Although Henderson the Rain King uses humor and even parody to get at its core issues, it does treat seriously the themes that are central to all of Saul Bellow's fiction: the search for meaning, the notion of an existence rendered absurd (in the philosophical as well as the more general sense) by the omnipresence of mortality, the relation of esoteric philosophy with practical action, and the need for transcendence. For more than half of a century, the author has wrestled with the often tenuous relationship between ideas and practical actions. His novels are among the most allusive of the later-generation modernists, summoning the works and thoughts of philosophers, scientists, writers, and anthropologists.
As has been suggested in the "social concerns" section, Henderson lives an existentially and literally absurd life, largely because he cannot locate a purpose that offers consistency and meaning. Behind this uncertainty about one's goal in life, however, Bellow explores his most omnipresent theme, the dilemma of mortality. Henderson's equation, and the thematic problem central to Henderson the Rain King, can be stated thus: how can existence have a purpose when it is limited, and even mocked, by an awareness of mortality as its inescapable end? For Henderson, the certainty that existence is bounded by death leads to a philosophy of denial and an existence without a point. His journey to Africa is initiated by his witnessing someone dying, and much of that voyage is concerned with learning how to live creatively in the face of certain death. King Dahfu of the Wariri tribe categorizes Henderson as one of the "fighting Lazaruses," suggesting allusively and comically that Henderson's struggle is to defeat mortality. By his own account, Henderson explicitly associates obsession with mortality and mortality with the inability to find a suitable purpose for one's life: "All the major tasks and the big conquests were done before my time. That left the biggest problem of all, which was to encounter death. We've just got to do something about it." Critic Ellen Pifer, in Saul Bellow: Against the Grain (1990), perceptively notes that his "antisocial outbursts and impulsive acts of cruelty stem from his fury at mortality itself."
Anxiety about death, a prior condition of "doing something about it," is what motivates Henderson to begin his quest into Africa. While he and Lily argue loudly, the housekeeper dies suddenly, presumably of a heart attack, in the kitchen. Bellow imposes a sly cause-and-effect error when Henderson discovers the body, attributes the housekeeper's death to his and Lily's quarrel, then goes to Miss Lennox's house full of memorabilia, and makes his decision to strike out for meaning in the face of certain death: "You [Henderson, speaking reflexively] too will die of this pestilence. Death will annihilate you and nothing will remain, and there will be nothing left but junk." He undertakes his journey burdened with several images of death, all of which he will need to transform to become a purposeful human being.
Late in the novel, Henderson quips that the dead are his "boarders." He needs to alter his relationship with the dead, much as Charles Citrine needs to reconfigure his memories of and associations with the genius poet Humboldt von Fleischer and his own great love Demmie Vongel in Humboldt's Gift. The first image Henderson needs to reformulate involves his brother Dick, whose death was a travesty of Henderson's youth. Acting irresponsibly—Henderson feels that this is the one time Dick emulated his own behavior—Dick created a chain of events that ended with his drowning. His absurd death imposed the family legacy on a younger brother who felt inadequate to assume it, and his bitterness was so great that he even refused to attend Dick's funeral. Moreover, his father could not forgive Henderson because the lesser brother survived to carry on the distinguished family tradition, and that resentment followed Henderson's father to the grave. As an adult, Henderson powerfully feels this paternal rejection, and for a while plays a violin as a means of reaching across the grave to restore contact with his dead, judgmental father. So, when Henderson associates Miss Lenox's trip to the cemetery with his own journey to Africa, he sees it as simple cause-and-effect. Bellow and the reader, however, know that this is a catalytic, not a causal, event.
He also carries into Africa an image of an octopus he saw in an aquarium in France, a symbol both Henderson and Bellow associate with the omnipresence of death. Running away from his mistress's demand that he make a commitment to her, Henderson in Southern France observes the "pale and granular" flesh of a captive octopus, as well as its "Brownian motion" (an allusion to Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia, or Urn-Burial , an account of various funeral practices and meditations on life and death) that gave him cause to reflect on his own mortality: "death is giving me notice." The octopus, like the cat Henderson tried to kill when the boarders abandoned it on his estate, recurs as a "memento mori," or reminder of mortality, three times during Henderson's African adventures. While he plans the destruction of the Arnewi frogs, he recalls the despair he felt when viewing the octopus and contrasts it with the excitement he feels while preparing to kill the frogs. Later, descending at King Dahfu's insistence into a subterranean lion's cage, he vividly recalls the dread he felt upon seeing the octopus. Finally, when Dahfu's mother and a Wariri magistrate show him the shrunken head of a woman believed to have been a sorceress, Henderson affiliates the terror this skull represents with that of the octopus as well.
Once he gets into Africa, however, Henderson finds immersion in, rather than freedom from, the notion of death and its corollary, the purposelessness of existence. While he is in the Arnewi village, cattle are dying, and the drought implies a similar fate for the villagers if they do not change their attitudes toward their traditions or if they do not relocate. In the Wariri village, Henderson begins his reluctant immersion therapy in mortality, or the difficult process of learning that one's awareness of mortality is not a cause for living a purposeless life, but rather it is the reason to insist on a purpose, whatever the cost of selecting or pursuing it.
In fact, his very first impression of the tribe was Christian convert and guide Romilayu's warning about "chillun dahkness" (children of darkness who are, therefore, satanic or evil). His initial encounters threaten him and his guide with death. A minor official, whom Henderson associates with the Biblical angel of Dothan, who, Henderson believes, sent Joseph into captivity in order to complete a larger destiny for Israel, solemnly directs Henderson and Romilayu into an ambush, in which they fall prostrate before several rifles poised to fire. While being unceremoniously marched into the Wariri village, Henderson believes he sees corpses hanging from scaffolds around the town's perimeter, an impression he later confirms. After being interrogated, the captives are placed in a hut with a corpse (the former rain king's), which brings to mind the octopus because, once again, Henderson is attributing communication skills to an inanimate object. He feels that the dead man is telling him, "Here, man, is your being, which you think is so terrific." When, after Henderson tries to place the corpse in a ditch, he finds it back in the hut, he concludes that the Wariri "deal in [corpses] wholesale." Later, when he becomes the ceremonial rain king, he makes it his business to minister to those on trial, for Wariri justice is swift, severe, and often lethal.
His personal encounter with death further involves what critic M. A. Quayum in the Saul Bellow Journal (1992) calls "lion therapy." His friend King Dahfu insists that Henderson confront his fear of death and come to love and honor a lioness that is capable of ripping him to shreds. Dahfu ministers to Henderson's dread of Atti and the death she represents for him by reminding him that she, like death, is "unavoidable." He begins his journey to self-transcendence by partially mastering his fear of Atti, enough that Dahfu invites him to accompany him on his quest to capture the lion Gmilo, which is believed by the tribe to hold Dahfu's father's spirit and thus must be conquered by Dahfu for him to be confirmed as king. But when Henderson sees the larger, nondomesticated lion believed to be Gmilo, he realizes that his interaction with Atti was merely a preparation for this ultimate existential confrontation: the "snarling of this animal was indeed the voice of death." Indeed, the beast kills Dahfu when he falls from a platform. The factional Wariri take Henderson and Romilayu to a charnel house (a building where bones and dead bodies are kept), where once again Henderson must rub elbows with death, now in the person of the man he has admired more than anyone else.
Much has been written about Dahfu's...
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