- Umadevi Associate Professor, Department of English,
S.F.R. College for Women,
Sivakasi-626 123. Virudhunagar District.
Identity crisis or the quest for identity is basic to the live of human beings. It is innate in every man. So search for identity is an archetypal and universal motif in the literature of all ages. At the personal level, the quest is for the evaluation of a personal value system. This quest also includes one’s quest for new roots as man seeks an anchor, substance and bedrock in life. The purpose behind all quest is to attain a personal view of life and world which could make existence meaningful and give a sense of belonging to man. Literature embodies the process, the subsequent crisis of self, its quest and the subsequent discoveries
Identity crisis or search for identity is no longer confined to the individual. It can characterize a group, an institution, a class, a profession or even a nation. An individual’s sense of identity is neither completely conscious nor unconscious. Although at times it appears to be exclusively the one or the other. At some places identity is referred to a conscious sense of individual, uniqueness, at others to an unconscious, striving for community of experience at yet other places as a sense of solidarity with a group’s ideals.
The 20th century has faced the dissolution of old convictions and dogmas and as a result, man is caught in the whirlpool of uncertainly, perplexity and bewilderment. A typical 20th century man finds himself estranged not only from his fellow men but also from his innermost nature because he can find nothing to depend upon in the moments of extreme despair. He suffers from a gnawing sense of restlessness which gets manifested in the alienation from oneself, from one’s fellowmen and from nature, the awareness that life runs out of one’s hand like sand and that one will die without having lived, that one lives in the midst of plenty and joyless.
The state of identity confusion leads to heighten the sense of alienation and exile. The people who were born and brought up in alien mixed surroundings have identity stemmed in their lives. To assert that a person’s identity however frail it may be he/she has to demonstrate considerable account of girt and courage in the face of overwhelming oddities. Psychosis, delinquency, psychosomatic disorder, political passivity, protest and sometimes even suicide are the extreme manifestations of the sense of loss of a person’s identity.
The play The Hairy Ape examines not only the nature of man’s role in the society but the nature of being. Using the technical devices of expressionism, O’Neill moves his hero Yank, through a series of rapidly changing scenes in his quest to belong, to find his place in the universe. Alienation and search for identity is the basic theme in The Hairy Ape.
When the play opens the scene is laid in the fireman’s for castle of a passenger ship which sails across the Atlantic. The central character yank works in the forecastle. From the very beginning of the play Yank appears as a broad, fierce, powerful and sure of him. His mates respect his superior strength. Yank a true devotee of work, considers himself as the force
behind the moving ship. He prides in his energy, and in that of his class. Dedication to work keeps him aloof from romantic imagination. Yank is illiterate, as appears from his use of colloquial language. He is ‘all muscle and little mind’.
To Yank ‘ship’ is his home. Yank says that ship is everything to him and hey belongs to ship. This sense of belongingness in yank is nothing but his attachment to work. He is ready to prove his belongingness, and this concept of belongingness is entirely built upon his own imagination. He is satisfied with the present, and is proud of his ability and strength. He asserts that it is his energy on which the ship and the passengers ultimately depend.
In the second scene, Mildred Doughlas is introduced in a free manner. Her father is a steel magnet and has earned countless millions. She has inherited the wealth acquired through steel, but not the energy and strength which steel has. She wants to help the poor and the needy, but does not have necessary strength and vitality. She wants to study the conditions of the poor stokers who work in the bowls of the ship. She has already obtained the permission of the captain of the ship. She goes with the second engineer to the stokehole. She stands at the back of Yank and monitors their work.
Suddenly, Yank turns towards her, he glares into her eyes, and she is terrified by his “Abysmal brutality”. As she looks at his face, she utters a low, chocking cry, faints with fear and heat, and is carried away from there. She never dreamt of seeing such a sequence and a person like yank. Before leaving the place she exclaims, “Oh, the filthy beast”.
Yank feels “Himself insulted in some unknown fashion in the very heart of his pride”. The story here begins to change yank’s life. He becomes confirmed about the look of Mildred when paddy conveys him the message: “Sure’t was as if she’d seen a great hairy ape. Escaped from the zoo!” (HA58).This is the greatest blow to yank’s belief as well as to his concept of belongingness. He begins to think that he, who is so proud of his strength, suffers humiliation at the hands of a woman
After that crucial incident he no longer feels that he “belongs” Yank in the search of his identity, discovers firstly that he is alone, lonely and the world is impossible to live in, and secondly, that steel is no power within him, but a prison but it also makes the cage in which Yank is imprisoned. The action takes place in the fireman’s forecastle, all the firemen, except Yank, have washed their faces and bodies, even though bits of coal dust have stuck around their eyes and give them a sinister expression. Yank has not washed himself he is ‘thinking’ and wants to be left in peace. So he gets angry with other firemen.
His pride and sense of security have been shattered by the insult. It makes him to realise that he “does not belong”. The scene takes place on the fifth avenue, the locality where the rich people live. The street is neat and clean and the shops are well stocked. Fifth Avenue is the most fashionable part of New York City. Yank and Long have there in search of Mildred rich capitalist, who exploit them and insult them and Yank, can have his revenge there. But Yank prefers to beat them into submission single handedly.
Just then the church service is over, and a crowd of well- dressed men and women comes out of the church. Yank itching for a fight, lurches some of them. But they take no notice of him, avoid him; and move on leaving him amazed and bewildered. He wants to attack the rich lady in the shop identifying her with Mildred. He knocks down an old man who shouts and brings policeman to the spot. He tries to fight, but is clubbed to the pavement, arrested and taken away. Yank’s mad, senseless attempts at revenge land him in jail. His experience in the fifth avenue makes him aware of his stature. He becomes more helpless than before and this helpless in a crowded civilized world compels him to seek recognition through his second
nature – i.e., violence. Finally, he finds himself in a jail after assaulting a person of the upper class.
In the prison Yank happens to know about the I.W.W (i.e). International workers of the world from a fellow prisoner. He is confident that he will be able to wreak vengeance on Mildred and her class by joining the IWW. But the officer in the IWW takes Yank to be an agent provocateur, a secret service man. He says that Yank is a Spy and is ‘a brainless ape. At the word ‘brainless ape’. Yank passions are aroused, but the very moment he is thrown out of the office into the street. His rejection by the I.W.W. is a terrible shock to his belief. Yank realizes that he does not belong even to the I.W.W. He thought that he belonged to the steel and the world of steel disowns him. He is also rejected by civilized society.
Finally he goes to a Zoo and stands before the cage of a gorilla in a zoo and soliloquizing about the similarities and dissimilarities between himself and the great ape.
He regards the gorilla as his own brother, as a member of his own family, as a place he belongs to. He feels himself alienated everywhere. He feels alienated from nature also. Another remarkable difference between himself and the ape is that the gorilla at least belongs to the jungle but Yank does not belong to the world. Yank opens the door and enters into the cage the next moment the gorilla wraps his huge arms round him and crushes him to death. Yank falls down like a heap. The gorilla takes him up throws him into the cage, and closes the door. The final scene shows that Yank is rejected not only by man and nature but also by animals. As Yank dies, he mutters and in deep agony he cries “Christ, where do I get off? AT? Where do I fit in” (HA7).
In his search to discover himself , Yank moves from one to another from the cage – like stokehole of the steamer to the cell on Block- wells Island, to the final death cage.
O’Neill, Eugene. The Hairy Ape. ed., N. Eakambaram. New Delhi. S. Chand & Company,
Varshney. Eugene O’Neill and his The Hairy Ape. Bareilly: Students Store, 2002-2003.