Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 793

Studs Lonigan is a sociological case study in fiction, a stern indictment of society awash in empty cultural institutions, and a chronicle of the failed American Dream amid a fractured urban landscape. It charts, in often brutal episodes, the life and premature death of a once promising middle-class Irish Catholic American, a product of parochial education, of a devout home, and of the city streets. The action is discontinuous, with episodes sometimes moving only minutes forward but on occasion leaping ahead years. Nevertheless, the gloomy tread of inevitability stalks every page of the degenerate journey made by James T. Farrell’s archetypal protagonist.

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The failed authority symbols of church, home, and school dominate Studs Lonigan’s landscape. Despite the principles articulated before the young man, there never evolves within him an ethical purpose or a moral center. His response to life focuses on the ephemeral fame that underscores his street identity. Studs’s models become the fast-talking, luridly fascinating poolroom hacks; his poetry becomes the accessible braggadocio of the saloon. Education is for “goofs” such as Danny O’Neill, whose later commitment to radical social values testify to his humanism; civilized behavior is for the weak. Cynically, Studs concludes that everything is “crap”; a bleak nihilism comes to shroud his every attitude, even the fearful moments of halfhearted reform. His life reflects a compendium of failure. Studs’s imminent death is foreshadowed by the demise of the institutions that fail to reach him and that leave a spiritual vacuum in his life, unable to deflect him from the path of self-destruction.

Indoctrinated early into the streetwise brotherhood of sadism and self-indulgence, Studs remains surrounded by an urban ambience whose very physical environment reeks of threat and violence: decrepit pool rooms, sleazy bars, greasy diners, ominous brothels, and menacing parks. The milieu about him crushes his early romantic yearnings and his potential for fulfilling heroic plans. Corrupted into an ethos of brutality and ignorance, Studs succumbs to the crude clichés of the street, and the sensual lures to his libido dominate his maturing days. In the safe haven of an escapist movie theater where he once identified with the luminous hero, Studs now sympathizes with the plight of the gangster; he feels unaccountably sad when the villain is killed. Studs, in fact, knows right from wrong; the powerful forces about him, however, easily control his will.

The theme of isolation runs through the trilogy, for “Lonewolf” Lonigan develops a psychological system for separating from his essential self and observing his own behaviors as a seemingly objective judge. He recriminates, rationalizes, and condones the behavior of Studs, a person standing against the world, superior to those people and institutions that victimized him. Studs walks alone. Even with his antisocial cronies accompanying him on immoral activities, he maintains his own counsel. Taking part in violent episodes, he remains alone in feelings of fear and guilt. Ironically, he never comes to belong anywhere, an embodiment of the alienated, the outsider. He is alone and awash in his own filth, lying in the gutter on New Year’s Day, another vivid foreshadowing of decline. From page one of this trilogy, Studs’s fundamental estrangement from church, family, school, and self takes its toll. He is on his inexorable journey to an early grave.

A number of urban venues aid in mirroring the deterioration and degeneration of Studs: the burlesque theater, the betting parlor, the park bench, and the dance marathon. His life filled with illusion and prejudice, Studs has no beliefs, and his solitary wanderings only serve to intensify the bigotry of his feelings. Hating himself, he nevertheless goes to the burlesque show, associating with a clientele he regards as inferior and depraved. He considers himself above the desperate patrons in the bookie-joint, for he is Studs Lonigan, brother-in-law of Phil Rolfe, one of the operators. In the park he mindlessly threatens an intelligent communist, who, Studs reasons, must oppose God and family. The dance marathon, however, epitomizes the meaningless foxtrot of death that Studs joins. Like the sick and tired dancers who barely move their feet to stay alive in the tawdry dance competition, hoping for a few dollars, Studs, too, is engaged in a marathon of sorts, his own danse macabre. Without reflective thought he, too, is moving his feet out of instinct; he, too, is governed by capricious laws; he, too, is without essential hope but carries vague expectations. Around and around the dancers and Studs move, surrounded by decrepitude and dissonance. To the end, Studs maintains a totally unrealistic assessment of himself, his prospects, and his talent. With his death he leaves “the old dump” of a world just as he left St. Patrick’s Grammar School a decade and a half earlier.

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