The literary heir of Dreiser, Farrell is the epitome of the naturalistic writer whose protagonists’ behavior is shaped by their social, psychological, political, and financial environment. In his essay “Some Observations on Naturalism, So Called, in Fiction” (1950), Farrell defines his concept of naturalism: “By naturalism I mean that whatever happens in this world must ultimately be explainable in terms of events in this world.” The definition effectively distinguishes his fiction from that of those naturalistic novelists such as Frank Norris who frequently resort to the supernatural or mystical in shaping their plots. Moreover, Farrell documents his novels, piling up realistic details that circumscribe his characters choices, making them victims of their environment.
Farrell’s world is, for the most part, Chicago’s South Side, where he grew up. His Irish Catholic protagonists closely resemble their creator, particularly when the Danny O’Neills and Bernard Cams are intellectuals and writers confronting the role of the artist in an alien society. Even the Studs Lonigan figures, who are less articulate and more passive, are alienated (though they ironically belong to a gang) and isolated from their peers by their insecurity and their insistence on being stereotypical tough guys rather than individuals. The Farrell protagonist is often alone and typically alienated from self; consequently, he is a person divided into outer toughness and an inner tenderness, which must be consciously repressed. Despite his somewhat simplistic notion of personality, Farrell does succeed in creating unforgettable characters.
Although Farrell was praised by left-wing critics, some of them avowed communists, he viewed literature as distinct from propaganda. His novels do have a sociopolitical message and do indict society, but Farrell was not naïve about what literature could accomplish. His aim was to inform his readers, to lead them to discover truths about themselves and their society, rather than to change that society. His readers discover characters who are ill-equipped to control the rapidly changing world of the 1930’s and 1940’s and who cling stubbornly to ineffective but traditional beliefs in family, patriotism, capitalism, religion, and the American Dream.
His characters’ inability to cope is tied directly to their stunted lives and minds, which have been destroyed not only by their physical environment but also by their spiritual and domestic environment. While Chicago is not a “character” in Farrell’s novels, the city permeates the books and restricts the characters’ world. The priests mouth platitudes about morality and Catholic education, and these clichés, repeated often enough, provide solace to their parishioners. There is material, spiritual, and mental poverty on the South Side, where the characters react to their problems with formulas, homilies, and conventional wisdom. Innovation and creativity are absent, and when the rote answers do not work, silence or physical force is the result. Unless the Farrell protagonist is a writer, there can be no inner life, no stream of consciousness, because the characters literally do not think.
Relationships between men and women consequently are shallow and superficial, with each sex responding to the other in terms of stereotypes. Farrell’s males are sentimental but insensitive, violent but insecure; they tend to regard women as either spiritual creatures or tramps rather than as individuals. Women, on the other hand, mourn the loss of love and redirect their energies and ambitions to their children, whom they view with naïve idealism.
Characterization is Farrell’s strength; plot and style are his weaknesses. At best, the plots are episodic, and often the subplots are only tangential to the story because they develop a political message or some social criticism. The main plot concerns the maturation and attendant alienation and debilitation of the “hero.” The movement toward tragedy or pathos is inexorable; though the protagonist has free will, it is so circumscribed by environment that it is theoretical rather than actual. The style is only a bit less predictable; there is a decided lack of subtlety, much repetition, and dated slang, most of which is taken from the 1930’s and 1940’s. One of the most frequent criticisms of Farrell is that his novels never escaped from those decades.
For the most part, Farrell’s novels focus on character, which he believed was of utmost importance in the novel, and most of his characters are provided with lengthy biographies. The plots proceed chronologically, but they are often juxtaposed with newspaper headlines and stories, as well as with anecdotes about characters who do not appear elsewhere in the novel. These techniques indicate the Dreiser influence on both Farrell’s content (urban determinism) and style. An added Dreiser technique is the fragmentation of chapters, which become in some novels a series of snippets that work cumulatively to produce both an emotional effect and a commentary on the plot and the characters, themselves fragmented beings.
The newspaper stories, newsreels, and films that appear, often with elaborate plots that serve as counterpoint to his narrative, reflect Farrell’s preoccupation with the impact of the media on American life. Characters are guided by newspaper stories, and they are shaped by Hollywood’s version of the truth and...
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