An understanding of James T. Farrell and his work on the basis of one novel, or even as many as three individual novels, is impossible. Farrell’s vision was panoramic, however limited his subject matter may have been, and cannot be understood except in terms of large, homogeneous blocks of fiction. He did not write exclusively of Chicago or of Irish Catholics, but it was on this home “turf” that he most effectively showed the effects of indifference and disintegration on an independent, stubborn, often ignorant, urban subculture. He was at once appalled by and attracted to the spectacle of an entire people being strangled by the city and by their own incapacity to understand their position, and he was most successful when he embodied the society in the life and times of an archetypal individual.
Farrell’s three major, complete works total eleven novels; each of the eleven creates another panel in the same essential experience. While the Studs Lonigan trilogy, the five novels of the O’Neill-O’Flaherty series, and the Bernard Carr trilogy have different protagonists, they all share a common impulse and reflect Farrell’s almost fanatical obsession with time, society, and the individual’s response to both. Studs Lonigan, Danny O’Neill, and Bernard Carr are extensions or facets of Farrell’s primal character, pitted against a hostile urban environment.
Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy
The Studs Lonigan trilogy, arguably Farrell’s best and certainly his best-known work, is the story of the development and deterioration not only of the title character but also of the Depression-era Irish Catholic Chicago society from which he springs. In the fifteen-year span of Young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, and Judgment Day, Farrell shows the total physical, moral, and spiritual degeneration of Studs Lonigan.
Studs is doomed from the moment he appears just prior to his graduation from grammar school. His announcement that he is “kissin’ the old dump goodbye tonight” is ominously portentous. He drops out of high school, goes to work for his father, a painting contractor, and becomes a member and leading light of the gang that hangs out in Charlie Bathcellar’s poolroom. The association with the gang is Studs’s life—everything else is “plain crap.” Through a swirl of “alky,” “gang-shags,” “craps,” and “can-houses,” Studs fights to prove himself to be the “real stuff” and ultimately finds himself a frail, thirty-year-old shell of the vigorous youth he once was. The physical ruin of Studs Lonigan, however, is only the result of larger deficiencies.
Studs is a sensitive, moral being who consciously rejects his innate morality as a weakness. He blindly accepts his Catholic upbringing without believing it. There is never a present for Studs Lonigan—there is only a future and a past. In Young Lonigan, the future is the vision of Studs standing triumphantly astride the fireplug at 58th and Prairie, proclaiming his ascendancy to the brotherhood of the gang. The past is his rejection of juvenile harassment he suffered as the result of his one moment of ecstasy with Lucy Scanlan in Washington Park. He proclaims himself the “real stuff” and flees from human emotions and the potentialities of those experiences with Lucy.
Studs consistently refuses to allow his emotional sensitivity to mature. The spiritual stagnation that results confines him to dreams of future aggrandizement or of past glories. The future dies, and Studs is left with memories of his degeneracy. His affair with Catherine Banahan awakens new sensibilities in Studs, but he is unable to nurture them, and they die stillborn. His heart attack at the beach, his dehumanizing odyssey through the business offices of Chicago looking for work, his shockingly prurient behavior at the burlesque show, and his final delirium are simply the payment of accounts receivable.
As Studs dies, his world is dying with him. His father’s bank has collapsed, the mortgage on his building is due, his fiancé is pregnant, and the gang has generally dispersed. These are not the causes of Studs’s failures, however; they are reflections of that failure. Studs is the product and the producer. He is not a blind victim of his environment. He makes conscious choices—all bad. He is bankrupt of all the impulses that could save him. He batters and abuses his body, strangles his emotions, and clings to the stultifying spirituality of a provincial Catholicism. As Lucy Scanlan dances through his final delirium and his family abuses his pregnant fiancé, Studs Lonigan’s dying body becomes the prevailing metaphor for the empty world that Studs created and abused, and in which he suffered.
(The entire section is 1983 words.)