Only the Dead Know Brooklyn by Thomas Wolfe
In Only the Dead Know Brooklyn by Thomas Wolfe we have the theme of connection, conflict, self-importance and identity. Taken from his The Complete Short Stories collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Wolfe may be exploring the theme of connection or rather the lack of it. The narrator is standing alone on the platform which many critics might suggest acts as foreshadowing. Though he helps the big guy with directions and they journey together on one of the trains. There is a sense that the narrator considers the big guy to be crazy. Crazy for not only travelling to Red Hook on his own and not understanding why he shouldn’t but because he goes from place to place in Brooklyn based solely on the information on his map. In reality the big guy does not know anything about Brooklyn. How at times it can be unsafe (Red Hook) and that not everyone will have his best interests at heart. This may be significant as Wolfe may be suggesting that in Brooklyn people are tough and they have to be tough. Life is not easy for them and as such they may be more predatory than defensive. Preferring instead to strike first and ask questions later.
What is also interesting is the conflict between the narrator and the wise guy. Both men are in the wrong for engaging in their exchange and it is clear that both have an over inflated opinion of themselves. With both men considering themselves to be right when it comes to directions to Bensonhurst. It is possible that Wolfe is again suggesting that those who live in Brooklyn have no fear of conflict. Neither man backs down and the reader is left suspecting that should discussion between both have continued. One man may have eventually hit the other as though being questioned was an infringement on their identity. The reader conscious that both men are proud if not aggressive New Yorkers. However this may be how both men have survived. By not backing down should conflict arise. With an openness to conflict comes a toughness. There is no fear of fighting or the possibility of getting in a fight. Which may be Wolfe’s way of telling the reader that those who live in Brooklyn are tough and have to be tough in order to survive.
The big guy’s reference to drowning may be important as he doesn’t literally mean that he is drowning in water. Most likely the reference includes the big guys map and how many different places he still has to go to in Brooklyn and how it might be overwhelming. In reality the big guy might have set himself a task that he may not complete. Particularly if he takes the advice of the narrator who doesn’t really see any point in the big guy using his map or in trying to explore Brooklyn. This may be significant as it is possible that Wolfe through the map and the big guy’s actions is highlighting how territorial and protective the narrator is. He has no interest in going to explore Brooklyn. With one of the reason’s being that he doesn’t believe Brooklyn can be explored in a lifetime. If anything the narrator is putting blinkers on himself by not exploring his environment. Which leaves the reader wondering why someone with an outward appearance of being tough would fear exploring Brooklyn.
The end of the story is also interesting as Wolfe separates the narrator and the big guy in a way to suggest that both men want and are looking for different things in life. The narrator appears to be happy in the world he knows while the big guy, no matter how unsafe it might be, is more interested in expanding his horizons. Though some critics might suggest that the big guy is in the right it might be important to remember that the narrator may be battle weary from previous experiences in Brooklyn. Wolfe after all is leaving the reader with the impression that those who live in Brooklyn are tough. If the narrator is battle weary he is letting himself down by licking his wounds and staying in parts of Brooklyn that are familiar to him. At no time does the reader feel as though the narrator’s development is limitless. Rather he has placed limits on his development by sticking to what he knows and not taking risks. The big guy is taking risks and he seems to be happy in doing so even if the size of Brooklyn may be overwhelming to him.