Themes

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 535

Perhaps the most compelling theme in the saga of Studs Lonigan is that of self-destruction, and in this theme both Studs and his culture are at fault. Studs wills himself into his tough-guy act, but it is a much-desired and much-admired role in the Prairie Avenue gang he adheres to....

(The entire section contains 535 words.)

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Perhaps the most compelling theme in the saga of Studs Lonigan is that of self-destruction, and in this theme both Studs and his culture are at fault. Studs wills himself into his tough-guy act, but it is a much-desired and much-admired role in the Prairie Avenue gang he adheres to. In making this choice, Studs must deny the softer, more sympathetic aspects of his nature, and once he chooses this general direction, the world around him ensures that he cannot turn back. He defeats Weary Reilly, and in seeking the further applause of the people who admire him for that victory, he sets his destructive course in motion.

The city serves as a sub theme underscoring the basic theme of self-destruction. Studs's field of action lies between the University of Chicago and Lake Michigan, and he is constantly struggling against the forces those two places represent. He must belittle education, turning away from the genteel world he identifies with the intellectual in favor of what he sees as the tough, manly life of the pool hall and the gin joint. He also denies the responsiveness he feels toward nature, as demonstrated in the passages when he is in the parks or near the lake. He responds to these influences, showing that he is capable of appreciating natural beauty for its own sake, but then he retreats from such feelings, labeling them "sappy" or "goofy." In this sense, Studs personifies an industrial society's struggle against nature, as if the natural world were a new frontier to be conquered and ruthlessly subdued.

Thus, Studs's world is best represented by a bleak city landscape. It is an artificial world, a manmade world, and as such it has little sympathy for the individual, little patience with those whose lives take the wrong direction. They, like Studs, are expendable. for in the city there are always many others ready to take the place of those who step out of line.

Farrell also makes it clear that he does not see the world as totally evil or totally without possibilities. He has simply chosen to portray this side of the world in this trilogy. Thus, while Studs seeks his own destruction, and other main characters — Weary Reilly and Davey Cohen, for example — end up in a condition similar to Studs, other characters manage to advance, to preserve and even to build upon their potential. Danny O'Neill, Helen Shires, Lucy, Muggsy McCarthy, and others are examples of enlightened individuals, people who stayed on course and have advanced. But these characters exist on the fringes of Studs's world, and the reader sees them briefly and infrequently. Farrell uses them to measure Studs's downward progress, for most of them started out with the same possibilities Studs had, and as they improve, Studs's downfall becomes more and more obvious, even to Studs, Farrell uses Studs to show how bleak and empty a modern urban existence can be, but he also points out that it does not have to be that way. There are ways out of the streets, but finding them requires energy and persistence, and while Studs has energy, he lacks the persistence which allows Danny to overcome the same influences that affected Studs.

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