Themes and Meanings
In Algren’s Chicago, the characters are shaped by their environment, from which there is no real escape, yet they dream the American Dream and aspire to success. Bruno’s failure is foreshadowed by Casey’s, and Steffi can no more escape from the brothel than she can from the Baldheads. Like Chickadee, Helen, and Tookie, the other prostitutes at Mama Tomek’s brothel, Steffi is one of the “hunted” who “also hope” (Algren’s chapter title for his brothel digression is “The Hunted Also Hope”). The hunters are the “heat” and the men who want, in Algren’s words, “to get their money’s worth.” One symbol for the woman as prey is the fly without wings in Steffi’s room: After she is “seduced,” Bruno crushes the fly, with which the inarticulate Steffi identifies. Later, when she and Bruno are at an amusement park, he uses his baseball prowess to win a Kewpie doll, which he subsequently “decapitates” as if it were a child. The doll may represent an illusory victory, a “fake,” as Bruno calls it, like other things at the amusement park and in life. It may also, because it is compared to a child, represent what happens to children in Algren’s Chicago, or, and this seems more probable, it may also represent Steffi, won by Bruno and then, almost unthinkingly, destroyed by him.
Nevertheless, both Bruno and Steffi have their dreams. Bruno becomes the “modern Kitchel” (a former Polish-American boxing champion) in his dream drama, and his imagination is fueled by matchbook covers with Tiger Pultoric’s picture, by Kayo magazine, and by images of James Cagney—the media shape his dreams. Steffi’s dreams of escape lead only to entrapment: “a great stone penitentiary” without exits; the barber’s room, which becomes a “vault.” There will be no escape for Steffi, who is not even permitted to die. Yet Steffi and Bruno are not the only “hunted” in the city, which is compared, along with the world, to a madhouse with its victims. In fact, Algren compares the prostitutes in the brothel to inmates of an insane asylum.
From such institutions, escape is impossible, as Algren’s title implies: This is a novel about the darkness, the night; it is the literary version of...
(The entire section is 582 words.)