Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The principal theme of Dangling Man involves the age-old search for values by which one can live in the world. For Joseph, this quest for ultimate meaning is necessarily preceded by self-knowledge: “But I must know what I myself am.” Against the backdrop of World War II and its attendant death and determinism, Bellow poses the alternative of human freedom and self-determination. The war itself exists chiefly to dramatize the starkness of the choice between freedom and surrender and to add urgency to Joseph’s quest. Beginning his journal as a “record of inward transactions” that will lead to self-definition, Joseph assumes that, given the leisure necessary for self-examination, some such definition is possible. After five months of growing frustration, during which he succeeds only in making himself and others miserable, he abandons the struggle and requests induction. The reasons for Joseph’s failure and the meaning of that failure form the substance of Dangling Man.

A compulsive dualism lies at the heart of Joseph’s failure. His many ideal constructions represent unsatisfactory solutions to the problem of reconciling the self to the world. As the gap between self and world widens, he turns increasingly inward, seeking self-definition divorced from its social context. In so doing, he ironically explodes the very impulse—to solve the problem of living in the world—that underlies his quest. When his isolation deepens and the outside world recedes, Joseph is forced to root his search for values in an autonomous self. His subsequent failure to define that self apart from its social actions is tantamount to an admission that the self has no independent existence. Since freedom is therefore an illusion, man can only be defined in external or historical terms; Joseph’s request for induction embraces that very social determinism he set out to demolish. His acquiescence is signaled by a seemingly trivial incident near the end of Dangling Man. Attempting to cash Iva’s paycheck at a bank, Joseph is refused because he has no job. In the eyes of the bank president whom he confronts in an embarrassing scene, Joseph has simply ceased to exist. Completely isolated,...

(The entire section is 903 words.)