How the Devil Came Down Division Street Analysis

Nelson Algren

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The narration in “How the Devil Came Down Division Street” is atypical of Algren, whose style tends to be figurative and naturalistic in its use of animal imagery, rather than literal and matter-of-fact. In addition, Algren generally relies on omniscient, third-person, rather than first-person, narration. The narrator in this story recounts Roman’s story, but he embellishes it, filters it through his own values and attitudes, and then poses questions about the story itself. There are two narrative “voices” or styles in the story. The first is the narrator’s retelling of Roman’s story “as closely to what he told as I can,” without the “sobs” and the “cursing,” but with a touch of mocking irony. For the most part, the narrator offers a straightforward account with almost mathematical exactitude. Given the number of people and the number of sleepers, there is domestic trouble; when Papa is added to the equation, someone else will be in trouble. In fact, the narrator begins the paragraphs at the end of Roman’s story with the phrases “Thus it came about,” “So it was,” and “This is why,” thereby lending the story an air of logical precision. The other narrative voice occurs at the end of Roman’s story, from which it is separated by a break in the text. The second voice is more abstract, philosophical, and questioning, and the language is much more figurative: The narrator asks if the devil is “the one who knocks, on winter nights, with blood drying on his knuckles, in the gaslit passages of our dreams?” Because the short story concludes with this pessimistic speculation about evil, despair, and the unconscious, Algren apparently intends Roman’s story, amusing and touching as it is, as the springboard for some searching questions about the nature of evil.