Manhattan Transfer Summary and Analysis
by John Passos
Third Section, Chs. IV-V
Jimmy has just quit his job. "Life was upside down," Dos Passos writes. "[He] was a fly walking on the ceiling of a topsyturvy city."
Dutch has obtained a gun. Francie asks him what he plans to use it for. She is worried, and can sense that her man has resorted to desperate measures. She tells Dutch that she is scared, but he assures her he has everything under control. "I've told you I had a way o fixing everythin, aint I?" he says. "I promise you I'll fix everythin fine in a couple of days... We'll go away an git married. We'll go down South..."
Anna's mother harshly scolds her. "Oy what for have I raised four children that they should all of them be no good, agitators and streetwalkers and bums?" she cries. We learn that Anna has been picketing for the striking garment workers. She snaps back at her mother, who promptly throws her out of the house in a fit. We next find her talking with friends of hers on a street corner. She hears of a hold-up in "Ike Goldstein's shop," in which gunmen apparently "busted up everythin wid hammers." Later she meets up with Elmer, and complains to him about the strike, wishing it would end. He assures her that "the strike is the workers' great opportunity."
Jimmy talks with Alice and Roy, a couple and friends of his. He mentions that he is thinking of leaving New York in a couple of weeks.
Dutch, wearing "a light gray spring overcoat and a light felt hat to match," meets up with Francie and tells her he stuck up a cigar store.
A reporter named Brewster, who is writing an article on the crime wave in the city, interviews Ike Goldstein about the hold-up in his store. Goldstein describes a "well-dressed lookin feller" and a girl with a veil sticking him up and stealing "about fifty berries an six dollars." He continues: "They ought to make it the electric chair for those babies... Aint no security nowhere. Vy should anybody voirk if all you've got to do is get a gun and stick up your neighbors?" The reporter tells Goldstein he is working on a theory that the bandits were a college boy and his society girl.
Jimmy reads an article in the newspaper about Dutch Robertson, who has been arrested with his "girl companion." "The pair are accused of committing more than a score of holdups in Brooklyn and Queens," the text reads. Suspicion of Dutch was stoked, we learn, when his girl, "about to become a mother," was taken to the hospital, where she was given "a private room, expensive flowers and fruit." Where did all of Dutch's money come from? Moreover, when it came time to register the name of the baby, Dutch admitted he and the girl were in fact not married. One of the hospital attendants noticed that the girl fit the description of the so-called "flapper bandit" and telephoned the authorities.
V. "THE BURTHEN OF NINEVEH"
Densch tries to comfort his wife Serena on the deck of a boat. They are on their way to Marienbad, away from New York for good it seems. "Our position isnt so hopeless," Densch says. He blames Phineas Blackhead for bringing "the firm to...to this." He adds: "That man thinks he's king on earth..." We may assume the situation has something to do with Densch's support of the reform platform and his defiant stance against Blackhead. "Well Serena," he concludes, "this is the end of my business career."
Martin, in an echo of an earlier passage involving Ellen as a little girl alone in bed, "lies tossing within the iron bars of his crib," fearing the "the horrible great dark of grownup people" outside.
Ellen meets George Baldwin in a hotel lobby. They eat in the hotel dining room, and Baldwin makes sure to readily mention that Cecily has finally agreed to divorce him. "Now what I want to know is, will you...?" he begins to ask, but she interrupts him: "George lets eat our dinner first. [...] God knows we've messed things up enough in the past both of us... Let's drink to the crime wave."
While they eat, Ellen feels "a gradual icy coolness" invading her. "She had made up her mind," Dos Passos writes. Finally George puts the question to her a second time: "Well what about it?" She softly replies: "I guess I can stand it if you can George." Baldwin is overjoyed. He kisses her in the taxicab leaving the hotel, but all Ellen sees "whirling faces, streetlights, zooming nickelglinting wheels" through the car's window.
Alice Sheffield meets up with "a tall blond Englishman" named Buck. It quickly becomes apparent that she is having an affair with him. He proposes she go to Calgary with him. She agrees. "In his Majesty's Dominion," Buck notes, "the name of Buckminster has rather more weight than in the U.S." "Oh I know darling," she responds, "it's nothing but money in New York." She tells Buck of a recent discovery in her apartment building - that the woman above her floor has been performing illegal abortions and the clogging the plumbing with the results. She and Buck head to a train station, and there she suddenly feels "alone and tiny in the middle of the great white vault." Dos Passos writes: "All her life with Roy was going by her like a movie reeled off backwards, faster and faster."
