Working Class in “Metropolis” and “The Hairy Ape” by O’Neill

Pages: 12
Words: 3317


Modernization refers to the transition from a pre-modernistic and agriculture-focused society into an industrialized and modern one. Industrialization is a complex process during which an economy is transformed from a mainly agricultural one to one that depends on the manufacturing of products. Therefore, manual labor can be significantly reduced and replaced by mass production, with craftspeople replaced by assembly lines, which allows for reduced costs and boosts the economy. Even though industrialization brings significant benefits, there is also the other side of the coin, which entails more damaging effects arising from societal transformation. In Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, the authors depict the industrial revolution as human development regression and the forwarding of society’s class system that causes disparities.

The Class Divide

In Metropolis, the plot revolves around the city with the same name, which highly depends on the industry, specifically machinery, which is the driving force for its modernity and rapid development and expansion. From the aesthetic standpoint, the bustling and thriving urban space of the city was nothing compared to Germany during the time when the film was made. Nevertheless, the city had similarities to the quickly expanding cities further west, namely, Chicago and New York (“Metropolis: Theme and Context”). From the very beginning, the film depicts the decadence of modern cities that developed rapidly due to industrialization, which allows emphasizing such social issues as inequality that lie beneath the glossy façade. Metropolis is a city built quite literally on inequality as the director made it synonymous with the exploitation of the lower class, the power of the most influential citizens, as well as corruption and greed.

In his 1965 interview for ‘Cahiers du cinema,’ Fritz Lang said that the idea behind Metropolis was born when he first saw skyscrapers during his 1926 visit to New York (“Metropolis: Theme and Context”). The director mentioned that he “thought that it was the crossroads of multiple and confusing human forces, blinding and knocking into one another, in an irresistible desire for exploitation, and living in perpetual anxiety” (qtd. In Grant 87). According to Lang, New York was a city that did not just give the impression of living, and it lived as illusions live, which pushed him to make a film based on the impressions.

As in New York, where society fell victim to the inequality between classes where elites resided in the most lavish areas while the working class had their own designated parts of the city, the city of Metropolis also had a similar structural differentiation. In the movie, the higher classes remained in the metropolis, while the workers were exiled into the City of Workers, which was underground. Such a distinct ‘line’ between the top and bottom classes, which were literally separated by the level of the ground, is a blatant signifier of the class divide caused by the rise of industrialization. While progress brought new opportunities, the system that was built worked in such a way that made it better for a few people and equally worse for much more.

The issue of the class divide that emerged as a result of the Industrial Revolution is also reflected in The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neill. The author believed that technological development did not create more wealth for society as a whole but instead took money from some and given to others. Such an exchange resulted in the creation of a relatively prominent but smaller upper class and a larger lower class. Nevertheless, the move toward industrialization did not just result in the monetary distinction between classes; the differences between people in terms of their social standing resulted in the viewing and treating each other differently as well.

The play’s protagonist, Yank, is a representative of typical lower-class individuals who tend to work hard in terms of manual labor and are poorly educated. Yank struggles with alcohol abuse and does not have a firm grasp over his emotions and reactions, which causes him to get extremely angry. A “fireman” on a Transatlantic Ocean Liner, Yank fits in well with other workers on the ship. In general, the lower class has been encouraged to mock self-improvement and instead “drink, don’t think” (O’Neil). The stark contrast between the lower and the upper class is seen in the fact that in the upper class, money and reputation determined rank, while in the lower class, the social order was decided through violence and physical strength.

To show the stark contrast to the lower class represented by Yank, the author briefly introduces the upper-class characters of Mildred and her aunt, who are the relatives of the largest global manufacturers of steel. As opposed to Yank, Mildred is well-educated and well-dressed, and even though her manners seem up to par, she is highly entitled and wasteful. The disregard of the upper class for monetary gains is shown in Mildred’s lack of concern for ruining her dress when she goes down to the coal room. The young woman said that she had fifty dresses like the one she was wearing, and she could afford to throw one out. Besides, the relationships within the upper class also adhere to different standards. For example, Mildred could argue with her aunt, insult her all the time, and even slap her in the face. If it were Yank to hit one of his relatives, he would have highly likely been beaten to near death. Thus, the upper class has the privilege to live in its own world, not aware of the world around them.

