Manhattan Transfer Summary and Analysis
by John Passos
First Section, Chs. I-III
A nurse carries a baby in a basket into a "big dry hot room with greenish distempered walls."
Bud Korpenning, a young man looking for work, sits on the deck of a ferry coming into Manhattan. As soon as he is on land, he orders some food at a nearby lunchwagon. The man behind the counter suggests to Bud that he get a haircut and a shave if he wants to get a job in New York. "It's looks that count in this city," he explains.
Ed Thatcher, an accountant anticipating certification, waits nervously in a hospital while his wife Susie gives birth to their first child - Ellen. After the baby is born, Ed tries to calm down his delirious wife, who claims that the child is not hers and that the nurse has stolen her true baby.
A bearded man in a derby notices an advertisement on the window of a drugstore on Canal St. It is an image of a clean-shaven, proper-looking gentleman, accompanied by the text: "King C. Gillette" and "No Stropping No Honing." The man buys a Gillette razor at the store, and at home gives himself a shave.
Back at home, Ed Thatcher notices a Journal headline: "Morton Signs the Greater New York Bill: Completes the Act Making New York World's Second Metropolis." Beaming with excitement, scoffing at his old father who wanted him to stay in the "ole fool store in Onteora," Thatcher hears shouts outside. There is a fire. He watches the spectacle: a nearby tenement building all aflame. In the crowd he notices the "firebug" - the man who started the fire and who now waits around to watch it.
A man named Mr. Perry explains to a real estate developer the new opportunities that have arisen in the city, now that it is officially the world's "second."
Bud, following advice, goes to a barbershop. There he reads in a paper of a kid admitting to murdering his crippled mother.
Ed Thatcher sits with his wife Susie, while their daughter Ellen plays. A few years have passed since the birth apparently. The parents chastise little Ellen for tearing up a newspaper with her dancing.
A young man excitedly tells his sweetheart, a girl named Emily, that he has just received a raise at work. She is unimpressed.
Emile, a cabin boy on a French ship, talks with his shipmate Congo (nicknamed for his dark skin). We learn they are in military service, as is required of all French men. They entertain the idea of going ashore and abandoning the service - and, implicitly, their country. The possibility of making a home in America is a tantalizing one. As Emile explains, "[Here] it's the coin they're after. They dont want to fight people; they want to do business with them."
Susie Thatcher lies sick at home. Ellen and Ed return from a play. Ellie, as they call her, proceeds to jump up and down crying out that she wants to be a boy. Susie is bitter, once again in a foul mood, and Ed tries to console her as usual.
Bud is on the lookout for work. He traverses the streets of the city, asking around where the best place to find a job is. He happens upon the wreckage of a car accident. There he starts up a conversation with a fellow spectator, who advises him to go to City Hall.
Emile has followed through with his fancies of seeking work in America. We find him waiting at a restaurant, while an older waiter, also a foreigner, gives him directions: "Beacoup de soing and dont you forget it." He is serving a group of tipsy friends waiting for the arrival of Fifi Waters, the woman whose birthday they are celebrating. Emile spots a redhaired girl coming from the cloakroom. He smiles and tries to "catch her eye," but she sniffs and tosses her nose in the air. "Wont look at me because I'm a waiter," he muses to himself. "When I make some money I'll show 'em."
Fifi finally appears; her now quite-drunk comrades greet her heartily. She accidentally kicks one of them - a man named Holyoke - in the eye, through removing his hat with her foot. He curses her and she promptly breaks into tears. The Colonel, another man, comforts her.
Emile gets off work in the early morning and meets up with Congo. They converse about immigrant life with a new friend of Emile's, Marco. The following comment is made: "It's all the same, in France you are paid badly and live well, here you are paid well and love badly." Marco expounds on the fate of socialism and anarchism in the modern world. "All over the world we are preparing," he says. "Your Commune in France was the beginning...socialism failed. It's for the anarchists to strike the next blow."
Congo and Emile retire to their boarding house. Congo has mentioned that he may ship off again after all. Emile lies in bed and thinks of Marco's statement: "I never see the dawn [...] that I don't say to myself perhaps...perhaps today."
The Olafsons, a newly married couple from the Bronx, visit an apartment on Riverside Drive. William Olafson, assistant manager at Keating and Bradley Sanitary Engineers notes to his wife how much the place costs; she insists he take it, arguing that they "must live up to [their] income." She lies to the real estate agent and tells him they are currently staying at the Astor. When William asks her afterwards why she lied, she explains: "He'd have thought we were Jews and wouldn't have rented us the apartment."
