Places: The Man with the Golden Arm

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1949

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Late 1940’s

Places DiscussedDivision Street

Division Man with the Golden Arm, TheStreet. Violent, crime-ridden neighborhood of Chicago that provides the novel’s primary setting. There, drugs, alcohol, gambling, and theft are a way of life. Algren’s protagonist, Francis Majcinek–nicknamed Frankie Machine–works as a card dealer in an illicit upstairs gambling den at the Club Safari and is known as the “man with the golden arm” because of his skill. Algren modeled the neighborhood on Chicago’s real Wabansia Street, where he briefly lived.

Club Safari

Club Safari. Sleazy Division Street nightclub in which Frankie deals cards in illegal games. There Nifty Louie also gives community junkies their fixes, adjusting dosages to ensure that addicts keep returning, and paying, for ever-stronger and more expensive hits. Frankie himself also gets his fixes from Louie and needs them to deal cards with a steady hand. As the source of both his employment and his ever-strengthening drug habit, the club entraps Frankie in a way of life that he cannot escape.

Division Arms Hotel

Division Arms Hotel. Frankie’s Chicago residence, in which he is initially trapped with his psychosomatically crippled wife, Sophie, who also trapped him into marriage by faking a pregnancy. She has also faked her disability, which she attributes to an accident caused by Frankie. Sophie uses Frankie’s guilt to draw “the knot so fiercely that she felt he could never be free of her again.”

Tug and Maul Bar

Tug and Maul Bar. Aptly named zoolike bar whose animal-like patrons gather to keep up on neighborhood news. The most offensive of the patrons is Blind Pig (called Piggy-O), who would seem to be more at home in a refuse bin.


Jail. Chicago police station in which Frankie is held. It is here that the walls begin closing in on him more tightly than ever before. For Frankie, who wants to kick his drug habit, the jail becomes an “iron sanctuary”–a concept that at once suggests both imprisonment and safety. The jail is the only place where he can be free of the debilitating influences of Division Street; a red metal tag labels his cell as a “deadlock,” meaning he has no privileges. Frankie himself is in another kind of “deadlock,” a psychological one just “one bit lighter than the deadlocks of the cells with the red metal tag.” There, time seems to stand still for the prisoners, since all the clocks permanently, and symbolically, read twelve o’clock.

When Frankie is released from jail, he attempts to stay free of drugs but again becomes quickly addicted. Since Record Head Bednar, a police investigator, suspects Frankie of Louie’s murder, Frankie is only temporarily and theoretically “free.” Bednar employs Piggy-O to set up Frankie and Sparrow, Frankie’s friend and a witness to the murder, on a drug charge. Frankie is freed, but Sparrow is taken to the “query room” at several police stations, in which he is interrogated and threatened until he implicates Frankie.

The walls of these rooms are places where men literally have their “backs to the wall.” Algren writes of the inevitability of the confessions: “Indeed, your query room is your only true house of worship, for it is here that men are brought to their deepest confession.” After Sparrow testifies against him, Frankie–who is ironically described as “the fair-haired boy”–flees. He is sheltered by the faithful Molly, turned in by Drunkie John, and wounded, like Achilles (an ironic twist of Algren’s), in the heel, before he hangs himself. His death by suffocation is particularly appropriate since it also suggests entrapment and enclosure.

BibliographyBeauvoir, Simone de. America Day by Day. Translated by Patrick Dudley [pseud.]. London: Duckworth, 1952. This book, which displeased Algren, contains considerable detail about the genesis of The Man with the Golden Arm, which Algren had nearly completed when he went on an extended trip with de Beauvoir to New Orleans, Mexico, and Guatemala.Cox, Martha Heasley, and Wayne Chatterton. Nelson Algren. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Material from Algren’s letters to and interviews with the authors, who did exhaustive research. Covers Algren’s career only to 1970. Accurate, well written, and thorough.Donohue, H. E. F. Conversations with Nelson Algren. New York: Hill & Wang, 1964. Extensive interviews from 1962 and 1963 provide detailed information about Algren’s background, childhood, and early years. Valuable information about Algren’s wanderings after his graduation from the University of Illinois in 1931.Drew, Bettina. Nelson Algren. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1989. Detailed, authoritative critical biography of Algren, covering his life up to his death in 1981. Much of the book is based on the extensive collection of Algren papers at the Ohio State University, to which Drew had full access.Giles, James. “The Harsh Compassion of Nelson Algren.” Introduction to The Man with the Golden Arm, by Nelson Algren. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows Press, 1990. Provides valuable insights into the pervasive comic element in Algren’s writing.
Categories: Places