Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 964
Born and reared in Chicago, Augie March never knows the identity of his father. Grandma Lausch, who is not related to Augie but boards with the Marches, dominates the household, teaching Augie manners and how to lie to people in authority. As a child, he gets involved in petty crime, stealing from a department store where he works as one of Santa Claus’s helpers and participating in a robbery. At Grandma Lausch’s insistence, Georgie, Augie’s mentally challenged brother, is institutionalized. Grandma Lausch eventually goes to a home for the aged, and Augie’s mother goes to a home for the blind.
For a while, Augie does odd jobs for a paraplegic named William Einhorn, whom Augie calls the “first superior man” he knows. Shortly after graduating from high school, Augie attends college at night and works in a downtown clothing store where his brother Simon works. Then he quits his job and school to work for Mr. and Mrs. Renling, selling articles associated with dude ranches to an aristocratic clientele in Evanston, Illinois. Augie learns to ride horses. On Mrs. Renling’s summer vacation, Augie accompanies her to Benton Harbor. There, he falls in love with Esther Fenchel, and her sister, Thea, falls in love with him. Esther rejects Augie, and Augie rejects Thea, but Thea vows that she will see him again.
Returning to Evanston, Mrs. Renling decides to adopt Augie, so Augie leaves the Renlings and works at odd jobs in Chicago. He steals books and almost gets caught in an illegal scheme to bring immigrants out of Canada.
Meanwhile, Simon marries Charlotte Magnus, daughter of a wealthy family, and enters the coal business in which her family works, soon getting his own coal yard. Augie works for him. Simon becomes wealthy. Augie becomes engaged to Lucy Magnus, Charlotte’s cousin. Helping Mimi Villars, his friend and neighbor, get an abortion, Augie is spotted by one of Lucy’s relatives, who tells Lucy’s family. Lucy’s father forces her to break off her relationship with Augie. Simon fires Augie, saying he wants nothing more to do with him.
Augie works then as a union organizer and starts an affair with Sophie Geratis, a chambermaid in a hotel Augie is trying to organize. While Augie is in bed with Sophie, Thea knocks on his door. Augie leaves Sophie for Thea, whom he comes to believe he loves.
Thea wants Augie to help her train an eagle to hunt giant iguanas in Mexico. Thea provides the money. In Texarkana, they buy the eagle, which they name Caligula. Driving south, they train Caligula. When they reach Thea’s house in Acatla, Mexico, they start training the bird with lizards. He does well with little ones, but when a medium-sized one bites him, the eagle becomes furious, killing the lizard but refusing to eat it. The first giant iguana Caligula attacks bites him, and Caligula flies from it. During the encounter, Augie’s horse throws him and he fractures his skull. While Augie recovers, Thea sells Caligula and starts hunting snakes.
In Acatla, Augie meets Stella Chesney, who is with a man running from the U.S. Treasury Department. One day the man threatens Stella with a gun. She asks Augie to help her get away from him. Seeing Augie leaving town with Stella, Thea tries unsuccessfully to stop him. The car breaks down in the mountains, and Stella and Augie spend the night together. The next day, Augie lends Stella some money, and she goes to Mexico City. Augie returns to Thea, who breaks up with him.
While Augie is in Acatla, Leon Trotsky, Russian revolutionist and commissar of war who quarreled with Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, comes to see the cathedral. Augie goes to Mexico City, where he gets involved in a plan to pretend he is Trotsky’s nephew, so the Russian can travel incognito in Mexico and thus elude Stalin’s secret police, who are trying to assassinate him. Trotsky, however, rejects the plan. Augie then returns to Chicago, where he and Simon become friends again. Augie works for a millionaire named Robey and goes to school to become a teacher. He dreams of running a school for foster children and having children of his own.
Then the United States enters World War II. When Augie tries to enlist, he discovers that he has an unhealed inguinal hernia from falling off the horse in Mexico, so he has an operation. He is rejected again by the Army and Navy, so he joins the Merchant Marine. He takes a training cruise on the Chesapeake Bay. On his first liberty, he visits Stella in New York. When he later graduates from Purser’s and Pharmacist’s Mate School, he and Stella get married. After a two-day honeymoon, Augie ships out on the Sam McManus, which is torpedoed. Augie spends many days on a lifeboat with another man from the ship, who wants to go to the Canary Islands, where he can be interned and do research for the rest of the war. He tries to keep Augie from signaling for help. Augie does signal, and they are picked up by a British ship that takes them to Naples.
After six months, Augie returns to New York. During the war he makes three more voyages. After the war ends, he and Stella live in Europe. Stella works in motion pictures. Augie makes large amounts of money doing illicit dealing with a man he meets through Stella. He learns some unpleasant things about Stella’s past and discovers that she lies “more than average.” He would, he writes, prefer to be in America having children, but Stella refuses to leave Europe. Augie travels around Europe on business and writes his memoirs.
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