Relation between the Working Class and Primitivism in The Hairy Ape

Subtle association of primitivism with the working class in Eugene O’Neill’s expressionist play The Hairy Ape is quite intriguing. In the play, we sense the primitivistic approach to the firemen working together in the ship who are likened to a group of animal doing and saying the same thing all the time. They do not have individualities and they represent the same class which is the working class. There are two aspects of O’Neill’s usage of primitivism to depict this particular class. One is related to their existence as a crowd and the other is to their identification themselves with their physicality, which also shows the traces of Darwinism. Therefore, to examine how working class people define themselves and are defined by the modern world, which is quite primitivistic, we can look into the portrayal of them as a body of crowd in The Hairy Ape.

The first approach to the firemen as primitives comes from their existence as a crowd. In order to examine these working class people as a crowd in the play, we must look into them in general terms. We see that they are named simply as “voices” or “all” in the play. We do not know their names except for Yank, Paddy and Long, who show some specific characteristics by themselves. Therefore, as Gustave Le Bon asserts, the firemen lose their identities when they are together, becoming a grain of sand among other grains of sand” (Nye 48). Therefore, they are portrayed as the same in the level of both body and mind, which come into being in the ideology and the actions of Yank. In the case of their body image, the firemen, who resemble to chained gorillas with their crouching and inhuman attitudes, move in rhythmic motion and do the same job, shoveling in a tumult of orderly noise (O’Neill 160). One cannot ignore the animalistic, “inhuman” and gorilla-like portrayal of the firemen. As to the rhythm and noise present in the crowd, according to Robert Nye, elevate the mood and emotions of the individuals (42). At times, they become more and more enthusiastic and lose their control in a way. This is most obvious when they say the same thing at the same time, which is related to their being alike in terms of mind. While they exclaim the statements such as “Think,” “Love,” “God,” and “Law,” they become barbaric and atavistic because they turn to their pre-historic human state in a way, completely losing their individuality and becoming totally one body. The reason actually is that the meaning of these word are emptied which indicates that they may not be able to think at all since these words are only a sound and there is no communication. In addition, the repetitions of these statements are similar to the workings of the machines. Therefore, the firemen become like machines without the ability to contemplate, which in turn deepens their primitivization. This kind of portrayal of the firemen is quite animalistic, barbaric and atavistic because they exist on the verge animality, repeating what they do without thinking.

The firemen’s existence as a crowd also related to their identification themselves with their physical strength, which is also somewhat animalistic and primitive: their belief and interest in their physicality results from the fact that their losing their identities and their ability to contemplate as a crowd or vice versa. Therefore, there is a binary of body and mind and since the working class people represent the body, they have no individual voice. As a result, we find their perspective in the words and actions of Yank because he “represents to the firemen a self-expression” as their “most highly developed individual” (O’Neill 142). In order to make their devotion to the physical strength apparent, O’Neill uses Paddy as a foil to Yank, who is the embodiment of the firemen. Paddy is an older one always complaining about working in a stokehole because he believes this is not the men belong to. Paddy says after shoveling, “Yerra, will this divil’s watch nivir end? Me back is broke. I’m destroyed entirely” (161). While he is old and weak, O’Neill describes the others as “hairy-chested, with long arms of tremendous power” (141). At one point, Yank shows his power even by “pounding on his chest, gorilla-like” (163). Therefore, it is clear they believe that they exist because of their physical strength and their “tremendous power,” the firemen cast Paddy out because he does not belong. They want strong, brave men who will not be tired with working. This mindset has to do with Darwinism because they believe that if they are strong, they will adapt and survive in their environment as the animals does. However, in the modern times, there is no need to be physically strong; therefore, they are primitized because they still trying to exist with animalistic strategies and with their muscles.

In conclusion, the statement of Second Engineer makes the working class people’s primitivism quite apparent when he warns Mildred about the stokehole. He says “there’s ladders to climb down that are none to clean–and dark alleyways” implying that descending into the stokehole is somewhat similar to descending the ladder of class hierarchy. This implication calls Le Bon’s statement about crowd to mind; he says that while in a crowd, a person “descends several rung in the ladder of civilization” since they act with their primitive instincts during the time which causes turn into their pre-historic state (Nye 48). Therefore, people working in the stokehole in the bowels of the ship are primitives in two levels: first because they act as a barbaric crowd without individualism and common sense and second because they are simply beings who cannot exist without their physical strength.

Yank’s Marginalization in The Hairy Ape

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.