In Saul Bellow's Seize the Day, what type of culture did Tommy Wilhem grow up in to make him act the way he did?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Saul Bellow's Seize the Day, published in the 1950s, the characters in the story are living in a post-war society. They live in suburbia, where there is supposed to be a sense of conformity and a commonality among the people.

This is the time in which Tommy Wilhelm is struggling to survive. The culture from which he comes is one where success is found in the ability to be a part of a community, far from the city—a city which represents fear to many, who choose to live away from it.

Tommy is the son of a successful and wealthy doctor who refuses to help either of his children financially. The fear of failure within Tommy is enormous. He has no job; he cannot afford to pay the bills or buy things his estranged wife wants. She refuses to divorce him, so along with financial and marital problems—and a father who does not care—Tommy cannot even pursue a life with the woman he loves.

The culture of the time is fearful of big cities. Rather than enjoying the comfort of living in the new, small communities popping up outside of big cities, Tommy lives in a hotel (the Hotel Gloriana) where his father also lives. As the story opens, Tommy is afraid:

...Wilhelm was used to an active life and liked to go out energetically in the morning...because he had no position, he had kept up his morale by rising early...But he had realized that he could not keep this up much longer, and today he was afraid.

This culture is fearful also of the threat of communism. There is a wariness with regard to who can be trusted: where people may not be as they appear. This was a common perception among people in the 1950s, especially as Senator Joseph McCarthy ferreted out people within society who "seemed to be" practicing communists, unbeknownst to their neighbors and co-workers. Tommy is fearful that Dr. Tamkin may be someone who is not as he appears; Tommy is afraid that he is being cheated financially by Tamkin—something Dr. Adler is certain of. Another fear that dominated society was fear of a nuclear attack—aggression and disaster that could strike at any time.

In essence, Tommy's existence seems to center completely around those things that make him fearful: the communists, threat of nuclear bombs and his inability to find work to meet financial obligations and support his children. Because of these cultural influences, Tommy lives in constant fear. Perhaps the most difficult source of disquiet for Tommy is the sense of failure that follows Tommy's every move. Tommy's father's inability to provide love and/or support, feeds Tommy's overwhelming sense of despair, as seen when he falls apart at the stranger's funeral at the story's conclusion, perhaps seeing his own fate before him.


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