Most of Saul Bellow's novels employ polarities that structure the dramatic development of each work. The central character becomes conscious of these polarities after he encounters various antagonists who either illustrate one of these dimensions or force the hero to acknowledge them as part of himself. On the one hand, there are the characters who challenge and perhaps even repudiate the definition of self that the hero has formulated. On the other hand, there are the "reality instructors" who may present alternative philosophical perspectives, but ironically their very life style seems to call these options into question. In some works the same individual is the vehicle for repudiation and redemption, but in most works different characters perform these roles.
Bellow has never been circumspect about the themes he explores and the justifications he seeks. From Dangling Man to Mr. Sammler's Planet, the Bellow hero has been faced with the challenge of reconciling the views he has of himself with those that others have of him. The major narrative structure is controlled by the hero who must decide whether to conform to the pattern of existence that surrounds him, or to explore new possibilities. He may ultimately not discover what he seeks, but the search itself is of prime significance. In Dangling Man, The Victim, The Adventures of Augie March, and Seize the Day only ambiguous resolutions are attained. In contrast, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler's Planet end much more optimistically; however, only in the last of these do we discover a character who has not merely contemplated a new lifestyle, but one who has actually attempted to put it into practice.
Bellow's novels contain many similar elements: each focuses on a character who appears to be alienated from his environment, each explores the psychological alternatives of commitment and disengagement, and each challenges the hero to demonstrate his personal worth as well as his faith in humanity. Even though these appear to be serious themes, Bellow always treats them with irony, linking his work to the cynical tradition of Jewish fiction. (pp. 75-6)
Bellow began his fiction writing career by arguing against the values of an established tradition, one which admired physical strength and stoicism. He advocated an alternative approach, which commended the more feminine virtues associated with the heart and the emotions…. Bellow has never diverged very far from this central position, since the idea of exploring the inner emotions of his characters and providing the justifications for their humanistic feelings remain his basic themes.
As Dangling Man progresses, it suggests the themes, conflicts, and essential plot that Bellow has consistently employed in his fiction…. [The] image of the dangling man represents the modern hero who has severed his ties with the values of the past, but who has not yet discovered those objectives for which he may be asked to die. The appropriateness of Joseph's position is thus emphasized, for he is given the opportunity of devoting the totality of his energy to deciding the nature of his future commitment. (pp. 76-8)
Serving the opposite function of the character who appears to repudiate the hero's definition of himself is the character who appears in each of Bellow's works to assert or represent the posture more closely aligned with the author's personal beliefs. These role players annunciate philosophically viable options, even if they, themselves, are unable to demonstrate the validity of this position. Bellow starts out rather hesitantly giving credence to this possibility in his first novel. For in Dangling Man, the Spirit of Alternatives is obviously an alter ego, a psychological construct that Joseph creates for himself to suggest other possibilities than those he had considered to justify his lifestyle. It is an awkward literary device, although it also represents the novel's most interesting philosophical confrontation. It, more than any other interaction within the novel, relates most directly to the traditional Bellovian question, what does it mean to be human:
"I'm talking about happiness."
"I'm talking about asking to be human. We're not worse than the others."
"Those who proved it possible to be human."
By having parts of the mind engage in conversation, Bellow was able to experiment with a motif that became a central part of his later fiction…. What the reader discovers is that the search for a purpose and the expression of grace, which Joseph recognized from listening to Haydn and later from his conversations with the Spirit of Alternatives, remain the central objectives of all of Bellow's heroes from Joseph to Artur Sammler. What changes is how this discovery is represented and what is ultimately achieved once this knowledge has been attained by the character.
