The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

It is not fair to discuss The Dean’s December only in terms of what “happens” in the book. It is a novel of ideas or, to be more exact, of speculations. The person who constantly speculates, trying out new theories and coining witty phrases, is the dean, Albert Corde. Who is he? The title of the book notwithstanding, Corde is not really a dean. Although a college dean holds great prestige and power over people, the reader quickly learns that Albert Corde does not fit this mold. He has many insecurities. He regrets that he is not a “hard” scientist, and it turns out that he does not even have a Ph.D.—he is an “outsider” to academia, having made his reputation as a journalist for the Herald in Paris. It appears that diplomacy is not his forte, and this is one of his endearing characteristics; he has written several speculative, emotional articles for Harper’s Magazine about Chicago and has offended many people.

This notion of an “outsider dean” (some of his relatives call him the “dud dean”) lacks verisimilitude—Bellow never explains how or why Corde was appointed, and it would seem his university either lacked evaluative controls or acted suicidally. (Perhaps Bellow was imagining an analogy with his own unique position as a writer in a university.) Nevertheless, by the novel’s premise Corde is a dean, and a highly interesting one at that: humorous, given to theorizing, emotional, and apocalyptic, with a real gift for words. His background is French and “Huguenot-Irish-Midwesterner and whatever else,” and he is in his early fifties, very much in love with his Rumanian, “hard scientist” wife. His mind is the novel’s...

(The entire section is 691 words.)

The Dean's December Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Albert Corde

Albert Corde, a journalism professor and dean at a university in Chicago. Caught between his intellectual, idealistic belief in morality and the pragmatic, relativistic demands of the modern world, Albert seeks balance in his life. In the past, he abandoned journalism for the relative seclusion of the academy, but two events draw him back into direct consideration of the world beyond the university: Rick Lester’s murder and the death of Albert’s mother-in-law in Romania. Rick Lester’s death leads Albert into an examination of the morally corrupt and destructive environment of Chicago, the doomed lives of its lower class, and the moral obtuseness of its leaders. In Romania, Albert struggles with a political system that is determined to limit human possibilities. In the end, Albert resigns his academic post and decides to return to a kind of intellectual journalism, striving for a balance between the sterile isolation of the academic life and the cynical pragmatism of the capitalists and communists he encounters.

Minna Corde

Minna Corde, Albert’s Romanian wife, an astronomy professor at the same university. Minna is Albert’s complement. As an accomplished pure scientist and an emotional innocent, Minna contrasts with her husband’s speculative humanism and worldly experience. Brilliant but uncomplicated, Minna provides her husband with an emotional touchstone that helps him survive.

Valeria Raresh

Valeria Raresh, Minna’s mother, who is dying in Bucharest. She is a former Communist Party member, a former minister of health, and a founder of the Communist Party Hospital. Her quiet support for political reform and Minna’s defection cost Valeria her position and her privileges, but she is a strong and selfless woman who spends her...

(The entire section is 749 words.)