Economic Impact

Metropolis is set to resonate with the economic challenges that Germany experienced in the 1920s. Notably, the use of the sci-fi genre is an escape from the reality of the aftermath of World War I and an attempt to offer viewers a virtual experience that is not theirs. The desperation of Germany to recover from the defeat in the war led to various economic challenges. To restore the state of the nation, the government believed that the best strategy was to boost the productivity of the mechanical industry as a means to reach economic rehabilitation. The rapid development of the city of Metropolis, therefore, is considered to be similar to Germany’s post-war situation even though the film does not mention war altogether, the use of industry as a tool of economic gain is quite clear. Besides, there is also a reference to the Tower of Babel story told by the preacher named Maria, who retells it to workers to emphasize the gap between the people who envisioned the tower and the laborers who were building it for them. The Tower of Babel is a story that serves as a metaphor for workers’ current situation as they were the ‘hands’ that kept the city running while the economic divide remains relevant.

The depiction of machinery in Metropolis is an indication of the rise of industrialization in Germany for combatting the mentioned economic struggles. Most of the jobs available during that area were industrial, so workers took what they could take. Therefore, despite the intention to reach financial stability through industrialization, a common consequence was the development of dissatisfied workers. This is an explanation of how a Metropolis could operate on the basis of economic inequality. In the previous social system, the people who were previously “peasants” in their social hierarchy and had no other qualifications, had no other opportunities in the Metropolis than to engage in manual labor. At the same time, the elites were arguably more educated and intellectual, which allowed them to live in comfort in their city.

Because of the country’s economic interest in industrialization, Metropolis illustrates the characteristics of capitalism and shows the unequal nature of such a system due to the divided cities. This can be traced to Germany in the 1920s, where more people were fixated on economic growth that large organizations pushed had shown little consideration for the well-being of the nation as the majority of them were worried about their profits. Metropolis is instrumental in unraveling the true nature of capitalism and showing that only the wealthy can gain economic stability while the poor continue to become more impoverished. The city’s leader, Fredersen, understands that he could only profit from well-off citizens, thus helping it to grow and expand. He monopolizes the system and keeps each member of the social class in their place, which results in the expansion of the elites and the mundane, profitless, and labor-intensive lifestyle of the working class.

Fredersen is consistent in maintaining the significant power he has over the City of Workers and makes sure to check on the laborers by himself because he thinks that his subordinates are ineffective at reporting what is happening under the Metropolis. It becomes a problem when he sees that workers start thinking differently, taking into account both the literal and social context. Besides, he sees that Maria has given hope to the workers regarding an alliance forming between the two cities. For him, this is unacceptable, so he proceeds to ruin Maria’s image so that the workers stop trusting her. Fredersen’s approach to managing the potential uprising in the City of Workers illustrates the capitalistic theme that emphasizes the importance of profits and wealth above everything else, thus disregarding any ethical considerations.

While the Metropolis is an illustration of how Germany’s economy pushed to rapidly develop in the post-war period, The economic context of The Hairy Ape is America’s unprecedented technological advancement, the industrial revolution, and economic growth of the “Roaring Twenties.” The financial development of American society significantly boosted economic growth, benefiting the capitalist group and dehumanizing the proletariat. Therefore, Yank, who stood for the proletariat, was dehumanized, alienated, and denied any position in society. Without any opportunities for economic development, Yank searched for belonging in the world of animals, but he was also rejected in the same way he was in the world of humans. In many ways, Yank stands for the modern man who has been disillusioned by his own world and the loss of harmony with his fellow people and nature.

The “Roaring Twenties” was the time of rapid lifestyle changes that occurred with the backdrop of changes to the economy, technology, and industry. As more people achieved economic stability, they could afford to spend money on entertainment and have more personal freedom. Importantly, there was a significant difference between American and European psychology during the 1920s. While Europe had to recover after the war and needed rapid economic development, America experienced many positive changes in various aspects of life. Importantly, economic growth was more than doubled between 1920 and 1929 (Aba Sha’ar et al. 147). This created a consumer society in America, with people being able to change their lifestyles and become more excited about artificial things.


