The major themes of The Hairy Ape

Question: Discuss the major themes of The Hairy Ape.


“The Hairy Ape” is an expressionist play by American playwright Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953) published in 1922. The play focuses on existentialism which is expressed through the following themes with sarcasm.

Human regression through industrialization

One of the great themes of “The Hairy Ape” is the impact of industrialization and technological advancement on labor. The industrialization has turned human labor into a machine. Men are programmed to perform the action, turned on and off with whistles, and they do not need to think independently. Workers are thus forced into jobs that require nothing but hard work and physical labor. This is made clear by O’Neill’s stage direction, which suggests that the fireman is, in fact, “like the ultimate monkey”. Overall, the play is a close investigation of this regressive pattern through the character of Yank.

The frustration of the class

Mildred and Yank are representative of the highest and lowest social classes. However, although Mildred and Yank’s lifestyles are ultimately different, they share similar complaints about the class. Mildred describes herself as the “waste product” of his father’s steel company. She is eager to find a passion for touching “life” outside of her conservative world. On the other hand, Yank feels the necessity of revenge when he is called a ‘hairy ape’. He wants to collapse the class structure, but he has to face a brutal death because of the evils of society.

Doubt against ideology

One of the defining aspects of Yank’s individualism is that he does not believe in anything other than his own power. When other people provide their ideas that suffering is inevitable on earth, Yank can only see them as weak and cowardly. After Long’s socialist speech, Yank responds with extreme sarcasm and contempt.

Isolation of the proletariat

In the modern capitalist society, work means isolation, competition, and domination. The capitalists have isolated the workers from each other which is why they cannot tolerate each other. Yank is the oppressor on the ship because of his gigantic physical strength. The workers have been taught that they are only puppets and they have to tolerate a life of extreme poverty.


O’Neill is best known as a dark playwright who broadcasts rejection and disappointment, but it is at once tempered and deepened by his sarcastic wit. In “The Hairy Ape”, though, Yank is one of the less well-educated characters to whom O’Neill makes his strongest sarcastic investments. Yank essentially maintains his position in a combination of satire and threat. How essential these characteristic features were to his character, can be realized by his final words. He finally utters in a ridiculous tone that he is really a beast and because of this, he would like to embrace the ape of the zoo.


In a nutshell, “The Hairy Ape” dramatizes an important aspect of human suffering in the Age of Machines. People do not live with bread alone; Spiritual health and well-being are also important. Even in a crowd, people can be lonely. Yank’s tragedy is the tragedy of billions of people in the modern age.

S Ridoy Kumar
S Ridoy Kumar
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