What sets Bellow’s novels apart from those of his major contemporaries, such as Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and Norman Mailer, is primarily the treatment of the hero. The critical consensus is overwhelming in its assessment of the Bellow protagonist as a sensitive, thinking being who contends with the soul-destructive forces of modern society. Though often a victim and a spiritual alien in a materialistic world, Bellow’s protagonist is nevertheless capable of dignity, sympathy, and compassion.
In his critical essays as well, Bellow calls for a more positive vision of humans as glorious sufferers wounded by their own aspirations and ideals in a world that has lost its belief in both. Bellow’s vision of humankind’s conflict with the world is not presented as a journey into chaos, as such a conflict is often portrayed in contemporary works. Unlike his contemporaries, Bellow does not locate his hero in a world where meaning and purpose are nonexistent or, at best, random. In Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) or Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy (1966), for example—or even in the works of the South American Magical Realists such as Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges—reality is a virtual factoid, a fabulous construction, an existential hall of mirrors against which the hero or antihero bumps his psyche.
By contrast, Bellow’s world has substance. The settings of his novels—New York, Chicago, or even the countryside—are fully realized, authentically felt places. These environments, in fact, thrust the hero into a kind of moral laboratory in which to test his or her own values and gradually come to terms with life. For Bellow, it is not the world that is illusory but the hero’s ability to achieve certainty of comfort and intellectual ease. The hero, in fact, must always strive to understand his or her place in the order of things. “The fault, dear Brutus,” as William Shakespeare wrote, “is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
The hero as underling, what Bellow himself called the greatness of humankind’s “imbecility,” is explored in the novels not with naturalistic gloom but rather from a point of view that is, above all, genuinely comic. Bellow is one of America’s supreme comic novelists. His vision of humankind’s plight entails an awareness of the contradiction between desire and limitation, between aspiration and ability. Such a contradiction has been, throughout Western literature, a vital source for the comic temper. It is interesting to note that among the novelist’s other pursuits is his translation from the Yiddish of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel Tam” (1945; “Gimpel the Fool,” 1953), a work spiritually akin to Bellow’s own point of view. Gimpel is the schlemiel, the loser with the soul whose place in heaven is assured by the genuine humility of his earthly naïveté, a humility amounting to a holiness through submission. The Bellovian hero is the intellectual schlemiel, aggrieved by the madness of contemporary life but unable to submit with Job-like serenity, as Gimpel does.
Bellow is thus at odds with the naturalistic writers who preceded him and from whose tradition he emerged. Those writers, such as Dreiser, saw humans as basically victims, creatures irredeemable by any imaginative aspirations because the weight of social forces—dramatized as economic imperatives or as ethical and emotional bankruptcy—keeps them down.
The problem for Bellow’s heroes is not the lack of imagination or the inability to feel but the reverse. Protagonists such as Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day, for example, suffer—like Gimpel—not only because the world is a pitiless place but also because they refuse to submit to the pitilessness, striving instead for some humanistic ideal. Tommy Wilhelm wants sympathy; he demands it as a human being. Yet his expectations lie fallow in the stony ground of his father’s heart and in the heartlessness of Tamkin and the commodities exchange.
Another intellectual schlemiel, Moses Herzog, whose name in German suggests the word “heart,” is a scholar of Romanticism who writes letters to the world to keep from going mad. His alienation from the world can only partly be explained as neurosis. Much of it stems, as does Tommy Wilhelm’s, from his own moral insight, which places him above the world while keeping him enthralled by the demands of the world.
Ultimately, what places Bellow in the mainstream of classic novelists—if one can label a contemporary as “classic”—is his concern with a theme common in the work of the great novelists: the inherent contradiction between the hero’s potential as a human being and the moral value of his actual experience. Such a theme, sometimes expressed as the conflict between illusion and reality, has been characteristic of great literary works from Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605; Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612), whose hero jousts with windmills in the belief that they are giants, to Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886), whose heroine finds the illusion of romance stronger than the reality of daily life.
All of Bellow’s protagonists joust, metaphorically, with windmills. A seeker such as Charlie Citrine in Humboldt’s Gift has a romantic, imaginative point of view which is counterpoised by the hardened realism of his mistress and of his mentor, Humboldt. The huge, corporeal reality of Sorella Fonstein in The Bellarosa Connection contrasts ironically with her own spiritual delicacy; even the freneticism of Augie March betrays at ground level Augie’s sense of human decency.
Finally, Bellow is one of the great wordsmiths of the American novel. His prose style varies with the nature of the protagonist and the dilemma. The euphoric, Whitmanesque breathlessness of The Adventures of Augie March simmers into the quiet restraint of Seize the Day, expands into Moses Herzog’s tempered frustrations, and dilates into the metaphorical considerations of Mr. Sammler’s Planet. In each work the prose is often a startling mix of erudition and slang, of the analytically precise and the casually colloquial; yet it is also effective and always right. His work is irresistibly entertaining, containing accurate portrayals of contemporary life dramatized by dialogue of unerring naturalness.
The Adventures of Augie March
First published: 1953
Type of work: Novel
Through a skein of events from Chicago of the Depression to postwar Paris, Augie March experiences life as an affirmation of the human spirit.