In Metropolis, dehumanization is illustrated in the making of machine-Maria as a way that Fredersen pushed his dictatorship and tried to control the working class. Machine-Maria was intended to deceive the workers and enable chaos within their city. It was Fredersen’s plan to trick workers into wrongdoing to justify the use of force against them. Void of the human feelings and emotions, the actions and speech of the false Maria were carefully planned so that she could accomplish the goals that Fredersen set for her. For instance, when she dealt with the gentlemen from the elite, the robot took off her clothing and danced provocatively. When dealing with the workers of the lower class, her rhetoric was eloquent in order to get them to agree with her. Thus, even the robot did not perceive the workers as humans but rather as a herd that could be manipulated through the right words and behaviors.

The dehumanization of the working class is among the critical outcomes of rapid economic development, as illustrated in The Hairy Ape. The play depicts the problems of modern industrialization and materialism in America and how their emergence brought alienation, dehumanization, and disillusionment to people. It is important to note that, since the beginning of the play, O’Neill focuses on the inhumane treatment of the working class in the way of achieving industrial advancement that made the wealthy become wealthier at the expense of the proletariat, who became poorer. Yank and his co-workers are depicted as caged animals; they shout and speak incoherently: “the room is crowded with men shouting, cursing, laughing, signing a confused incoherent uproar swelling into a sort of unity, a meaning – the bewildered furious, baffled defiance of a beast in a cage” (O’Neill 13). In this explicit quote, one can see how O’Neill exposes the inhumane treatment that the working classes experienced at the hands of capitalists. The laborers were denied not only a share of income even though they deserved it, but also were considered not human and thus should not have belonged to their world.

The workers were considered different, even with their physical structure referred to as “Neanderthal.” Their descriptions went in contrast to the capitalist people who saw the proletariat as “hairy-chested with long arms of tremendous power and low receding brows above the small resentful eyes” (O’Neill 15). This quote alone shows that the working class was like animals, they were dehumanized in contrast to the bourgeoisie, as seen in the character of Mildred, who is described as “slender, delicate, with a pale pretty face” (O’Neill 15). Mildred is arrogant because she is aware that her life is much better than that working-class people experience and makes ingenuine attempts to discover “how the other half lives… I would like to help them (O’Neill 17). However, her attempts were pointless because she really had no interest in helping the working-class people. Through his expressionism, O’Neill was successful at describing the inhumane conditions to which the proletariat was subjected in the lower part of the ship: “the men who are outlined in silhouette in the crouching, inhumane attitudes of chained gorillas” (O’Neill 22). Ironically, it was the ape in which Yank found false belonging.

Denial of Belonging

As discussed previously, in both The Hairy Ape and Metropolis, industrialization caused a social class divide between laborers and wealthy people. The exploitation of the working class meant that they were denied belonging to society as a whole. The class divide illustrated in Metropolis reflects the social structures and the denial of belonging of some groups due to the supposed domination of others. In the era of metropolises, the boundaries and unity between people were supposed to get looser, with individuals getting opportunities to enjoy more freedom and choose a particular style of life (Rafele 86). However, as time passed, the freedom achieved with the development of metropolis prompted more significant qualitative differences within social groups, with the domination of the private over the public sphere. Therefore, those from a lower social class could not find belonging in the advanced world, which, ironically, was created with their hands.

The subjugation of the agency of the working class in Metropolis can be considered an indicator of secular rationalism of industrial modernity. Notably, the presence of machinery that permeates Metropolis is indicative of the modernist notion of a blindly functioning world machine, gigantic automation, which “signaled the determination of social life by metaphysical legitimations of power that was replaced by the determination through the laws of nature” (Golding 21). An example of the divide is the depiction of the workers having to wrestle not with the control panel levers that are instrumental in transmitting human agency into machinery but with steel arms that stretches human-like limbs that seem to move according to unseen machinations. Therefore, the working class here plays the role of a tool more than the tools themselves, which means their belonging in the world is highly limited.

