James T. Farrell Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2312

James T. Farrell’s stories, because of their often graphic language and action and because, perhaps, of their relatively uneven quality, are not often anthologized. His best work comes from the early collections such as Calico Shoes, Guillotine Party, and $1,000 a Week . When his stories remain within the...

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James T. Farrell’s stories, because of their often graphic language and action and because, perhaps, of their relatively uneven quality, are not often anthologized. His best work comes from the early collections such as Calico Shoes, Guillotine Party, and $1,000 a Week. When his stories remain within the realm of his Chicago youth, he is at his best—even later stories set in Chicago reflect the tough vibrance evident in the likes of “Willie Collins,” “The Triumph of Willie Collins,” and “Saturday Night.”

Farrell’s characters never seem fabricated. They strut and boast. They cringe at frightening things, and they suffer from the inexorable progress of time—perhaps the dominant theme in Farrell’s work. Never conventionally literary, the real nature of Farrell’s stories makes them compelling if not always tasteful and appealing. There is no varnish on Farrell’s rough exterior. The reader is expected to accept the stories in their raw, immediate sense.

The individual is the unsteady center of Farrell’s stories; a large number of his stories are almost vignettes of individuals as they function in daily life. It is this attention to the individual which sets Farrell’s work apart. Farrell’s universe does not admit of predestiny or fortune or, despite his rich Irish Catholic milieu, divine intervention; his individual succeeds or fails by virtue of his own efforts and abilities. The only force beyond the control of the individual is time, and, along with the freedom of the individual will, time rules Farrell’s work. There is a consistent determination on the part of Farrell’s characters to recapture the past, elude the present, or rush into the future. In each instance, despite their strivings, they inevitably fail. Farrell does not celebrate the failure, but he portrays it honestly, and failure sets the tone of his stories.

“When Boyhood Dreams Come True”

Both of Farrell’s major themes are projected in “When Boyhood Dreams Come True.” Tom Finnegan, a man trying to understand and recapture his past, fails in a dream world which is reminiscent of the Inferno (c. 1320), The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), and the Catholic catechism, but Finnegan, on awakening, forgets the dream except for the one synthetic revelation that “almost explained the meaning of life.” Finnegan is made aware that “the past was dead, gone. All his life had led up to this minute. Only this minute was real. The past was unreal. It was gone.” Finnegan fails to recapture the past and, at the end of the story, he is uncertain of his future, but the moment of reality, the now, is left for him to manipulate—to use or misuse as he is able. It is this juxtaposition of the impact of the past and of failure on which Farrell thrives.

Joe Eliot, in the story of the same name, struggles with the past in a similar fashion, but, unlike Finnegan, he is trapped—hamstrung by his failure and frustration. What Joe calls failures, however, are merely results of his inability to cope with things over which he has no control. When Joe refuses to ride home on the same car with this supervisor, he reflects “contempt,” and the reader sees him as “uninterested,” “bored,” and passive to the point of giving his unfinished evening paper to his supervisor to get rid of him. Joe’s reaction to his supervisor is typical of his relationship with humankind. His contempt for and passive reaction to other men are direct results of his frustration with past failure and himself.

In the second of five parts, Joe sinks into a reminiscence of his past which begins with bittersweet memories of the Seine in 1918 while he was in World War I and with remorseful recriminations against his wife, who died of peritonitis while he was in France. The reader learns that Joe has a Harvard University degree, was an All-American halfback, and felt that he “could have been something big.” The reader also learns that he has had a break with his rich father (probably over Joe’s marriage) and that he refuses a reconciliation despite overtures from his father. Farrell presents Joe as bitter and lonely but does not demand the reader’s sympathy or pity. Joe deserves no pity in a situation he will not attempt to alter. The narrator declares of Joe: “He hadn’t fitted into the world, and he didn’t give a good goddamn.”

After eating in a second-rate establishment, Joe walks through the Loop in Chicago. The narrator makes a point of coloring the scene with natural commentary about the soft night and the sunset, but Joe is unaffected by it all until, as he convinces himself he is a “failure,” he suddenly notices “as if it were a discovery, a sky streaming with stars that were radiant on the surface of a deep blue.” While the vision touches Joe, he belittles the experience and himself for standing on the corner gawking at the stars, “but he walked with the happy feeling that he just sucked a flashing moment from the weltering insignificance of human life.” The revelation is only momentary, and the insignificance he attributes to human life brings him back to his “failure.” He wanders to Lake Michigan musing over his lost promise, his dead wife and daughter, and the fact that “mistakes could not be rectified.” He even berates death for being a “messy conclusion to a mess.”

The moment of illumination, Farrell seems to tell the reader, is enough to remind Joe of something other than his self-imposed failure and frustration, but it is not enough to draw him out of himself—it cannot save him from himself. The sojourn beside Lake Michigan nearly allows him to effect a reconciliation with himself. The mesmerizing nature of the waves calms his frustration but reminds him of the fruitless nature of people’s efforts when compared to the effortless and inexorable presence of nature. Nature, Joe reminds the reader, will be here when Chicago crumbles, and the waves will go on when the city and humans are no more. The waves also remind Joe of his loss of faith and of his attempt to regain that faith with the Catholics; but he is revulsed by the Catholics’ “eating their God” and admits the need for a “Presbyterian God.” Joe cannot function socially or spiritually in human society, and nature only reminds him of his isolation and, thus, that he is a stranger. He is alone with himself. He is afraid to die. He “almost ached for the past. He found himself wanting them [events of the past] all back.” Despite the turmoil in his mind, Joe reaches “a womb of calm” before leaving the lake, but as he leaves, he watches a young couple making love on the beach. The moment of reconciliation is gone. His examination of himself has culminated in watching man procreating beside the forces of nature which calmed him. As he walks back into the city, his frustration returns.

