The struggle of Yank, a fireman who works aboard a Transatlantic Liner, is the subject of The Hairy Ape. Yank, real name is Bob Smith, was born in New York City. Yank does not reveal many details of his family history, but, from what he does say, it is clear that it was painful. His mother died of the "tremens" and his father, a shore-worker, was abusive. Yank tells Long that on Saturday nights his parent's fighting was so intense that his parents would break the furniture. Ironically, his parents made him attend church every Sunday morning. After his mother died, Yank ran away from home, tired of lickings and punishment.
In the beginning of The Hairy Ape, Yank seems fairly content as, if not proud to be a fireman. He defends the ship as his home and insists that the work he does is vital—it is the force that makes the ship go twenty-five knots an hour. Mildred Douglas's reaction to Yank is the catalyst which makes Yank come to class awareness. His attempt to get revenge on Mildred Douglas widens to revenge on the steel industry and finally the entire Bourgeois. Throughout this struggle Yank defines "belonging" as power. When he thinks he "belongs" to something he gains strength, when Yank is rejected by a group, he is terribly weak. However, Yank is rejected by all facets of society: his fellow firemen, Mildred, the street goers of 5th Ave., The I.W.W., and finally the ape in the zoo. Yank symbolizes the struggle of modern man within industrial society—he cannot break class or ideological barriers, nor create new ones. Yank is the outsider, and eventually just the freak at the zoo for people to cage and point at.