The Man with the Golden Arm

by Nelson Algren

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The Man with the Golden Arm, Algren’s one great popular success, caught public attention because of the then-shocking drug addiction of its protagonist. For Algren, this aspect—a late addition to the novel—merely contributed to the story of the self-destructive relationship of Francis Majcinek, known as Frankie Machine because of his skill as a dealer, and his possessive, hypochondriacal wife, Sophie (or Zosh).

Like all Algren protagonists, Frankie is not as tough as he pretends; he talks big, but he is a coward who dreams of becoming a drummer. His fixer, Nifty Louis Fomorowsky, sees immediately that Frankie is among the world’s sheep, not the shearers, and that like so many, he chooses his addiction and his doom. As always in Algren’s work, when strength is used, it leads to violence and self-destruction; in an unthinking moment, Frankie kills Louie.

The wheelchair-bound Sophie is the most complicated female character in any of Algren’s novels. Her pride stung by Frankie’s indifference to her love, she had trapped him into marriage with a false pregnancy. Now, though there is nothing wrong with her legs, she insists that Frankie crippled her in a driving accident, binding him all the tighter to her through guilt. Throughout the book, she becomes more demanding and destructively compulsive, driving Frankie away while descending into insanity. Instead of abandoning her, Frankie makes halfhearted attempts to please her, because “a guy got to draw the line somewheres on how bad he can treat somebody who can’t help herself no more just account of him.” Unfortunately, Frankie does not know where to draw the line and so relies on morphine.

In another characteristic Algren touch, it does not matter that Frankie became addicted by chance in an Army hospital. He is doomed anyway, because he cannot rid himself of this “monkey on his back” (a phrase introduced into general use with this novel). For Algren there are no fresh starts, even though trust and love always hold out hope. Molly Novotny offers love to Frankie, but he cannot accept it because his tortured guilt over Sophie alienates him more and more from himself.

In the novel’s world, self-destruction is pursued in the hope of penance, and Frankie gets his one chance for redemption when he is caught shoplifting. In prison, he breaks his addiction, only to return to Division Street and find that Molly is gone, Sophie is crazy, and the one person he trusted, Sparrow “Solly” Saltskin, has betrayed his trust. When he loses his touch with cards, Frankie goes back on drugs, while the tenacious police captain Record Head Bednar uses Sparrow, as well as Frankie’s own addiction, to nail him for Louie’s killing. On the run, wounded and exhausted, Frankie hangs himself in a flophouse.

In no other novel did Algren mix serious, lyrical, and comic elements to such effect. Writing it, he still thought that books could change society because “every man was secretly against the law in his heart . . . and it was the heart that mattered.” Believing that there are no absolute moral values—only people—Algren rated compassion over justice, especially that based on property laws, and he tried in this novel to move the reader to believe that as well.

This is particularly clear in the example of the tortured police captain, Record Head Bednar, who has an answer for every pathetic excuse except when an arrested man says, “We are all members of one another.” As the one responsible for arresting criminals, Bednar finally admits, but cannot embrace, his identification with the “guilty” who are closer to redemption than he is...

(This entire section contains 1022 words.)

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because he denies his connection with them. Instead, he continues his spiritual con game, apportioning society’s justice when he is “more lost, more fallen and more alone than any man at all.”

Though Algren was the grandson of a convert to Judaism and the son of a Jewish mother, it is Christian imagery that predominates in this book, though in an inverted manner. Everyone is guilty. Christ is the accuser, not the savior, as no one can be saved. All the characters feel crucified or impaled, but there is no afterlife, no point to the suffering, only death: “When you come to the end it’s the end, that’s all.” There was some criticism of the book’s loose two-part structure, and Algren regretted its chase ending, but the novel excels in its focus on mood. The author cared more for changes of consciousness as the characters suffer the consequences of destroyed love than for plot. In depicting this, Algren’s style is at its finest. Algren used jargon accurately and drew his lively images from the characters’ lives: “He still looked like the business end of a fugitive warrant to Frankie.”

At its best, the writing is both realistic in matter of detail and grim in tone, and it manages a lyrical quality with its freewheeling grammar. “Caught between the dealer’s slot and the cat-gray stroke of the years, Frankie saw a line of endless girders wet with the rain of those years to be. Where all night long, in that far time, the same all-night salamanders burned. Burned just as they had so long ago. Before the world went wrong. And any gray cat had purred at all.”

At the same time, humor is used more and to more effect than in his earlier novels, in keeping with Algren’s sense of the absurd in all human matters, even the tragic. Consequently, the comic elements provide more than laughs: They resonate with foreboding and the horror of life’s meaninglessness. For example, the alcoholic dog Rumdum is redeemed, though Frankie is doomed, along with the whole colorful cast of grotesques at the Tug & Maul who drink their lives away. The near-slapstick affair between Sparrow and Vi, whose old husband, Stash Koskoska, is a slow-witted old man with a taste for day-old bread and cut-rate Polish sausage, affords more than comic relief. This travesty of marriage heightens, by contrast, the oppressiveness of Frankie and Zosh’s mutual hell.


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The Man with the Golden Arm was at first critically acclaimed, and it won the National Book Award in 1950. The protagonist, Frankie Machine (Majcinek), is also known as The Dealer. His metaphoric golden arm is a reference to his dice expertise at Zero Schwiefka’s gambling parlor and to his injecting morphine to escape his problems. The novel is set in the somber buildings and dark alleys of Division Street in Chicago.

Often considered a naturalistic novel in the tradition of Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser, The Man with the Golden Arm presents morally bankrupt characters who cruelly exploit one another to survive. Violet Koskoska, for example, is a sexual predator who habitually locks her aged husband in a broom closet. Violet’s lover, Sparrow Saltskin, a street thug, only wants Violet because she is easy sex. Sparrow even finishes eating a sausage sandwich while climbing into bed with Violet. It is during this grotesquely humorous scene that Violet states one of the novel’s themes, that is, that any love is better than no love at all.

The self-destructive quest for love as a liberating force pervades the novel. Frankie’s wife Sophie believes herself to be permanently crippled from a car accident caused by Frankie’s drunk driving. Sophie keeps newspaper clippings of particularly freakish deaths and ridicules Frankie’s dream of playing drums in a jazz band. A crutch is a symbol of her madness. Frankie, however, needs this sadistic behavior to justify his own inertia.

In contrast to the living death of Sophie, Molly-0 (Molly Novotny) represents vital love and passion. She stays with the brutal alcoholic Drunkie John because, like Sophie, Molly believes that even violent love is better than nothing. Molly comes to understand Frankie’s desire for her equals her need for him. Casting Frankie as a rescuer from the sordid world of Division Street, however, is a tragic error for Molly. Frankie cannot cope with Sophie’s madness, with Molly’s idealism, and with morphine’s control over him. He kills his dealer and finally commits suicide by hanging himself with the twine from a bundle of old newspapers. The environmental determinism pervading the novel is softened in the film version, which appeared in 1955, starring Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak. The film’s changes contradict the novel’s oppressive atmosphere and eliminates Nelson Algren’s compassion for his marginalized characters.

The Man with the Golden Arm was harshly criticized during the 1960’s for its perceived sentimentality. During the 1980’s, however, writers defended the novel as having an existential theme written in a jazz lyrical style.