Bud washes dishes at an eatery and complains: "Hell this aint no job for a white man." "I dont care so long as I eat," replies the Jewish boy he works with.
Ellies's mother leaves her alone at home, despite the girls' protestations, in order to go to "Mrs. Spingarn's to play euchre."
Gus McNeil, a milkman, does his rounds, grabs a beer to relax, but worries that his wife Nellie might smell the alcohol on him when he returns home. In the midst of contemplating a future on a farm in North Dakota, far from the noise and grime of New York, Gus is hit by a freight train backing down the tracks.
George Baldwin, a young attorney, "a lawyer without any practice", leaves his office to get lunch. He reads an article in the newspaper about a milkman being severely injured early that morning by "a freight train backing down the New York Central tracks." It's Gus McNeil. Baldwin figures a lawsuit against the railroad would make a good case. He impulsively goes to McNeil's place. Gus is not in, but his wife Nellie is - a young girl with "wavy redbrown hair that [lies] in little flat curls round her high narrow forehead." Baldwin introduces himself, explains the case to her and what he wants to accomplish. He finds himself falling in love with her. "The most beautiful girl I've ever seen in my life," he thinks to himself.
Ellen plays with a friend of hers named Alice. She insists on being called Elaine, "the lily maid of Astalot." Already she seems to fancy herself a princess of sorts, and New York her kingdom.
Baldwin brings Nellie flowers; she assumes they are for her husband, who is still in the hospital. Though she protests at first, Nellie soon gives in to Baldwin's advances, and the two make love, the McNeil baby sleeping nearby.
Emile visits a small store on Eighth Avenue, a Confiserie/Delicatessen run by a French woman named Madame Rigaud. She scolds him for not visiting her more often. He confides to her that he is tired of waiting tables. They go to the back of the shop so that Madame Rigaud can sing Emile a song; when customers come, Emile takes care of them.
Ellen is seated beside her father on a bench in the Battery. Ed talks to her about the boats that come to and leave New York. His words prompt a difficult question from his daughter: "Daddy why arent we rich?" "There are lots of people poorer than us Ellie," Ed responds.
Bud helps a "grayhaired woman" carry a pile of coal up to her apartment. He mentions he is originally from Cooperstown, in upstate New York, and "was born an raised on a farm." The woman tells him she will give him a dollar for his trouble, then serves him some lunch. After he has finished the meal, Bud receives a quarter. When he asks the woman for the dollar she had promised, she berates him for not being grateful for his meal, and sends him out of her home.
Jimmy Kerf is on the deck of a boat with his mother, as they drift into New York Harbor. She appears to be a wealthy woman. Her appearance is described through the young Jimmy's eyes: "She has her blue serge on and a long trailing brown veil and the little brown animal with red eyes and teeth that are real teeth round her neck." It is the Fourth of July. When Jimmy spots the Statue of Liberty he asks: "What's that in her hand?" Soon after arrival, Jimmy and his mother head off with his Aunt Emily and Uncle Jeff in a cab.
Gus and Nellie meet with Baldwin. Gus is enthusiastic about the case, and continually praises the lawyer, apparently not suspecting the affair between him and his wife. After the meeting, Baldwin, feeling the pressure and stress induced by the suit and the accompanying liaison, goes out to lunch with a friend, Phil Sandbourne, a struggling architect. Sandbourne runs a firm with a colleague named Specker; he describes to Baldwin their plans involving "allsteel building." Specker has "got an idea the skyscraper of the future'll be built of steel and glass," Phil tells Baldwin.
Manhattan Transfer is a novel without a "plot" per se, more an excavation of a city and an era than a linear narrative. It might best be described as a kaleidoscopic portrait, in which certain colors or images figure more prominently than others. That is to say that Dos Passos does return again and again to a handful of characters throughout the novel. Three of these are introduced in this opening chapter: Bud Korpenning, Ed Thatcher, and the newborn Ellen, who will emerge, with the not-yet introduced Jimmy Kerp, as the closest thing to a protagonist Manhattan Transfer can offer.
