Nelson Algren, all of whose works are about characters from the lower levels of life—tramps, con artists, prostitutes, petty criminals, and drug addicts—is often considered to be a naturalistic novelist in terms of both philosophy and style. Literary naturalism is a viewpoint that emphasizes that human life is materialistic (based on the struggle for the acquisition of money, prestige, and property and without a spiritual component). Naturalistic novelists concentrate on earthy, even sordid subjects; their style involves the presentation of many physical details. A Walk on the Wild Side is so full of physical details that it appears to have no plot at all. The reader is deep into the novel before he or she realizes that there is no specific conflict, and no challenges to be met other than the conflict and challenge of life itself. Although it appears at first glance that Algren’s works fit neatly into the naturalistic pattern, in actuality Algren uses the naturalistic elements of his works to make points about the spiritual nature of his characters. Algren signals to the reader that he is not concerned exclusively with material existence. One way in which he does so is through his use of a lyrical, almost rhapsodic, style.
The scene in which the beheaded turtle crawls to the top of the pile of other decapitated creatures is central to an understanding of Algren’s outlook. The turtle is slow and odd-looking, hardly a likely animal to be chosen as a symbol of indomitability, as an eagle or a lion might be. Through his use of the turtle, Algren reminds the reader that even the lowly people he writes about have dreams and higher yearnings. A horrible death is the turtle’s fate, but even after death it keeps going, straining to reach the top of the pile, like Schmidt after his mutilation and Dove after his blinding. The dead turtle finally falls back to the bottom of the pile, however; in this way Algren reminds the reader that the ultimate fate is defeat—at least in this life and in this world.
Algren presents many other clues in A Walk on the Wild Side that he is concerned with the spirit and not simply the body. Dove...
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