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.
The Adventures of Augie March is an autobiographical Bildungsroman covering a Jewish American’s struggle to find himself, through trial and error, from the 1920’s through the 1940’s. Saul Bellow’s hero-narrator Augie March is bewildered by the freedom and opportunities available to Jews in America after centuries of persecution and segregation in other lands.
Augie is a resilient but not a strongly motivated character. Not knowing what he wants, he allows himself to be misguided by a succession of domineering personalities, beginning with the family’s tyrannical boarder, Mrs....
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