Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“A Bottle of Milk for Mother,” the winner of an O. Henry Memorial Prize, is a typical Nelson Algren story in its characters, setting, and themes. In fact, the story in revised form also appears in Algren’s novel Never Come Morning (1942), which also has Bruno “Lefty” Bicek as its protagonist. In both the short story and the novel, Bruno’s world is circumscribed: the Polish ghetto of Chicago in the novel, and an interrogation room in the short story. While Bruno is ambitious, he has only the illusion of freedom. He is, in fact, a victim who cannot really “move” or escape from the fate that his environment—ethnic, economic, political—imposes on him.

In the first sentence of the story, Algren describes the murder as Bruno’s “final difficulty with the Racine Street police,” and the reader learns that the outcome of the story is never in doubt. Algren focuses not on what will happen but on Bruno’s growing awareness of and resignation to his fate. Though the setting remains the same, Bruno’s options disappear one by one until his only “escape” is an imaginative one. Algren’s theme is Bruno’s entrapment, “imprisonment,” so to speak, before the sentence is ever pronounced. Early in the story, Bruno feels “the semicircle about him drawing closer,” even though none of the police actually moves toward him. Throughout the interrogation Bruno stands immobile. When he shuffles his feet and moves to unbutton his shirt, Adamovitch stops him; his only movements are the “scuffling” of his shoes. He does move his eyes but only to “fix” them as a window to the outside world. In effect, the athletic Bruno is ironically rendered incapable of real action, and he “acts” only in a dramatic sense. When his act elicits only guffaws and derisive laughter from his “audience,” he retreats into a fantasy world in which he “zigzags” his way to freedom; the fact that his escape is imagined in cinematic terms implies that Bruno cannot literally see himself escaping.