Manhattan Transfer Themes

Themes

The narrative that frames the first section of Manhattan Transfer both concretizes and confuses the alienation theme, the motif central to the novel, and Dos Passos's indictment of industrial America. The reader first encounters the story of Bud Korpenning's entering the city with high expectations. So, expecting the organization of a traditional plot, the reader anticipates that Bud's story will be the center of narrative interest, but it actually constitutes only a small fraction of the first section. Quickly Dos Passos directs us to other sketches. In a larger sense, however, Bud's story provides a nucleus of meaning for the rest of the novel. It is simultaneously a frame device, a thematic microcosm, and a representative example of confusion between satiric and individual character development in the novel as whole.

Enacting what is nearly a cultural archetype. Bud wants to relocate from rural New York to the city, in his repeated phrase to "get to the center of things." Like the heroes of novels by writers as diverse as Theodore Dreiser, William Dean Howells, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bud attempts a journey from innocence and rural America to experience and the metropolis. This quest, a prototype for Charley Anderson's story in U.S.A. as well, is figuratively a search for some sense of connection to a larger cultural enterprise. While he makes his way toward the center of the city, but not its figurative centers of power and influence. Bud receives contradictory advice from citizens who profess knowledge of the city's ways, subtle variations by Dos Passos on the guide figures of traditional quest literature. One tells him to get a shave and haircut, because "it's looks that count in this city," whereas another tells him to join a union if he hopes to prosper. Yet another resident offers him a dollar and a meal for performing a menial service but pays him with stale leftovers and a quarter.

At one level, therefore, Bud's story enacts the initiation of a prototypical American innocent confronted and victimized by a corrupt, experienced, world. He wants to locate and share that culture's meaning, but is victimized by those who understand it. In turn, he is further alienated by this victimization. When he comes to understand the city's devious ways, Bud becomes a cunning cynic, yet he remains a victim as he enacts desperate fantasies of wealth and influence. Pretending to agree to a bum's scheme to get rich. Bud spends his last money on a good meal, then in a gesture of defiance resembling the melodramatic suicide of Wenny, a central character in Streets of Night (1923), leaps from a bridge (a symbolic connection of two land masses and an applied technology) to his death to escape the heartlessness of the modern metropolis — a theme Dos Passos skillfully reinforces when the tugboat captain who witnesses the plunge grouses about the inconvenience of recovering Bud's body.

Like the immigrant whose sketch Dos Passos juxtaposes with the first episode of Bud's story, and Jimmy Herf, the novel's hero who as a child arrives in the city in the opening section, and whose departure brings the book to closure. Bud represents an innocent person seeking connection with the culture and being ground down by the figurative steamroller the metropolis has become. His progress through stages of entry, denial of meaningful friendship or useful work, conflicting advice from city veterans, and exploitation by the privileged class, constitutes in microcosm one large thematic design of this novel. As readers we sympathize with Bud — not as an individual — but as a representative victim of an unempathic society.

A related theme central to Manhattan Transfer is the waste of human talent and energy in an industrial and capitalistic culture. Although critics often argue that Dos Passos's characters are mere automatons, driven helplessly by forces they do not comprehend, this seems more true of the shadowy figures at the perimeter than of the several characters whom we see more comprehensively. Robert Rosen labels most of the characters in Manhattan Transfer "passive, uncomprehending victims" and associates Dos Passos at this stage of his development with reformist writers such as Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris in their hope that "an honest portrayal of intolerable social conditions would impel readers to work to change those conditions." Ruthless financiers, such as Phineas T. Blackhead and helpless, passive victims, such as Anna Cohen, a...

(The entire section is 1838 words.)