The Man with the Golden Arm

by Nelson Algren

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Characters Discussed

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Francis Majcinek

Francis Majcinek (mi-CHEE-nehk), a card dealer known to everyone in his westside Chicago neighborhood as Frankie Machine. Twenty-nine years old, with shaggy blond hair, buffalo eyes, and a square face, Frankie has such a steady, machinelike talent for dealing cards that he can boast that he has the touch; he is the man with the golden arm. Frankie also uses his arm for shooting up morphine, a habit he developed during World War II to relieve the pain of shrapnel lodged in his liver. Honorably discharged from the Army with a Purple Heart and a Good Conduct Medal, Frankie hopes to find a job as a jazz drummer. His addiction to drugs, his unhappy marriage, and his tendency toward criminal activities (for example, he gets caught trying to steal electric irons from a department store and serves nine months in jail) prevent him from realizing his ambitions. In a moment of anger and desperation, he kills Louie Fomorowski. As the police close in on him, Frankie hangs himself in a lonely hotel room.

Sophie “Zosh” Majcinek

Sophie “Zosh” Majcinek, Frankie’s wife. She is twenty-six years old, with pale eyes and ash-blonde hair in pin curls, unhappily confined to a wheelchair as the result of an automobile accident that occurred while Frankie was driving while intoxicated. Zosh and Frankie have known each other since childhood but have never really trusted each other. They quarreled before they were married, they quarreled on their wedding night, and they have quarreled ever since, excepting the thirty-six months when Frankie was in the Army. Once a sharp dresser and a fine dancer, Zosh now sits home all day, complaining and asking Frankie to wheel her around the apartment. When Frankie finally moves out, Zosh goes insane. In the end, she is confined to a mental institution, rocking herself on a cot, uttering not a word to anyone.

Molly Novotny

Molly Novotny, a nightclub hostess in love with Frankie. In her early twenties—though looking more like thirty, with a careworn, heart-shaped face, dark hair, and dark eyes—Molly earns a percentage of every drink she hustles in the early morning hours at the Club Safari. She lives downstairs from Frankie and Zosh, supporting not only herself but also Drunkie John, an alcoholic close to forty who abuses her both physically and mentally. Wanting to care for someone, Molly falls in love with Frankie, bestowing on him her tenderness, compassion, and pity. After Frankie is jailed for theft, she leaves the neighborhood and finds work as a stripper in a black nightclub. When Frankie later needs a place to hide from the law, Molly takes him in. For a brief moment, they make plans for a happy future together. Drunkie John alerts the police to Frankie’s whereabouts, however, and their dreams are over.

Solly “Sparrow” Saltskin

Solly “Sparrow” Saltskin, a small-time hustler and devoted friend of Frankie. The jittery, bespectacled Sparrow thrives on petty crime and gambling, including dog-stealing, window-peeping, and burglary; it is his idea to shoplift the electric irons, but Frankie is the one who gets caught. More than anyone else, Sparrow admires Frankie, but, under the unrelenting interrogation of Captain Bednar, he confesses to having witnessed the murder of Louie Fomorowski.

Louie Fomorowski

Louie Fomorowski, known as Nifty Louie, a flashily dressed, pale-faced former junkie who has kicked the habit and now deals drugs, dispensing the hits of morphine Frankie craves. When Frankie and Sparrow take Louie’s lucky silver dollar in a card game, Louie angrily tries to get it back from them but makes the mistake of insulting Frankie, who...

(This entire section contains 705 words.)

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responds with a crushing blow that snaps Louie’s neck.

Captain Bednar

Captain Bednar, known as Record Head, the weary commander of the local police station house. Sitting at the same scarred desk for twenty years, Captain Bednar has been recording the crimes in the neighborhood, retaining in his unforgiving memory the perpetrator of every misdemeanor long since forgotten by everyone else. With the unsolved murder of Louie Fomorowski relentlessly weighing on him, Captain Bednar forces Sparrow to implicate Frankie in the crime. In the end, it is Bednar who feels more lost, more alone, and ultimately more guilty than anyone else.


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The key to Algren's characterization lies in his oft-repeated lines from Whitman which call for the author to identify with his characters — "Here among West Division Street drinkers I felt that, did I deny them, I denied myself." The novel's protagonist, Frankie Macjinek, is called Machine because of his "golden arm," referring to his dealing method. He is a doomed veteran with a Purple Heart who is caught up in a hopeless entanglement of transgression, confession, and atonement. Frankie's alter ego is the comic character Sparrow (Solly Saltskin); together, Frankie and Sparrow form the male friendship dyad which is the staple of so much popular picaresque storytelling. What makes them different from one another is the degree to which head rules heart, as Frankie is by nature emotional, expressive, and vulnerable. He has been traumatized by the War and by an environment which denies emotions, and is ultimately betrayed by the more crippled — that is, more grotesque, twisted — Sparrow, whose street-wise instincts put his own survival ahead of brotherhood.

Perhaps Algren's female characters are most noteworthy in their celebration of the "bad girl" with a heart of gold — prostitutes, b-girls, strippers, and women whose good-natured vulnerability leads them to a fate no better than that of their men. Molly-O is the most pure of this type, the common-law wife of Drunkie John, a sadistic abuser who lives off her while continually attacking her both physically and emotionally. Her relationship with Frankie both redeems her by allowing her to devote her self-sacrificing nature to someone who repays rather than victimizes her and further destroys her by exposing her to punishment for hiding him. In fact, the beaten woman is a sort of female saint to Algren; the submissive, suffering, abused female becomes a virtuous figure. In addition, women are defined totally by their sexuality, with submission and eventually motherhood, both of babies and grown men, their crowning glory.

The other side of the devoted, submissive woman is the woman who seeks to deny her own femininity and victimize men, through rigid self-assertion and instilling guilt, as does Zosh, Frankie's neurotic wife who, it is suggested, develops a psychosomatic paralysis to both punish and further entrap Frankie. In asserting her pride and resenting male exploitation, she denies her female nature, crippling herself and destroying Frankie.

The other inhabitants of West Division Street — Frankie's boss, Antek the owner, the shady "fixer" Zygmunt, Violet and Old Husband, Blind Pig, and Nifty Louie are wonderfully individualized stock characters. Placed in opposition to Frankie, Sparrow, and all the denizens of the Tug & Maul is Captain Bednar, Record Head, who represents both established order, a system which legitimizes man's control of man, and the dilemma of the "respectable" citizen, whose denial of others' humanity denies his own human feelings. By seeing his victims not as humans but as "records" he commits an essential sin against charity.




Critical Essays