This story tells the fascinating tale, in the form of never sent letters, of an ape brought aboard an iron-hulled sailing ship in 1909 by Samson Low, the ship’s captain. Although the author makes a point to tell the reader, through Samson Low, that the animal does not symbolize anything or mean anything, in fact, “He stands for nothing” (280), several arguments can be made to contradict this. One could argue that the ape symbolized the untamed and rarely used wild side of Samson Low through a comparison of their personalities, appearances, and the way they are treated by others. Samson Low was a captain of a ship owned by the Green Star Line. He is a stickler for rules and the proper code of conduct. When writing to his company, he reminds them of “the complete absence of disciplinary action against me” (271).
This serves to highlight that he has never been in trouble or broken the rules. He is comfortable and comforted by his pattern of obedience and thinks others must be as well: “Though my subordinates sometimes complain, they are grateful no doubt, for my firm rule and tidiness” (271). His ship is always on time or even ahead of schedule. The picture painted is of a steady, reliable, conservative man who always does the appropriate thing in a situation. However, a typhoon the ship sails through reveals a different, less predictable side. When describing the typhoon, Samson thinks, “I confess that I have wished to be completely taken up by such a thing, to be lifted into the clouds…” (272). This is hardly the thought of a truly buttoned-down man. He also imagines surrendering to the seas, “But I have not, and will not.” (272). While he seems content with his life, Samson Low’s secret yearnings sometimes show through.
It is because of this Samson seems jealous of the ape and the things it has experienced. Samson has only dreamed while the ape has actually lived. The ape, when first aboard, climbs the rigging to the highest point from there he has a total view of the ship below and all that goes on much like a “pharaonic” captain would do. While in the rigging the ape shrieks and hollers frightening the crew until the captain climbs up to it. Although the captain maintains that he climbs merely to check the validity of his men’s arguments concerning the ferociousness of the creature, he seems to really enjoy a climb that he has not done in years. When they are face to face the ape, “… stopped his pantomime and, with a gentle and quizzical tilt of the head, looked me straight in the eyes.” (275). After this moment the ape calms down. It would seem that the ape and captain’s reaction to one another is significant in that Samson sees something he recognizes and is unsettled by, while the ape see one who is like him and therefore relaxes.
The ape and Samson seem to mirror each other in other areas as well. The ape is definitely not a human, he is covered with long orange hair, has sharp, pointed teeth, his “feet and hands are human in appearance except that they have a bulbous…look common to monkeys.” (275). It is interesting to note that both beings are approximately 5’ 10″ tall. Perhaps the oddest fact concerning the ape is the fact that his eyes “are a bright, penetrating blue.” (275). Theses blue eyes would seem like those of a human and give the creature a less animalistic quality. This could be why the captain has such an odd response when face to face with the ape. Although hungry, the ape, a vegetarian, won’t come down until the captain has ordered a special meal prepared. Surprisingly it is the captain’s favorite meal, enjoyed at a point in his life when he was less conservative. The ape devours the meal. The captain has this dish prepared, perhaps, because the ape reminds him of what he was and of the little recklessness he had as a young man. They are affected by their surroundings the same way. The heat also affects them similarly. Heat prostration has hit the captain and he suffers from very severe headaches for the first time in his life and “The ape has begun to suffer from the heat. He is listless…” (280). For the first time, the captain has headaches’ on the same journey he has taken aboard an ape. The heat my be partially to blame but the guilt he feels of not living his life as he secretly wants to could also be a factor. The ape also imitates what Samson Low does.
When Samson offers his hand to the creature, “In imitation, he put out his arm, looking much less fearsome.” (277). The captain and the ape act as if they are communicating on a different, more primitive level. At times, the crew’s behavior is primitive as well. Their reactions change throughout the story. At first they fear the ape as a wild creature until the captain “tames’ him. “The crew has divide into two factions-those who wish to have the monkey shot, and those who would … put him in his boat”. (274). Because they do not understand him they wish to be rid of him. The next stage is acceptance and approval. After the creature comes down from the rigging and takes the captain’s hand, “the crew cheered and laughed” (277). Now that they no longer fear him, they enjoy his novelty as a kind of pet. They write home and describe the ape with some pride; they are the ones who have this animal and have conquered him. The next step is indifference. The crew ignored the ape where they had had such strong reactions before. Cruelty from the crew came next. The ape had become “the target of provocation and physical blows” (280).
After this treatment, the ape reverts back to his initial behavior and attacks the captain. The crew does not help and lets Samson fight the creature on his own. Their reaction is similar to what society’s reaction would be to Samson if he did not do everything the right way. If in fact, he chooses to follow what was deep inside him, he would be feared at first for being different to the norm. People would gradually appreciate that difference once they come close to understanding it. They would become bored after a while because he is not doing anything new and then begin to hate him for that. Samson’s fight with the creature is like two sides of the same man fighting for control. Samson tries to extend his hand to hold on to the ape so he can throw him overboard. The ape, at first, doesn’t fight back. Instead, “He did not bare his teeth. He screamed.” (281). The ape only begins to fight after Samson starts dragging him toward the side of the ship. Throughout, the ape shrieks and moans and fights back, choking Samson in the same manner that Samson is choking him. On this ship with dozens of men, no one makes an effort to help throw the ape overboard. They seem to realize that this battle is personal. It is what someone wants to be, yet fears, against what that person has become. Eventually, Samson wins and the ape is thrown overboard. However, the way Samson wins is by becoming like the ape, “I gripped so hard that my own teeth were bared and I made sounds similar to his”(281).
There is a bit of a wild animal in most people. It seems to be balanced by the appearance we maintain for society’s standards. The ape seems to symbolize Samson’s “wild” side and how Samson dealt with it. He only broke the rules when the ape was on board. This let him live, as he had not in a long time, from climbing the rigging, to socializing more freely with his men, to being lenient where he had never been before. Their similarities and differences support the two sides of this creature. It would not be farfetched to say that after the ape had gone, he stayed with Samson for a long time if not always.
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