S Ridoy Kumar
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