Joe is frustrated by humankind, by nature, and by himself. He does not want to leave a restaurant because he is anonymous while in that group. He does not want to go home because he will be alone. He is fond of the night in the city because he does not have to cope with all the people who normally fill the empty offices, but he still feels surrounded by the city. The city at night and its “many little worlds and private universes were only reflected things.” As a reflection, the city does not intrude on Joe’s existence but is a sort of iron womb in which he can avoid the natural calm of the lake and turn back into the solace of his frustration. As a result, there is no final revelation, no change, no alteration in Joe. His failures are all that are real and his principal failure is the inability to cope with himself. He cannot regain the past and he cannot deal with his memories of that past. Farrell’s world is full of such isolated, ostracized people. The past is an intrinsic part of their failures, and inordinate attention to or desire for the past enhances its impact. Farrell also makes it clear, however, that lack of concern for the past is just as fatal as preoccupation with it.

“The Fastest Runner on Sixty-first Street”

In “The Fastest Runner on Sixty-first Street,” Morty Aiken is successful, but his preoccupation with the future blinds him to the importance of the present, and his failure to attend carefully to that present is a direct influence on the outcome of the story. The story of the boy who could outrun and outskate everyone in his neighborhood is a classic success story with a twist. The reader knows from the beginning that Morty is the All-American boy. He enjoys running and skating faster than anyone else—he does not revel in the victory, but in the performance itself. He is well liked and respected as a direct result of his abilities, and he is fascinated with his promise for the future. He views the present as little more than a way station to becoming the greatest runner in the world. At every turn the reader is reminded of Morty’s self-assuredness and of his dreams: “Although he was outwardly modest, Morty had his dreams.” Morty dreams of going to high school and prospering under high-school coaching. He dreams of college track meets and, ultimately, the Olympics. He also dreams of girls. He dreams that “girls would all like him, and the most beautiful girl in the world would marry him.” He dreams of Edna, his ideal of the moment; when he runs, he dreams he is running for Edna. He dreams of ways to give Edna one of the medals he has won for speed. In all of his dreams, however, running is the all-important thing. Everything else in the world is simply an excuse to run and feel the exhilaration of speed and of his body accomplishing that speed.

Tony Rabuski is another accessory to Morty’s speed. Tony, the “toughest” and “poorest” boy in school, is befriended by Morty, and Morty uses his speed to keep other boys from teasing Tony by chasing down Tony’s tormentors and holding them until Tony can catch up and “exact his revenge.” Morty’s friendship changes Tony from a sullen outcast to a member of the “gang,” but the change does not materially affect Morty. Morty uses Tony as another excuse to run—just as he uses his dreams of Edna and his hopes for the future. In essence, there is no present for Morty, only the future.

It is only in the final sections of the story, after Morty is graduated from grammar school and begins summer vacation, that any sense of temporality enters his life. As Morty whiles away a summer “as good as any summer he could remember,” he becomes embroiled in the racial problems of Chicago. Washington Park and Morty’s neighborhood are being infiltrated by blacks, and there is a typical gang reaction to this move. One never sees Morty as a racist, only as the “catcher” for the gang. Morty runs ahead of the mob, tackles the “dark clouds” and holds them until the gang can catch up and beat them; it is precisely the scheme he and Tony had “doped out” earlier. The reader is never led to believe that Morty hates the blacks or has any interest in the situation at all except in the sense that it gives him another reason to run. As he runs after blacks, he dreams the same dreams of Edna, of glory, of running. He does not consider the blacks’ fate or why he is catching them; he thinks only of running. It is this lack of concern for the real, present world that is Morty’s undoing.

When Morty, in the finale of the story, runs ahead of a mob formed by Tony Rabuski, he is doing only what he does naturally—running. He chases two blacks who escape behind a funeral train (blatant foreshadowing) and then begins the final race to catch a lone black boy. With the mob howling behind him, Morty runs with the idea of catching the black and for the sheer joy of running. As he chases the black, however, the closer he comes to his quarry, the more he outdistances the mob. The closer he comes to his immediate goal, the further he runs ahead of his world, his present. The black runs into a predominantly black area; Morty, innocently, follows him; the black disappears; Morty is “caught and pinioned his throat slashed,” and the mob arrives to find no blacks in sight and to view the remains of the fastest runner on Sixty-first Street lying in a pool of his own blood.

Morty has never had time to live in the present. His dreams, his pleasure with his own body and his own future, and his lack of attention to the present which will become his past are fatal. If he had been attentive, he would have been more aware of the danger of entering the black neighborhood alone. He is trapped not by the past but by his ignorance of it, and the reader is warned against that ignorance by the image of his body.

Farrell was a fatalist, a determinist, a naturalist, and a realist, all in one turn. There is no success for Farrell, only endurance. His stories leave the reader with a very real sense of the character’s failure and with a sense of the ongoing nature of that failure in the everyday world. Farrell’s characters are hurt and they scream as a result of the pain, but no one is listening.

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