Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Grebe’s search for Mr. Green becomes a search for the nature of reality and, ultimately, a search for his own identity. Grebe’s trek through the streets and tenements of Chicago prompts him to think about appearance and reality. “Rebuilt after the Great Fire, this part of the city was, not fifty years later, in ruins again.” Grebe comes to find that people create their own reality by consent. The El, for example, built by the financier Charles T. Yerkes, existed because people consented to its existence. They agreed to pay their ten cents to ride in its crash-box cars, so it was a success. If people created their own reality by consent, why, Grebe asks himself, should they consent to cities of misery and painful ugliness? “Because there is something that is dismal and permanently ugly?” Unable to reach any conclusions about the reality people create for themselves, Grebe returns to his own predicament—finding Mr. Green and delivering his check.

It having been established by Raynor and Field that identity in modern society is determined by money, Mr. Green essentially does not exist until Grebe delivers his check. Grebe’s own identity is linked to Mr. Green’s. The similarity in their names parallels a similarity of condition: Both suffer or have suffered hardships. If Mr. Green exists and Grebe is able to deliver his check, then Grebe’s life is meaningful. Because the woman to whom Grebe gives the check clearly stands for Mr. Green, Grebe has proved, through delivery of the check, that the ordinary individual’s life is important. “Looking for Mr. Green” embodies the major theme of Saul Bellow’s fiction: People need not be passive victims of their situations but in humanity can somehow transcend alienating environments.