The Man with the Golden Arm

by Nelson Algren

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Besides the social issues which arise from environment and the socioeconomic system, Algren pursues other more universal themes. Perhaps the most apparent is that of interconnectedness and interdependence. Cops and criminals are brothers — the same types, with a mutual understanding which unites them eternally against the "squares" who inhabit a world removed from elemental existence. Everyone "had been twisted about a bit" the narrator observes, so that the perversion or predilection of each finds its complement in the other — cop and criminal, man and women, con and mark, pusher and junkie.

Because of this interconnectedness, people become dependent upon one another, a situation which has both positive and negative aspects. While the intimacy achieved by these relationships belies the cold isolation characteristic of urban life in general, it also results in an archetypal victim-abuser relationship, in which the abuser himself is a victim not only of society, but often of his very victims — Frankie's rejected wife Zosh turns herself into a wheelchair victim in order to intensify his guilt and bind him to her even more firmly, and Frankie and Sparrow murder the pusher Nifty Louie.

Because of this dependence, "For everybody needed somebody," people need lies, "poor man's pennies/' illusions which appear as the notorious tall tales and "rapping" in the stories. "Everyone had to pretend a bit to be somebody," so that the con artists, shills, and fast talkers — whose lines make up the life in barrooms and card games — become emblems of the need for identity, achievement, and uniqueness all share.

The imperative to either victimize or become a victim to maintain illusions at the expense of others' needs generates betrayal, the underside of the brotherhood found in friendship, as the system uses people's own best instincts against them. Sparrow's selling out Frankie after the underwear theft, Molly's selfless decision to hide Frankie from the police, which results in her conviction, and moreover, Blind Pig's betrayal of all the denizens of the Tug and Maul result from a system which demands and rewards the abuse of one's most human emotions. Because people can maintain their illusions and sometimes their very life itself only by exploiting, victimizing, or otherwise denying others' needs, their lives are filled with fear of others' vengeance and anger and a sense of their own guilt. Hence, Frankie, whose rejection of Zosh leads to her revenge, the psychosomatic crippling which victimizes both herself and Frankie at the same time, is consumed by a guilt which drives him further into his addiction.

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