An hour outside of New York City, New York, firemen shovel coal into an engine of a Transatlantic Ocean Liner. The muscular men have seven more days so they spend their remaining time like sailors would normally do, cursing, singing and drinking. Yank, otherwise known as Robert Smith, is delighted in his crew capabilities to power the engines. The daughter of a steel-company president, Mildred Douglas, is curious how to other half lives on the ship, however, her aunt disapproves of her curiosities. As Mildred saw the horridness of the lower deck she becomes frightened and compared her viewing of Yank to seeing a Hairy Ape; feeling unvalued he decides to take a stance against to upper class when the ship returned to New York.
The toughness and grit of being an ocean liner crewman, O’Neil interprets such a prestigious job in a wild-life and primitive way. Maltreated and restricted men are like caged animals to keep this ocean linear pumping. However, the ocean linear acts as a societal hierarchy where the lower and oppressed workers are treated poorly although they keep things moving while the upper class seemingly do not get their hands filthy.
A step backwards in evolution can be interpreted due to the conditions of the furnace room reverting the firemen to caveman who speak in broken English phrases. O’Neil portrays the firemen as simpletons, who are easily offended, highly reactive and constantly seeking a fight and respect Yank not for his brains but because he is the strongest among the crew and this is evident in O’Neil usage of mockery in The Hairy Ape. “Nix on de loud noise”
Yank tells his men, as they point put his inability to form complete words and complete sentences, but the respect is still present. When Mildred sees the state of the lower ship she cries and faints because an over-privileged woman like her is disgusted to see the working class struggling to make ends meet. Mildred and her aunt are use to soaking in the sun on the top deck, so when she saw the conditions of the lower deck she was an appalled to see Yank to whom she compared to as a Hairy Ape.
O’Neil contrast a frail white woman to hard working animals, while Mildred is surrounded by the beautiful ocean, Yank and his men are confined to steel. Thus, making it seem like the Firemen are less intelligent compared to Mildred, Mildred’s aunt and the upper deck of the ship that represents the upper class of society.
Mildred is portrayed as this being that can not be tainted by the working class due her unnatural persona, while Yank is portrayed to be placed in an actual cage rather than a metaphorical one because of his inability to communicate like a sophisticated human being. Yank feeling attacked by the Hairy Ape comparison he and Long stand up to the upper class by going to “Fif’Avenoo” [ Fifth Avenue] in New York to show Mildred how it feels to be humiliated. Although Yank wants to leave the “too clean and quiet and dolled up”
Fifth Avenue, Long reminds him that he is in the present of Mildred’s kind of people, but the plan back fired as a woman whom they bumped into calls them “Bums! Pigs! Tarts! Bitches!”. Yank feels no sense of belonging in Mildred’s kind, but he finds the acceptance in society through the working class, being the “mover” although he is in a caged environment, he is working to keep the ship moving.
O’Neil’s societal challenge in the Hairy Ape gives hope to those who think it is unfair that they find joy in being a part of the moving pieces in society rather than the stagnated works who are only driven by wealth and power.
1. O’Neil, Eugene. The Hairy Ape. 1922.