In the desire to attain belonging in the modernized and advanced world, the working class wanted to protest. As mentioned by Fischer, “the principal champions of resistance are the working-class masses,” as the workers wanted to destroy the machines that maintained the operation of the Metropolis. The ambitions of the aristocracy to improve the Metropolis could not work without the help of the lower class, which meant that the city could not function without the separation between the classes and the denial of belonging. However, in contrast to Yank, who could not find belonging even within his own kind, the disgruntled workers of the Metropolis united because they could no longer ignore the horrible working conditions.

In The Hairy Ape, Mildred is a representation of the capitalist society, while Yank stands for proletarians in the American culture of the 1920s. From the story’s beginning, Yank is in search of belonging. At first, he tried attributing his belonging to the ship as it was the thing that had always surrounded him, and the processes occurring there were somewhat understandable to him. His persistence in belonging to the stratum of workers who faced severe isolation and were denied membership in their own society after the 1920s. As some time passed, Yank understood that his belonging to the ship was something insignificant because it was in the ownership of capitalists and not his group of workers.

Yank and his fellow shipmen worked for the benefit who lived comfortable lives in the upper part of the ship. Notably, the physical barrier that exists between the lower and upper parts of the ship is also characteristic of Metropolis, in which the laborers lived underneath the city while the wealthy citizens lived comfortably in it. The blatant distinction between the upper and lower parts of the city and the upper and lower parts is illustrative of the denial of workers’ belonging to the higher social status. By ensuring that laborers stayed at the bottom, the bourgeoisie had better control over the workers and established a status quo in which they could be content. Yank says, “all de rich guys dat tink de ey’re sommep’n, dey ain’t nothing! Dey don’t belong. But us guys we’re in de move, we’re at de bottom, de whole ting is us?” (O’Neill 14).

Consequently, Yank attempted to find bellowing in the capitalists’ world but was unsuccessful. He went to Fifth Avenue, trying to assert his belonging, tried talking to churchgoers and people passing by, but no one gave him the attention he wanted and needed, which made him angrier and resulted in him violently blocking churchgoers and blocking them on their way, asking for recognition. With the government supporting only the bourgeoisie, Yank was not treated well and got detained, which could be perceived as a metaphor for the prevention of reality to come out.

In his further search for belonging in the cynical industrialized world, he came across W.W.I, Industrial Wreckers of the World, which was an organization consisting of only criminals, murderers, and jailbirds. Yank could not even get into there because he was a member of the proletariat and the organization’s secretary referred to him as “a brainless hairy ape” (O’Neill 45). Therefore, nothing that Yank did could bring him a sense of belonging in the human world, thus, he turned to the animal world as he understood that a gorilla could be more affectionate because it at least reacted to his presence. Ultimately, Yank died at the hands of a gorilla in a cage, uttering his last words about the desire to belong.


To conclude, The Hairy Ape and Metropolis show the adverse impact of industrialization on the social divide between classes, showing how the bourgeoisie oppressed and dehumanized the working class despite the latter’s great contribution to the development of modernized society. The class divide was both literal, such as the upper- and lower-cities, and metaphorical, as illustrated in the opportunities that the groups had. Notably, the relationships between classes in the film and the play can also be transferred to modern society in which the isolation of workers remains a problem while the wealthy hold the most power and influence.

Works Cited

Aba Sha’ar, Mohammed Yassin Mohd, et al. “The American Proletariat and the Challenges of the Roaring Twenties: The Depictions of E. O’Neill in The Hairy Ape.” Journal of English Language and Literature, vol. 5, no. 2, 2018, pp. 145-152.

Fischer, Conan. (2005). “Scoundrels without a Fatherland? Heavy Industry and Transnationalism in Post-First World War Germany.” Contemporary European History, vol. 14, no. 4, 2005, pp. 441-464.

Grant, Barry Keith. Fritz Lang: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2003.

“Metropolis: Theme and Context.” Filmeducation, 2010. Web.

O’Neill, Eugene. The Hairy Ape. Horace Liveright, 1929.

Rafele, Antonio. “Persona. Inquiries on the Self in the Representation of Metropolis Between XIX and XX Centuries.” Sociétés, vol. 1, no. 135, 2018, p. 73-86.