How the Devil Came Down Division Street Themes

Nelson Algren

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Although the story begins in a bar and contains a humorous turn of events, it explores the nature of guilt, the need to justify one’s behavior and one’s weaknesses, and the nature of evil. On the superficial and superstitious level, the bloody young man seeks atonement and peace, both of which he apparently receives through the Orlovs’ prayers, but the narrator mocks the “miracle” through Mrs. Zolewitz’s morality (unwed sex leads to death) and the priest’s liberally bestowed “blessings.” Mama also suffers guilt for her neglect of Roman, but her guilt is “after the fact” of her renewed sex life with her husband and his eventual death. Hers is the comic guilt of one who repents only after the opportunity for sin no longer exists. Roman’s guilt, however, is real, for that “worm” that “gnaws” within him is his own awareness of his wasted life. It is that awareness that prompts his explanation and justification of becoming the “biggest drunk on Division Street.” His “lack of a bed” is his “excuse” for his behavior, but the narrator notes that his father’s “excuse” at least involved an accordion. Because he still does not have a “home,” Roman expects sympathy and understanding, but clearly his psychological wounds have been self-inflicted. Although it may help Roman to believe in the devil as an active presence in the world, the devil is “within.” On the other hand, Nelson Algren also suggests that Roman’s environment contributes to his fate. Brought up in a community that confuses superstition with religion, that restricts morality to sexual matters, and that regards drinking as a means of achieving status, Roman does not have much chance to escape the confines of the Polish ghetto in Chicago. Like other Algren characters, Roman is trapped, paralyzed, and incapable of action.