Starting in the 18th century, the industrial revolution led to industrial capitalism marked the beginning of a new era in human life. Its consequences were catastrophic, both with its physical and mental effects. In a brave new world, 99% of the human population was reduced to wage slaves, without knowing it. In this new world where the cages were invisible, some people had trouble with adjusting while others were happy with their situation.
In Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, we witness a world that is thorned in socio-economical classes. The environment in the first scene is described as:
…The effect sough after is a cramped space in the bowels of a ship, imprisoned by white steel (…) steel framework of a cage (…) they cannot stand upright.
If the ship is compared to the world, and the firemen to the working-class, the descriptions seem to be spot on. Working-class people are indeed imprisoned in a steel cage, overcrowded, and can’t stand upright because of poor living conditions.
Throughout the text, we observe the ongoing quest of Yank for finding a place in the world. In the beginning, he is the proudest man among his comrades. He takes pride in what he does and how he lives. He considers himself more important and valuable than the so-called upper-class members. The quotation below reflects the way he feels about himself in scene I:
…I’m smoke and express trains and streamers and factory whistles; I’m de ting in gold dat makes it money! And I’m what makes iron into steel!…
This pride he feels leaves its place to rage after his encounter with Mildred, the mild-hearted representative of the 1%. Seeing how he is treated by Mildred, Yank wants revenge and it is all he can think of. This reflects real life as the uneducated lower class’ anger against the bourgeois.
One of the results of the Industrial Capitalist period was the beginning of public-mandatory education which is still intact. While the main reason behind mandatory public education is to increase the production rate, people think this as an equalizer. In an industrial capitalist world, everything that is dictated to people by the government is for the benefit of the government.
As we see in O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, the very things that the working class produces become their own cage. There is constant pressure on this point throughout the plot. As our main character Yank constantly took pride in producing steel, it is that steel bars that he was put behind after he attacked an upper-class citizen.
Another important character in the story is the Marxist preacher of the ship named “Long”. He seems to be a class-conscious member of the working class. However, when he thinks that Yank was insulted by the engineers and Mildred, he believes that appealing to the law will protect their rights. However, in an industrial capitals order, the law is only the protector of those who are in possession of power. Yank disagrees with the idea of appealing to law and acts with his “animalistic” instincts.
Eugene O’Neill rightly depicted the working class as wage slaves, resembling animals in a zoo. In every scene, there is an emphasis on “belonging”. Yank keeps repeating the phrase “I belong”, whereas in the end, he discovers he doesn’t even belong with the apes.
In an industrial capitalist order, men with free spirits have no place. That kind of people cannot be kept behind bars. And those who seem to feel free are in great delusion, as Theodore Kaczynski says;
“ According to the bourgeois conception, a “free” man is essentially an element of a social machine and has only a certain set of prescribed and delimited freedoms; freedoms that are designed to serve the needs of the social machine more than those of the individual. Thus the bourgeois’s “free” man has economic freedom because that promotes growth and progress…”
- O’neill, Eugene | The Hairy Ape, 1922
- Kaczynski, Theodore |Industrial Society and Its Future
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