Hairy Apes and Humans

Hairy Apes and Humans

In 1922, from his experiences at sea, Eugene O'Neill summoned up images of a stoker on an ocean liner who would become Yank in The Hairy Ape. With long, powerful arms and a bared, hairy chest, Yank is at home in the hold of a ship as leader of the stokers. In his search for meaning, Yank condemns capitalistic society and the people who seem to be in control but have no value. He and his coworkers, grimy people who eat coal dust and drink heat, are the ones who run the whole works; when the stokers start something, the whole world moves.

Yank's one—dimensional life has validity until the rich, pale, white—robed daughter of the chairman of the board visits the bowels of the ship to see how the other half lives. When Yank suddenly confronts her in the light of open furnace doors, she screams, "Filthy beast, hairy ape!" then shrinks away and collapses whimpering. Yank is thoroughly sabotaged when the attributes of which he was most proud are attacked. He tries, without success, to find his place in the world and finally discovers kinship with a gorilla that kills him in an embrace.

Most people, just as Yank, would not feel complimented by being described as a hairy ape. After all, we pride ourselves on having progressed from our simian ancestry. Humans, from all appearances, have lost most of their body hair and continue to move farther from the apes. The surprise is that the human body has the same number of hairs as are found on the bodies of apes; it is just finer, shorter, and lighter. Like humans, apes become gray or silver with age and suffer hair loss, particularly on their heads.

Great apes, not to be outdone by humans, have their own individual sets of fingerprints. Moreover, not to be outdone by dogs, no two have the same noseprints. Zoologists prefer to identify gorillas by their noseprints, but then they have to coax the gorilla to submit to having its nose smeared with ink and pressed onto paper. We lose more zoologists that way!

From the book: 
Petrified Lightning