Young Lonigan by James T. Farrell

Young Lonigan by James T. Farrell

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Young Lonigan by James T. Farrell


"After they had left the parlor, Studs sat by the window. He looked out, watching the night strangeness, listening. The darkness was over everything like a warm bed-cover, and all the little sounds of night seemed to him as if they belonged to some great mystery. He listened to the wind in the tree by the window. The street was queer, and didn’t seem at all like Wabash Avenue. He watched a man pass, his heels beating a monotonous echo. Studs imagined him to be some criminal being pursued by a detective like Maurice Costello, who used to act detective parts for Vitagraph. He watched. He thought of Lucy on the street and himself bravely rescuing her from horrors more terrible than he could imagine."
(Young Lonigan, 62)

Studs Lonigan lives in a different world from those around him. Chicago exists as different set of sensations for Studs, who communes with his environment in a language foreign to the masses. The heat and hardness of day are replaced by the creeping and overwhelming softness of the Chicago night; it pushes the toughness out of his body, eliminates the immediacy of things and dulls the viciousness of life as an Irish boy without a future. Farrell writes Studs as a contemplative soul who verges on artistic sensitivity. When he examines his environment he is lost its texture and physical existence. He simply does not belong to the city the way it owns the community, the “people that lived, worked, suffered, procreated, aspired, filled out their little days, and died” (Young Lonigan, 147). By nature Studs cannot accept the authority or possessiveness of the city, but he is incapable of escape. It is as much a part of him as he is of it; there is a symbiosis at work in Young Lonigan that depends very deeply upon the moments Studs shares with the fading day. Darkness provides us a view of Studs’ psyche that is intensely personal and crucial to understanding him as not only a character, but a representation of a developing personality and moral code.

When darkness appears Studs is more vulnerable to both his hopes and his fears. At times he is overcome by visions of pain and hellfire; he is wracked by his Catholic guilt and a perceived lack of purity. “He puffed and looked about the dark and lonely place.

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He could hear himself breathing, and his heart beating away, and the queerness of the place seemed to put strange figures in him, and the strange figures just walked right out of his head and moved about the place, leering at him like red-dressed Satan” (Young Lonigan, 39). Studs’ inhalation of smoke, his puffing, is significant in this scene. The cigarette is a source of fire and light. It is a pleasure but it is also a vice and it is a sin. But most importantly it represents the process of taking something within himself and internalizing its effects, just as his education and familial upbringing have done to his belief system and moral ideals. As he imbibes the smoke he is saturated by further guilt. However he is compelled to smoke in order to uphold his image and maintain his status as a tough guy, as STUDS LONIGAN. He is an obvious product of his environment, but a resistant and curious one.

Later, as Studs sits by the window on page 62 he is struck by the dissimilarity of the night compared to the day. When the warm bed-cover of darkness is spread across Wabash Avenue it becomes queer and almost fantastic. It is as if Studs feels more potential in the night than in the day, a sentiment echoed again in later passages. “The July night leaked heat all over Fifty-eighth Street, and the fitful death of the sun shed softening colors that spread gauze-like and glamorous over the street, stilling those harshnesses and commercial uglinessess that were emphasized by the brighter revelations of day” (Young Lonigan, 147). The language of these descriptions is extraordinarily specific – always there is some sort of reference to the physicality of the dark. The darkness softens colors rather than dulling them and descriptions of nightfall are almost invariably marked by metaphors of bedding or fabric which serve to blanket Chicago and suggest that the city itself is preparing to dream and change shape. There is mystery and infinite possibility in those dreams, where there exists no such potential during the harshness of day, fully illuminated by the oppression of reality.

The darkness allows Studs emotional and intellectual malleability by hiding the concrete and brick of the city. Studs sits in the window and listens, and the sounds he hears are not bound to the reality he sees by daylight. They do not have a definite source. The heels of the walking man could be the heels of anyone, and Studs imagines they are the heels of villainy. He is compelled to do good, to defend Lucy – who represents the purity and hope that Studs feels he is lacking – against elements of evil he cannot identify. Studs is a fiercely moral boy and it tortures him to adapt his brutal and immoral daylight persona. He is fearful of death, which he associates with darkness with increasing frequency near the end: “Suddenly he thought of death. He didn’t know why. Death just came into his thoughts, dripping like black night-gloom” (Young Lonigan, 151). In this particular instance there was nothing around him to suggest death or dying, but his perception of Chicago’s nights is changing as a result of his moral degeneration.

The torment Studs suffers at the hands of his moral incompetence is evident in the final passages of the book. On page 62 Studs listens to the wind without fear as it rushes through the tree outside his window. Later as he sits with Lucy in the park the wind is beneficent and loving. Throughout the novel however, Studs’ morals degenerate further until finally he is incapable of seeing the beauty of the park; he thinks only of his wrongness and what it will bring him. “Darkness came, feather-soft. The park grew lonely, and the wind beat more steadily, until its wail sounded upon Studs’ ears like that of many souls forever damned” (Young Lonigan, 197). Still there is the creeping softness of the dark but it has become sinister. The corruption of the dark and the wind are deadly to Studs. “[The wind] ripped through the empty branches. It curved through the dead leaves on the ground, whipped bunches of them, rolled them across bare stretches of earth, until they resembled droves of frightened, scurrying animals. Studs wanted to get out of the park now” (Young Lonigan, 197). The idyll that was the park in times past is now obliterated by Studs’ guilt. The character of the wind has shifted dramatically and is now reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, where multitudes of souls damned for their lust are eternally buffeted against stones and jagged ground in an empty and desolate darkness that is the Second Circle of Hell. Not only that, but the “whipping” of the leaves recalls vividly the scourging of Christ, whose death weighs on the mind of Studs Lonigan with incredible gravity.

When compared with the first mention of darkness in the book this passage is significantly more fearful. On page 19 Studs’ father watches the night fall over Chicago with a feeling of contentment. “He puffed. It was nice sitting there. He would like to sit there, and watch it slowly get dark, because when it was just getting dark things were quiet and soft-like…” (Young Lonigan, 19). Even the progenitor of Studs Lonigan feels the softness in the dark, the benevolent change it caused to the city. The similarity in their perception is made obvious by the word “puffed,” which is also employed by Studs on page 39. The difference is just as important; while Studs may be self-aware to some extent he is by no means a grown man, no matter how tough he tries to be. The softness of the dark in Young Lonigan is a critical theme. While their evolution is subtle, the descriptions of darkness and how it affects Studs provide truly intimate and realistic detail. Because of the way Farrell wrote each of these scenes we are able to face the emotional confusion and moral turmoil necessary for understanding the experience of Studs Lonigan. Without the specific content and feel of the darkness the reader would not be drawn so deeply into the core of what it is to be Studs. The novel would be ultimately less effective as a piece of realism.


Works Cited

Farrell, James T. Young Lonigan. Penguin Books. NY, NY. 2003.
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