Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Mr. Sammler’s Planet explores the typical Bellovian conflict of accepting the world on its own terms while recognizing and adhering to higher spiritual values. The “planet” of Mr. Sammler is not the moon—a plan for the colonization of which has been proposed by his scientist friend—but the very earth itself. Moreover, Mr. Sammler, an aged, one-eyed Polish Jew now living in New York with his daughter, is not an astronomer by profession but by a philosophical state of mind. With his one good eye he peers through the telescope of history, exploring the cultural landscape of a planet which has just sent a man to the moon yet which is rife with social and political cant and a spiritual emptiness. Having escaped death in a concentration camp during World War II, Sammler is disillusioned, even horrified by the violence around him. The novel presents a dreary, hellish picture of New York of the late 1960’s. Surrounded by muggers, pickpockets, and an assortment of hollow intellectuals, Sammler is convinced that the world has gone mad, that the human race has deteriorated into barbarism.
An indictment of the radicalism of the era, the novel is Bellow’s bleakest, and Mr. Sammler his most despairing hero, a survivor of the Nazis who finds an almost cosmic indifference in the prevailing violence and decay. For Mr. Sammler, New York City is representative of the demise of culture, of humanism.
In the course of his three-day adventure that constitutes the heart of the plot, Sammler experiences fear of death at the hands of a “Negro” deviant, engages in a philosophical conversation about biology and human will with his scientist friend, and makes an abortive attempt to visit his dying nephew. Each day presents one aspect of the endemic cultural decline.
The last scene of the novel is crucial in understanding Mr. Sammler’s ultimate resignation. Too late to say good-bye to his dying nephew, Sammler stands at the bedside of the corpse and mutters a kind of prayer for the dead. The scene is reminiscent of the final act of an earlier Bellovian hero: Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day, broke and desperate, visits a funeral chapel and weeps for the unknown dead. Sammler’s prayer is a similar act, a personal mourning for dead humanity.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Artur Sammler is a highly introspective, brilliant, and aging Holocaust survivor living in New York City. Loved by those who know him, he functions as their gentle, infinitely likable father-confessor. However, since his experience of crawling out of a mass grave in Poland he is “dry” inside. His “death” and “rebirth” in a Holocaust killing field leaves him with an eye that can distinguish only light and shade and a spirit that is often myopic and incapacitated. He is slightly confused, bitter, morally indignant, and constantly ready to sit in judgment upon others. He rarely ever expresses these feelings because he nevertheless loves and needs his circle of friends.
In spite of attempts to insulate himself from the modern world that he reluctantly was born into during the Holocaust, Sammler’s life on his planet is presenting him with many problems. His customary existence is upset because of the imminent death of Elya Gruner, the man who saved Sammler and his daughter from Holocaust Poland and who supported them in America. Furthermore, he is also involved with the intrigue of spying on an African American pickpocket, and the problem of his daughter, who steals the only copy of an important manuscript.
Sammler was spying for days on an African American male who pickpockets the riders of the bus he rides. He is fascinated by this man’s grace, his stylish dress, and most of all his audacity in always picking the same bus route for his exploits. Sammler next visits with his daughter Shula, who changes her name to “Slawa” that month because it is Easter, and Shula, who was brought up under that name for four years by Catholic nuns during the Holocaust, wants to participate in Ash Wednesday. Sammler is both amused and repulsed at Shula-Slawa’s Jewish-Christian identity and contemplates the divisions of the modern self.
Sammler then goes to Columbia University to give a lecture on H. G. Wells and the Bloomsbury Group on the insistence of a rather irresponsible student named Lionel Feffer. During the lecture, a bearded Marxist student stands up and violently attacks Sammler’s speech as “effete” nonsense. The student then calls him an “old man” and even goes so far as to question Sammler’s sexual prowess. Sammler abruptly leaves and, on the trip home, once again sees the pickpocket. When the pickpocket catches Sammler watching him, he follows and corners Sammler alone in his apartment lobby. Here, rather than mugging Sammler or silencing him with physical violence, the pickpocket calmly displays his genitalia as a “lesson” to the stupefied Sammler, who almost wants to watch. After this, he goes up to his apartment where Shula left him a note and a...
(The entire section is 1111 words.)