Yank is a tragic character

Question: Yank is a tragic character- discuss.


Yank who is an unforgettable character in the history of English literature is the protagonist of the play “The Hairy Ape” which is a 1922 expressionist play by Eugene O’Neil (1888-1953). He is a tragic hero because he suffers a tragic end due to his illusion, obsession, and isolation.

Tragic character in modern time

The representation of a tragic character in modern times has been changed and it has been a humanistic and symbolic concern. Here Yank as a tragic character is discussed though he is not a traditional or Aristotelian tragic hero in the crux of modern society.

Without a tragic flaw, an unconventional tragic one

“The Hairy Ape” is a tragedy of modern times. It has no conventional hero of the classical or Aristotelian tradition. Basically, the play presents an antihero who possesses no tragic flaw like Agamemnon of Aeschylus and Oedipus of Sophocles. Rather he is an everyman character. He is a very windy stoker who works for long hours to shove fuel into the furnace of the ship’s engine. The plot of the play centers on his contentment at his primitive nature in his world but his contentment does not last long as he is to meet the harsh reality of life. When Mildred Douglas, who is another protagonist of the play belonging to the aristocratic class, calls him a “filthy beast”, his suffering knocks him at the door.

Taking pride in physical strength

Hubris which means arrogance or excessive pride is one of the features of the tragic character assigned by Aristotle. At the very outset of the play, it is noticed that Yank is potent, proud, and dominating. He considers that his physical strength is the lifeblood of his universe. He is the dominating figure among the stokers by his superior physical power that is approximately a kind of tragic trait within Yank. His dominating and proud nature is shown by the forceful stopping of a song sung by a very drunken sentimental tenor.

“Far away in Canada,

Far across the sea

There’s a lass who fondly waits

Making a home for me”

His pride is also evident by his long reply to Paddy about his futile superior position in the ship in scene one:

“I’m steam and oil for de engines; I’m de ting in noise……….

And I’m steel-steel-steel! I’m de muscles in steel,”

Reversal of fate

Peripeteia is a Greek word that means a reversal of fate. Though Yank is happy with his coworkers, social mates, his peripeteia starts when he is called a hairy ape by the daughter of the shipowner Miss. Mildred. He feels extremely naked like Adam’s nakedness in heaven and he tries to take revenge by killing Mildred, but he cannot do this because of the united hindrance of the stokers. Then he says:

“I’ll get her some way!……….. I’ll show her who is an ape!”

 He could realize his state and identity. As result, he leaves the ship in search of Mildred so that he could take revenge. From this time onwards, Yank sees himself as a hairy ape. His pride and sense of security have been shattered by the insult.

Punishment and suffering

From scene 5, the punishment and suffering of Yank start. In Fifth Avenue, he is exploited by Long because of his physical strength and lack of intelligence. He attacks the capitalists without any reason, and he is sent to the jail of Blackwells Island. He gets released after one month and goes to I.W.W (Industrial Workers of the World) secretary and is rejected and cheated too. Then the final suffering comes to his life when he goes to the zoo and stands in front of the cage of the gorilla to talk at length.

“Ain’t we both members of de same club-de Hairy Ape?”

From the long monologue of yank, it is realized that he has been the most sufferer of the world because he is suffering from a terrifying agony of soul. As he is the symbol of the everyman in a capitalized society, the miseries of human life have been limned by the dramatist. There is no bound of miseries for common people including isolation and alienation.

Pity and fear

Catharsis arises within the audience because of the catastrophe of the tragic hero by the end of the drama. At the end of the play, Yank is squeezed to death by the gorilla when he tries to embrace and kiss the gorilla. He dies at last.

“Slips in a heap on the floor and he dies”

From such a terrible death, the audience cannot but cry with pity and fear.


Now we can decide that there are some similar aspects of a classical tragic hero with Yank but Eugene O’Neill’s purpose is not to show the destined tragic hero but to limn the crux of the human condition of modern time under the influence of capitalism.

S Ridoy Kumar
S Ridoy Kumar
Articles: 78

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