Bellow’s third work is not only a picturesque novel of great zest but also a kind of Bildungsroman, an autobiographical record of physical experience as it relates to intellectual and emotional growth. Augie’s own exuberant narration of his life, beginning in Chicago during the Great Depression, reveals a personality who is in some ways a reckless and amoral character reminiscent of the rogue-heroes of the Spanish picaresque novel of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Yet he is also a man who must define himself by his relationship to others and who views the world at large as basically sound. Many critics have likened the book, and Augie in particular, to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and certainly Augie’s status as folk hero, his take-the-world-as-it-is attitude, and his earthy narrative “talk” are very much influenced by Mark Twain’s classic American novel.
Yet Augie is deeper than Huck because he is less naïve and, because of his origins, more cynical. He is not easily drawn into others’ sphere of influence, as, by contrast, Huck was credulously drawn to the Duke and the King. Augie’s adventures—his various jobs as stock boy, coal salesman, petty thief, prize-fight manager, union organizer, and even eagle trainer—are attempts to taste all of life. Augie is the embodiment of nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman’s belief in the value of all people and professions. All labor is valuable in a democracy; all occupations play a part in the positive force that is life itself. The various jobs are also, for Augie, a means to an end, the end being, as he says, “a better fate.”
A better fate was also what the heroes of a previous literary generation sought for themselves. Clyde, in Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), however, climbed the social ladder only to end a literal prisoner to his own ambition: That there was no way out but death was the naturalistically logical conclusion to Clyde’s ambition. Unlike Clyde, Augie is not merely a product of his environment, not only the sum total of his experiences (equaling zero). The “better fate,” as Augie implies, is, indeed, worldly success but success tempered by insight. Though he ends his story in Paris, involved in some international business ventures of questionable legitimacy, Augie comes to understand the value of commitment to humanity, the need for involvement with life.
This sense of commitment is ultimately missing in Augie’s life. He is a hero the reader can admire for his individuality and sense of independence, but he does not learn by the novel’s end to cease his wandering ways—emotional, intellectual, or physical. His major love affairs, first with Thea, then with Stella, whom he marries, are largely failures. Even his ability to accept people as they are—Einhorn, for example, whose crippled body Augie carries about—does not encourage him to commit himself to a creed or code.
Augie can see people objectively; he is capable of giving them the benefit of the doubt. The world is thus not a valley of despair. Beyond this passive acceptance of people for what they are in a world clearly teeming with life, however, Augie has no goal, no plan. Lacking commitment, he drifts from one adventure to another, hoping for the right “feel.” He is akin to a latter-day knight-errant, seeking adventures in the vague hope of discovering the Holy Grail.
Seize the Day
First published: 1956
Type of work: Novella
Like a Greek tragedy, this novella is an intensely compact work examining one day in the agonized life of loser Tommy Wilhelm.
Set in the Gloriana Hotel on Broadway during one morning and in the commodities exchange on Wall Street later in the day, Seize the Day begins with its suffering hero, Tommy Wilhelm, seeking the company of his father, Dr. Adler. Dr. Adler does not love his son and views him as a failure and a dreamer. Adler disdains his son’s misery: Tommy’s marriage has failed, and his career at Rojax Corporation has floundered. In seeking out his father, Tommy does not so much want financial help, though he needs it and even expects it. What he really seeks is his father’s approval and love. At the very least, he seeks understanding from the old man, a compassion that Tommy has not found from anyone—especially his wife, who is stonily demanding further alimony. Adler is pitiless, disdainful, and sententious, One of Bellow’s most consummately realized villains, he is a soulless creature who is himself ironically effete, living in tight-fisted retirement in a second-rate hotel.
Broke and desperate, Tommy turns to another father figure, a wily, fast-talking con man, Dr. Tamkin. Tamkin wearies Tommy with his incessant talk, an overwhelming mixture of Emersonian bromides on self-reliance and psychoanalytic jargon about money as a type of aggression. He convinces Tommy to invest the last of his money on the commodities market—ironically, in futures.
Tommy’s inevitable failure is depicted in a brilliant scene in which he anxiously watches the exchange board for signs of profit, while Tamkin, ever talking, preaches on the evils of greed. When Tommy is wiped out, Tamkin disappears and Tommy is left a pathetic victim. He is, in his father’s words, a slob. In the final scene, the broken Tommy wanders into a funeral chapel. There, unknown to the mourners, he weeps aloud for the dead, a gesture symbolizing his own dead end and suggesting his deeper, personal loss of love, compassion, and human sympathy.
Seize the Day is rich in character portrayal. Reminiscent of Einhorn in The Adventures of Augie March, Tamkin is a characteristic mix of the comic and the villainous. Fast-talking, full of trite sayings, and even shrewdly understanding of his victims’ needs, Tamkin is the con man par excellence because he has almost convinced himself of his own sincerity in preaching against the evils of materialism. He cheats Tommy not only out of his money but also out of his beliefs, his ideals. Dr. Adler, whose name means “eagle” in German, is indeed a predator of sorts. Like Tamkin, he preys on his son’s weakness as a way of preening himself. Lofty, aristocratic, and fiercely aloof, Adler has become ignoble by divorcing himself from human feelings.
The novella’s title provides a final ironic commentary on the story’s central idea. The carpe diem theme—literally, “seize the day”—was a classical pronouncement that urged humans to make the most of their time, to extract from each moment the joy of life that time was ever stealing away. Tommy’s dilemma is that he cannot subscribe to that pronouncement. His failed investment in futures is an ironic assertion of Tommy’s need to live beyond the day, beyond the commercial grind—to seek for a deeper meaning of life and its sufferings.
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