Dangling Man begins with this search for self and it ends with an even stronger conviction about the validity of this enterprise; where it fails is in establishing, for the central character, an option that seems to have advanced him beyond the early stages of uncertainty. (pp. 79-80)
In Bellow's second novel, The Victim, the polarity that structures the dramatic development takes on greater depth and far more significance than it did in the first work. In The Victim the question of what it means to be human is tested out. Unlike Joseph in Dangling Man, Asa Leventhal in The Victim is not able to ignore the implications of his assailant's remarks, for he is constantly hounded by a half-realized figure from his past who accuses him of vindictiveness. (p. 80)
Through these repudiators or antagonists, Asa is forced to acknowledge the validity of a statement made by Schlossberg, the reality instructor in the novel. Schlossberg maintains that it is essential for man to realize what it means to be human and that he must also contribute something if life is to have meaning…. [Schlossberg] brings us back to a position similar to that advocated in Dangling Man. He, too, recommends choosing dignity and grace. To be human means to acknowledge one's limitations and to care for others who may need your assistance, it does not, however, mean sacrificing your own integrity to ensure someone else's survival. (pp. 81-2)
In The Adventures of Augie March Bellow introduces a new facet into his fiction: the picaresque. The polarities suggested earlier are still evident, but certainly not as central as they were in the first two novels. In this work Augie is also caught between different value systems, but since the novel is picaresque, he only has to deal with one conflict at a time.
There are many repudiators and many reality instructors in The Adventures of Augie March. They appear on almost every page as they bounce Augie back and forth through various experiences until he asserts himself and moves on to new adventures in his attempts "to refuse to lead a disappointed life."… In the early chapters Grandma Lausch and Einhorn have the greatest influence on Augie's character. They represent Bellow's admiration for a passing tradition…. However, there is also something perverse and grotesque about these two reality instructors. They cheat, lie, and exploit their positions and those institutions they feel ought to serve them. They are also crippled or almost blind, suggesting their limitations as total human beings. In these two characters, Bellow has created his first absurd spokesmen. (pp. 82-3)
The more perceptive observations and the more significant philosophy is communicated by Bateshaw and Mintouchian. (p. 84)
Mintouchian repeats the Bellovian objective to accept yourself, to take life in your own hands, and to struggle to make something worthwhile out of your assets…. [Bateshaw, on the other hand,] is insane because he envisions himself as a Godlike figure who will do away with the boredom of mankind…. By making Bateshaw insane, Bellow is undercutting the Utopian ideal which Bateshaw envisions establishing. He is poking fun at the presumptuous idea of man creating a better world than the one he lives in now. (pp. 84-5)
Seize the Day employs polarities similar to those of the...
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Saul Bellow has been something of a resident alien among recent American novelists. While his work is soaked in American experience, it does not appear to develop out of the tradition of any of his immediate predecessors in American fiction. He has said some kind words about Dreiser, but he is not a direct descendant of Dreiser or of any of the other naturalists. His work does not emerge out of the generation of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, nor does it spring from the social realism that Bellow grew up with in the thirties. Critics, trying to locate Bellow in a literary context, usually link him with French or Russian novelists or with a Jewish tradition that is not specifically American. While Bellow has certainly been...
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Bellow has been, right from the start, as much concerned with the invisible worlds opened up by thought and feeling, intuition and intimation, as he has been our busy chronicler of the mundane….
The culture criticism is there sure enough, a spirited reading of the times for all of us to accept or quarrel with, but the fundamental engagement of thought is, in the first place, self-directed, and we, the readers, are let in on it only as it were afterwards. For while the novel of ideas, as Bellow has been developing it, exists to inform and entertain and communicate with us all, its primary aim is heuristic, designed as it is to enable the author to think himself through to clarity about certain...
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We can probably learn more about a writer from his difficulties than from his triumphs. His struggles reveal his intention and the obstacles that he must overcome to realize it. Most critics, I think, would agree that Saul Bellow's greatest difficulty lies in his plots….
Bellow has two modes: intense, closely textured, moral; and light, energetic, open. The Victim, Seize the Day, and, yes, Herzog represent the former while Augie March, Sammler, and Humboldt represent the latter…. Bellow fears the dangers of constriction, of polishing the life out of a work. (p. 15)
[What] are the obstacles to plot that Bellow must face? What are the elements of style,...
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It should not be surprising that Saul Bellow, our novelist most concerned with the relation between ideas and life, worries about the place of the intellectual in contemporary America, a society that prizes its achievers while it patronizes and occasionally pities its thinkers. What is surprising is that Bellow, at least partially, agrees with the practical American's criticism: if the life of the mind has value, and it surely does for Bellow, its value does not lie in solving the problems of day-to-day living…. Bellow's intellectual heroes are acutely aware of the reasons for their alienation from the rest of society, but they are unable to think their way through to an accommodation with it. Thinking leads only to...
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