A Critical Appreciation of Dos Passos’ The 42nd Parallel – A Restless Opening Page
Dos Passos’ The 42nd Parallel is an eloquent description of the futility of the American Dream, highlighting the anger, desperation, relentlessness and loneliness of the situation. Written in 1930, the start of the Great Depression, Dos Passos through his eloquent manipulation of language depicts the overarching theme of the failure of the American Dream in a manner of subtly, relying on figurative language and lexis to convey his message. The passage is written in a detached manner and void of direct speech and has a clear message running throughout this passage; he intends to highlight the struggle and hollowness of the current American society in the early stages of the Great Depression.
Dos Passos uses selective detail to set the tone of the scene the reader is introduced to in the first paragraph. He launches the reader straight into a busy suburban street description with no prior introduction, giving the overall passage a tone of immediacy or urgency, perhaps representative of the immediacy to find employment and urgency to hold onto a job. Dos Passos focuses on the ‘flicker of eyes’, ‘the set of a head’, ‘the lift of a shoulder’, the way which ‘hands spread and clench,’ enabling the reader to visually see his description and giving the passage a sort of cinematic sense of zooming in on selective detail, then zooming out to ‘the crowd that thins into the night’. The lexical field used in the in the first paragraph conveys a sense of rage through words such as ‘clench’, ‘blood’, ‘stinging’, ‘ache’ and ‘whitehot’, all of which have connotations of fury and establish a sense of foreboding, perhaps again alluding to the foreboding spectre of unemployment. Another lexical field evident in the opening paragraph is that of working jobs; ‘roadmender,’ ‘fisherman,’ ‘bridgeman,’ ‘engineer’ and ‘dirtfarmer,’ all jobs that imply a sense of physical strength. The description of the jobs reiterates the tone of fury through Dos Passos’ choice of words that have violent connotations. ‘Hook’, ‘lurching’, ‘swing’, ‘sling’, ‘grip’, ‘yanks’ and ‘throttle’ are words more commonly used when describing a fight as opposed to jobs, perhaps suggesting Dos Passos is implicitly alluding to physical labourers being the most deeply affected group by the Depression, and therefore commenting on the futile nature of the American Dream.
Moreover, Dos Passos encapsulates a sense of relentlessness and desperation in this passage. The entirety of the passage contains only eleven sentences yet Dos Passos peppers the description with commas and semicolons, enabling sentences run on continuously which reiterates the idea of immediacy and urgency while also conveying a sense of relentlessness. The list form in which he writes reprises the relentlessness, stating one thing after another as if to overwhelm the reader as perhaps the ‘young man’ in the passage is; ‘subway…streetcar…bus…steamboats…hotels… cities…wantads…trades…jobs…boardinghouses…beds…’ The ‘greedy’ nature of people is explored in this passage as ‘one bed is not enough, one job is not enough, one life in not enough’. Dos Passos’ repetition of ‘enough’ conveys the relentlessness as well as a sense of desperation; the ‘young man’ is ‘fast but not fast enough’, ‘far, but not far enough’ and ‘by himself alone.’ The futility of the American Dream is revealed through the exploration of the themes of restlessness and desperation; one may be or have some but never truly ‘enough’ and that desire for more will consume you. The progression of ‘tingles’, ‘buzzing’, ’stinging’, ‘ache’ conveys the progression of the extent of pain the ‘knowledge of jobs’ is causing.
Dos Passos’s composition successfully conveys the loneliness of the ‘young man’ in the passage, and comments on the hollowness of American society during the Depression. The passage has no direct speech and is told through the narrative voice of a third-person omniscient narrator. Aside from greed for jobs, there was greed for ‘the warm curve of faces’; human interaction. The phrase ‘by himself’ is continually repeated throughout the passage and although he is surrounded by humans interacting with things, ‘subways’, ‘streetcars’ and ‘buses’ they interact only with machines, not other people; perhaps an allusion to the newly industrialised society. ‘Only the ears busy to catch the speech are not alone’, yet the description of speech links to the initial sense of foreboding created in the first paragraph due to the weed like comparison. ‘Tendrils’, ‘twine’, ‘spread’ and ‘grow’ imply the spread of something, presumably something undesirable or something intended to be suppressed; Dos Passos conveys the power and untameable nature of words and that so long as speech is free then one is never alone. The words are described to grow out over many man-made objects such as ‘city blocks’, ‘pavements’, ‘avenues’, ‘trucks’, ‘fillingstations’, ‘roundhouses’, ‘steamboats’ and ‘planes’, which can be read as a comment on society that human interaction will overcome the newly industrialised society. The use of natural imagery links the people back to their roots and to nature, in comparison to the industrial, suburban city. The loneliness has arisen from losing touch with nature. Therefore, the futility of the American Dream is revealed as although it may have led to the creation of industry and machines, it has created a society void of human contact as every man is out for himself, striving to achieve their American Dream.
Even at this early stage of his writing, Dos Passos illustrates the futility of the American Dream and emptiness of American society throughout the passage in a manner of subtly, implicitly commenting on the inner workings and flaws of society through his beautiful descriptions brimming with figurative language. His writing is poignant and visually appealing to the reader, enabling them to deeply empathise and understand the anger, desperation, relentlessness and loneliness felt in American society by 1930.
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Dos Passos’ The 42nd Parallel is an eloquent description of the futility of the American Dream, highlighting the anger, desperation, relentlessness and loneliness of the situation. Written in 1930, the […]