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.