Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Dangling Man takes the form of a journal kept by the protagonist, Joseph, between December 15, 1942, and April 9, 1943. All the action is retrospective, filtered through the troubled mind of Joseph, and committed to his journal. Introspective and tentative, the entries record Joseph’s increasingly desperate quest for self-knowledge.
As the novel opens, seven months have passed since Joseph resigned from his job at the Inter-American Travel Bureau to await army induction. Because of snarled bureaucratic red tape, he dangles between civilian and military life. A sort of scholar manqué, Joseph had imagined that leisure would allow him to devote himself to study, but he finds himself unaccountably unable to read. Supported by his uncomplaining wife, Iva, in a desultory room in which they have lived since giving up their flat, Joseph grows heavy and dispirited. Continued errands and aimless wanderings signal a paralysis of will that takes the form of obsessive self-absorption. Joseph feels himself changing, becoming suspicious and ill-tempered in his relations with others; he begins to refer to his “older self,” as if he were once a different person. It is this identity crisis underlying Joseph’s journal entries that forms the true subject of Dangling Man.
While the device of the journal imposes an overall chronological pattern on the novel, several of the most important entries are devoted to Joseph’s extended accounts of prior events, some of which took place before his writing began. Perhaps the most crucial of these flashbacks, the one that goes furthest toward explaining how the old Joseph became the diarist, concerns the Servatius party of the previous March. At the party, Joseph is shocked by the defects in friends whom he had glorified as a “colony of the spirit.” Their petty cruelties, culminating in the sadistic...
(The entire section is 766 words.)
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Bach, Gerald, ed. The Critical Responses to Saul Bellow. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995. A collection of critical essays on Bellow’s career from the 1940’s to the 1990’s. Includes essays on Dangling Man, a chronology of Bellow’s life, and a bibliography.
Cronin, Gloria, and Ben Seigel, eds. Conversations with Saul Bellow. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1994. A collection of interviews with Bellow from 1953 to 1992 in which the novelist reflects on the craft of writing, his approaches to fiction, and his times.
Noreen, Robert G. Saul Bellow: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978. A bibliography of criticism on Bellow.
Shatzky, Joel, and Michael Taub, eds. Contemporary Jewish-American Novelists: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Includes an entry on Bellow’s life, major works, and themes, an overview of his critical reception and a bibliography of primary and secondary sources.
Trachtenberg, Stanley, comp. Critical Essays on Saul Bellow. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979. A compendium of essays about Bellow and his work. Beginning with the novels of the 1940’s and 1950’s, the reviews and articles discuss Bellow’s heroes as seekers and doubters and treat some of the author’s main themes.
Wasserman, Harriet. Handsome Is: Adventures with Saul Bellow—A Memoir. New York: Fromm, 1997. An illuminating memoir by Bellow’s former literary agent. Wasserman gives insights into Bellow’s personal and literary life and his approaches to writing.