Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 713

The Lost Weekend is both a psychologically realistic study of an alcoholic personality and an intensely dramatic narrative. Author Charles Jackson demonstrates that he is adept at various modern fiction techniques, and his protagonist Don Birnam—like the intelligent, sensitive alcoholics in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway—transcends the nineteenth century stereotype of alcoholics as villains or lowlifes. Jackson, however, also diverges sharply from Fitzgerald’s and Hemingway’s tendency to treat alcoholism as a somewhat noble and artistic reaction to the cruel bourgeois world. Don’s “modern” sensibilities serve only as fuel for the flame of alcoholic rationalization, and the real life of the alcoholic is revealed in The Lost Weekend as being the furthest thing from noble.

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The Lost Weekend has many autobiographical elements; Jackson admitted that all but two of the plot points in the story were taken from his own experiences, and he clearly understands the terror, loneliness, and hopelessness of the drinker. His accomplishment is even more noteworthy because he is working against type. On the surface, Don Birnam is the antithesis of the hopeless drunk: He is sensitive, articulate, well dressed, and from a good family. Unlike the typical problem drinker in literature, Don never denies that he is an alcoholic. He is acutely aware of his other psychological problems, yet self-knowledge is no help. He has drunk himself out of society and into an unhealthy dependent relationship with his younger brother and his former fiancé, and he teeters on the brink of destitution and institutionalization. He is not a romantic hero; he is only a constant source of frustration and sometimes a real danger to himself and to everyone around him.

Psychoanalysis was popular in the 1930’s, and Jackson incorporates many psychoanalytic interpretations of human behavior into Don’s tortured reflections. Glimpses of Freudian staples (narcissism, arrested adolescence, latent homosexuality, sibling rivalry, passive aggression, the Oedipus complex) abound. Don is haunted by mirrors, beset with portentous dreams. The Lost Weekend transcends all Freudian paradigms, however, and Don’s problems defy any neat psychiatric solutions. Following the lead of Alcoholics Anonymous, Jackson portrays alcoholism as a spiritual illness ultimately impossible to deal with on logical terms. The loss of friends and livelihood and his trip to the alcoholic ward show that Don has passed a crucial milestone in the progression from periodic to chronic alcoholism, and, for all his grandiose philosophizing, the standard alcoholic’s abyss awaits him.

The Lost Weekend’s grim tone and gritty realism were considered rather sordid in 1944, but the book was generally well received by contemporary reviewers. Soon after its publication, it was made into a popular motion picture starring Ray Milland, with a new “happy” ending provided by Jackson himself. Perhaps in part because of its popular success, literary critics have largely ignored the novel in discussions of alcoholism in twentieth century literature, preferring to dwell on the tragic hero-drunks of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and the densely symbolic Under the Volcano (1947) by Malcolm Lowry, who made the trials of his alcoholic protagonist stand for nothing less than the throes of the modern world.

Whatever one thinks of Jackson’s decision to focus on the harsh reality of Don’s predicament, the author’s sure sense of craft is enough to ensure The Lost Weekend’s place in modern literature. Using an objective third-person perspective, incorporating seamless flashbacks and bursts of stream of consciousness, the narrative achieves the immediacy of a first-person narrative without sacrificing the ability to venture outside the knowledge of the central character. The reader is able to follow the protagonist even when Don forgets where he has been; the careful reader can spot the inconsistencies in Don’s self-analysis. Thus both narrator and reader have a better understanding of Don’s past and a surer sense of his future than Don himself could possibly achieve. Jackson succeeds in making Don as sympathetic to the reader as he is to the other players in the novel, who see only Don’s surface, even though the reader knows Don’s innermost thoughts and is also revolted and exasperated by him. By stripping all romantic and symbolic pretension from the enigma of alcoholism, Jackson has arguably accomplished one of the finest literary presentations of the alcoholic character.

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