Already a cross-section of time, place, and spirit, of generation and class, is evident in the introduction of the three characters. Bud is young, hopeful, the face of the working everyman, determined to make his mark on the vast metropolis. Dos Passos' chapter title seems to allocate a certain amount of importance to Bud: "Ferryslip" refers, clearly enough, to Bud's entrance on the novel's stage. The chapter that follows is titled "Metropolis," Bud's destination and his new home. Ed Thatcher, on the other hand, is already a resident of the city, a lower middle-class bureaucrat of sorts, "a little man with two blond wisps of mustache and washedout gray eyes." Where Bud seems focused and vigorous, Thatcher appears nervous and cowering, unable to control his wife's bursts of frenzy, armed with only a bouquet of flowers to face the moment.
And what moment is that? The birth of the couple's first child. What should be a joyous event is here depicted in the grimmest of tones, and Dos Passos' luridly revealing prose paints a disquieting picture: "Rows of beds under bilious gaslight, a sick smell of restlessly stirring bedclothes, faces fat, lean, yellow, white; that's her. Susie's yellow hair lay in a loose coil round her little white face that looked shriveled and twisted."
The only mention of the name of the third and most important character comes in the form of a harried question: "Do you still want to call her Ellen?" The baby is never offered a description. We hear of its appearance through the parents' dialogue: "Oh isn't she wonderful!" Ed proclaims, desperately attempting to inject some mirth into the situation. Strangely enough, the novel's "heroine" is introduced as just another faceless speck, an inauspicious addition to the teeming city. Perhaps Susan is correct; perhaps the child does not in fact belong to her. When Ed innocently asks the nurse how she can tell the various newborn babies apart, the latter simply replies: "Sometimes we can't."
The only hint of the baby's importance to the larger narrative comes in the opening paragraph of the book, in which Dos Passos describes a nurse carrying a baby - perhaps Ellen - in a basket. That he begins his novel with this passage suggests, in retrospect at least, that he wishes to subtly establish Ellen as a major player. And yet, the one direct description of the baby undercuts any lumiscent humanism that may arise from such a distinction: "The newborn baby squirmed in the cottonwool feebly like a knot of earthworms."
As if to underline the point - that, simply put, no single character is more important than the city itself, and its collective population - Dos Passos concludes "Ferryslip" with a mini-narrative about a nameless man who decides to buy a razor. It is one of numerous such instances in the book, seemingly uninflected glimpses of strangers in the metropolis.
The second chapter of Dos Passos's novel expands and develops the technique introduced in "Ferryslip": namely that of the vignette-based portrait. And yet, already we are offered hints of the larger narrative to emerge from this collection of glimpses. Dos Passos does burrow into the consciousness of Ellie, as she lies awake in bed, pleading for her father to return. Here the writing attains interiority in the tradition of nineteenth century psychological literature, and paints a highly subjective portrait of the dark, menacing city: "Black spiraling roar outside was melting through the walls making the cuddled shadows throb." The difference in approach suggests Ellie's importance to the novel as a whole, just as the inclusion of Emile's thoughts to himself - "Wont look at me because I'm a waiter" - sets him up as a potentially major player.
The vignettes in "Dollars" remain brief and focused, but larger patterns are beginning to emerge. For one, with the exception of Ellen's interaction with Alice, all the major episodes in "Dollars" involve a male and a female. Dos Passos offers a variety of permutations of the man/woman dynamic, ranging from the filial to the romantic to the antagonistic: Baldwin and Nellie, Emile and Madame Rigaud, Bud and the gray-haired woman, Ellie and her father, Jimmy and his mother. The mirroring of these last two suggests that Ellie and Jimmy will emerge, as they do, as the novel's two primary protagonists, each profoundly marked by the relationship with his or her parent. While Ellie's drifting from man to man later in the novel suggests she is seeking a father figure to replace the emasculated Ed Thatcher, Jimmy Kerf's desperate romanticism may likewise stem from the tragedy of his mother's death.
Manhattan Transfer Essays and Related Content
- Manhattan Transfer: Major Themes
- Manhattan Transfer: Essays
- Manhattan Transfer: Questions
- Manhattan Transfer: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- John Passos: Biography
- Manhattan Transfer Summary
- About Manhattan Transfer
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of First Section, Chs. I-III
- Summary and Analysis of First Section, Chs. IV-V
- Summary and Analysis of Second Section, Chs. I-III
- Summary and Analysis of Second Section, Chs. IV-VI
- Summary and Analysis of Second Section, Chs. VII-VIII
- Summary and Analysis of Third Section, Chs. I-III
- Summary and Analysis of Third Section, Chs. IV-V
- Dos Passos's Style: The Filmic in Prose
- Related Links on Manhattan Transfer
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources