Themes and Meanings
In “Blight,” Stuart Dybek explores the relationship between identity and perception. His characters see themselves in relation to how they see their world—how others tell them how to view their world. Ever “since blight had been declared we were trying . . . to determine if anything had been changed, or at least appeared different.” However, in truth nothing has changed. It is the same old place, the same impersonally numbered streets of southside Chicago. The only significant difference is that the world has been given a name, a name that “sounded serious.” What has defined them—though they do not yet know it—are all those “familiar things we didn’t have names for”: the bars and churches, drunks and junkmen who push wobbly carts up and down the streets and alleyways collecting rags and scraps of metal. Dybek beautifully transmutes the ugliness that is generally associated with urban blight into a lush, magical cityscape, in which rows of tulips “sprouted tall, more like corn than flowers.” He grants his narrator the lyrical power to recall by name those images that inhabited and shaped his sense of self. He and his narrator succeed in locating a new language, a new way of naming things. They peel back the layers of blight so that rarely seen aspects of Chicago’s ethnically mixed southside—a neighborhood put on the map by such gritty American realists as Nelson Algren and James T. Farrell—are revealed to readers in a new and wholly regenerative light.
Dybek’s fascination with how the world is perceived is evident in the opening paragraphs of “Blight.” Variations of the verb “to see” appear in thirteen of the story’s first twenty-one sentences. Dybek’s landlocked “coast of Chicago” is the kind of place in which reality is not always what it seems. What some might consider to be a blight zone is also a place where “people had managed to wedge in their everyday lives.” In his fiction, Dybek straddles the border between appearance and reality. He brings a world that is oftentimes seen through conflicting pairs of eyes into focus. He urges his readers not only to look but also to see.