A "man with whiskers like a bottecleaner" rails about the end of times to two younger men, Joe and Skinny, who are reluctant to listen to his tirade. "Scared of me cause I'm a tramp aint you?" the man asks Joe and Skinny. "Tramps won't hurt ye, they're good people. The Lord God was a tramp when he lived on earth." He continues with his rant: "There's more wickedness in one block in New York City than there was in a square mile in Nineveh, and how long do you think the Lord God of Sabboath will take to destroy New York City an Brooklyn an the Bronx? Seven seconds."
Jimmy takes a ride in a limousine with Congo, who has soared to the height of wealth and luxury through his criminal activities. "Call me Armand," he tells Jimmy. "I'm married now; Armand Duval, Park Avenue." "[If] I'd been God," Jimmy says, "and had to decide who in this city should make a million dollars and who shouldnt I swear you're the man I should have picked. [...] The difference between you and me is that you're going up the social scale, Armand, and I'm going down. [...] But here I am by Jesus Christ almost thirty years old and very anxious to live..." We learn from Jimmy that Ellen is indeed going to marry Baldwin, who has just been appointed District Attorney. "They're said to be grooming him for mayor on a fusion reform ticket," Jimmy adds.
James Merivale sits in the ritzy Metropolitan Club and reads the Wall Street Journal. He reads of the economic depression, the postwar slump, and Blackhead and Densch: "BLACKHEAD & DENSCH FAIL FOR $10,000,000." Densch has left the country and Blackhead is "incommunicado in his home at Great Neck." Merivale's thoughts drift to Jack Cunningham. "Good connection that feller," he thinks. "Maisie knew what she was doing after all... A man in a position like that's always likely to be blackmailed." Next comes Jimmy Herf - "an out and out failure, a misfit from way back." Merivale thinks of Jimmy's divorce, of Ellen's reputation for sleeping around, as if satisfied by his cousin's "Ten Million Dollar Failure." Then he fantasizes about his own great success.
Anna is about to sleep with a man named Dick. She insists that she is no whore. Her nerves are on edge. When Dick asks her why she is so "quick tonight," she replies: "This strike an the old woman trowin me out an scabbin up at Soubrine's...it'd get anybody's goat."
Florence sits in her room and reads the Sunday papers. She is the woman who claims to have been Jack Cunningham's wife. Jack and Maisie have now married. Florence reminisces about her high school marriage to Jack: "It was a lovely Sunday morning."
Dutch Robertson is in a courtroom. Francie stands nearby. The judge decides to make an example of Dutch and sentences him to twenty years in prison. Francie faints.
Phineas Blackhead lies in bed, waited on by his daughter Gladys. He rails on and on: "We'd have pulled through if he hadnt lost his nerve. Serve me right for taking such a yellow sop into partnership... Twentyfive, thirty years of work all gone to hell in ten minutes..." When he finally calms down, he concedes that the only thing to do is "sell out." "I'll sell every goddamn thing I've got," he says. He thanks God that "Gladys is settled."
Ellen picks up a dress at Madame Soubrine's clothing shop. She has given up her job, a move of which Soubrine approves. In a back room of the shop, Anna sews the trimming on a dress, daydreaming about her future with Elmer and his ideas of the impending Revolution. Suddenly a fire starts. Anna leaps back. Ellen smells the smoke from the front of the store. Madame Soubrine rushes back to take care of the problem. Ellen stands outside on the street with a gathering crowd of spectators, as the burned Anna is carried out of the store on stretchers. "She wont die," a policeman tells her, "but it's tough on a girl." Ellen finds herself inexplicably moved, as if she were the one being dragged along on a stretcher. "Why should I be so excited?" she asks herself. "Just somebody's bad luck, the sort of thing that happens everyday."
Jimmy prepares to leave New York. We find him with Bob and Frances Hildebrand, drinking gin and dancing with a nameless girl. "So long you mysterious traveler," Bob says. "Let us have your address, do you hear?" Before long, Jimmy is waiting for a ferry to arrive. He travels down the river - to where exactly we don't know. Once on land, he "hurries through cavernous gloom and out to a fogblurred street." He spends a quarter on breakfast, which leaves him three cents in his pocket - "three cents for good luck, or bad for that matter." He asks a truck driver for a lift. "How fur ye goin?" the "redhaired man at the wheel" asks him. "I dunno," Jimmy replies. "Pretty far."
"Out of the empty dark fog of the river, the ferryslip yawns all of a sudden, a black mouth with a throat of light." In one of the final passages of Manhattan Transfer, Dos Passos alludes to the very first chapter of the novel: "Ferryslip." Doublings, symmetrical placements, and reflections are devices of which Dos Passos makes extensive use in structuring his sprawling work. In this case, however, the reference to the novel's beginning is not merely a structural tool, but a thematic one. If the city is Dos Passos's prime character, his "hero" so to speak, then his story is history itself. The question then emerges: what exactly is history? A forward progression? A linear narrative? A journey from one point to another? The answer Dos Passos provides lies in the aforementioned quote: by starting a new life and leaving the city, Jimmy is really only returning to his beginnings; history, just like the individual's narrative, bends back on itself, repeats and remolds the same events, the same patterns. History is cyclical, merely a set of "revolving doors."
World War I, for example, seems to provide an opportunity for lasting change - but, just as the earlier chapters of Manhattan Transfer's Third Section have shown, that prospect of transformation is an illusion. The city goes on as before; the poor stay poor, the rich stay rich. The wartime economy may boom, but by the time we find James Merivale seated in the Metropolitan Club reading The Wall Street Journal, the country is in the midst of a postwar slump. The Jazz Age allows for someone like Congo to miraculously reappear as a millionaire in a limousine - Armand Duval of Park Avenue - but it likewise drives Dutch Robertson to prison. Both men are criminals; one ends up in a swanky marble palace, the other in a penitentiary for twenty years. The fundamental patterns stay the same, Dos Passos argues. The last paragraph of the novel, in which we find Jimmy "walking along a cement road between dumping grounds full of smoking rubbishpiles" specifically recalls the first passage of Jimmy's manhood: "Jimmy Herf picked his way along the edge of the road; the stones were sharp against his feet through the worn soles of his shoes." (First Section, Chapter V. "Steamroller") In both scenes dawn is arriving, the waterfront is near, and Jimmy climbs a hill. Our protagonist is doomed, like Sisyphus, to climb the same hill over and over again it would seem.
What then becomes of Ellen, who once fancied herself a princess in a magical city? She remains such a fantastic apparition to Jimmy. As their relationship crumbles, his dreams of her soar: "Ellie in a gold dress, Ellie made of thin gold foil absolutely lifelike beckoning from every window." She herself seems to recognize that she has become akin to a photograph in the eyes of the men who surround her, the men who love her - much like the photograph Jimmy spots in the newspaper Joe Harland drops. "It seemed as if she had set the photograph of herself in her own place," Dos Passos writes, "forever frozen into a single gesture." As with Jimmy, Ellen may restlessly move from job to job, from man to man; yet something inside her will always remain frozen. To some degree she will always be a static image. The illusion of change for the city as a whole reflects the same illusion in its inhabitants. Do Ellen, Jimmy, and the rest ever really change, as characters of a conventional novel would?
There is no easy answer to that question. Returning to the earlier quote, "a black mouth with a throat of light" suggests the clichÃ©d vision of the light at the end of the tunnel. Yet, in Dos Passos's world, the light may be a false one, a red herring. Has Jimmy reached a new sense of self-awareness, of enlightenment? Or is he simply running away from his problems? The last line of the novel is his answer to the truck driver's question. "Pretty far," he says. The truth is he does not know where he wants to go. He simply needs to move. In this closing passage, Jimmy recalls Hemingway's characters, particularly Jake Barnes, lost in Europe, unsure of what he wants, and prefigures the later heroes of the American road: the aimless drifters of the 50's Beat generation and of 70's American cinema.
Indeed, one of the most striking features of Dos Passos's novel is its combination of doctrine and uncertainty: while the writer makes clear his opinions of New York's social divides, his feelings on racism, corruption, and oppression of the lower classes, he withholds any clear-cut judgment of his characters. Moral ambiguity is what best characterizes and links the various interweaving storylines of the novel. While drawing from older literary traditions in creating his protagonists - Ellen recalls nineteenth-century heroines such as Emma Bovary and Effi Briest, while Jimmy seems to spring from the picaresque novels of a Fielding or a Thackeray, while the loss of his mother suggests an upper-class reworking of a Dickens scenario - Dos Passos, to the extent to which he strips away judgment and obfuscates message, presents the reader with inherently novel and decidedly twentieth-century creations.
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
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