Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1353

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Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March is a novel that must be understood at several levels. Each of these levels is completely meaningful in itself yet unmistakably intertwined with the others.

At the simplest level of reading, the novel is in the picaresque tradition, telling the adventures, often comic, of a rascal born out of wedlock to a charwoman, reared in the poverty of a down-at-the-heels Chicago neighborhood and early addicted to taking life as it comes. Augie March the adult, thus seen, is a ne’er-do-well hanger-on to people of wealth, a thief, and even a would-be smuggler. As a child of poverty, he learns from the adults in his life and from his experience that a ready lie told with a glib tongue and an air of innocence is often profitable. Growing older, he learns that many women are of easy virtue, holding the same loose reins on their personal morality as Augie does on himself. Easy love and easy money seem, at this level, to be Augie’s goals in life. Although he may dream of becoming a teacher, take a few courses at the University of Chicago, and read widely in an informal way, Augie stays on the fringes of the postwar black market, where he finds the easy money he needs to live in what he regards as style.

When viewed at the literal level, The Adventures of Augie March, like Bellow’s earlier fiction, is largely in the naturalistic tradition. In Bellow’s choice of setting, in his pessimistic characters, in his use of a wealth of detail, and in the implicit determinism apparent in the careers of Augie, his relatives, and his friends, one notes similarities to the fiction of the giants of the naturalistic tradition in literature and a kinship with the novels of Nelson Algren and James T. Farrell. At times, Augie seems little more than a Jewish boy from Chicago’s Northwest Side who is one part Farrell’s Studs Lonigan and one part Farrell’s Danny O’Neill from Chicago’s South Side Irish neighborhood. With Farrell’s characters, Augie shares an immigrant background, little or no sense of meaning in life, degrading poverty, and a grossly hedonistic view of life.

Unlike many naturalistic novelists, however, Bellow seeks meaning in facts; he is not confined to the principle that the novelist is simply an objective, dispassionate reporter of life among the lowly, the immoral, and the poverty-stricken as he finds it. He does not permit his character Augie to be merely a creature of his environment, molded by forces outside or within himself, over which he has no control. The Adventures of Augie March can be read at a deeper level than environmental determinism. Augie is capable of intellectual activity of a relatively high order, of knowing with what and for what he is struggling. Throughout his life, he learns that other people want to make him over. Grandma Lausch, an elderly Russian Jew of fallen fortunes who lives with the Marches, tries to form the boy, and he rebels. Later Mr. and Mrs. Renling, well-to-do shopkeepers in a fashionable Chicago suburb and Augie’s employers, want to make him over, even adopt him, but he rebels. Augie’s brother Simon, who achieves wealth and considerable respectability, tries to make a new man of Augie and finds Augie rebellious. Various women in Augie’s life, including Thea Fenchel, Augie’s mistress (whom he follows to Mexico to hunt iguanas with an eagle), try to recast Augie’s character. They, too, fail, because, above all, Augie refuses to be molded into someone else’s image of what he ought to be.

Refusing to be cast in any mold suggested by the people about him, Augie wants to become something—but he never seriously accepts any goal. He wants always to be independent in act and spirit, and he does achieve some sort of independence, empty though it is. He wants to be “someone,” to fulfill his capabilities, but he never settles on the path to success. By refusing to commit himself to anything, he ends up accomplishing nothing. It is a sad fact of his existence that he comes to be a bit envious of his mentally challenged brother Georgie, who masters some of the elements of shoe repair. Bellow seems to be saying through the character of Augie that it is possible to have a fate without a function, but ironically Augie shows that without a function no one can have a worthwhile fate.

Another view of the novel is that it is social commentary. Most remarkable is the portrayal of the section of American society in which Augie moves. Augie is a Jew; that fact is literally beaten into him by neighborhood toughs, including those among the Gentiles he thinks are his friends, while he is a child. As he grows up, takes jobs, finds friends and confidants, seeks out women to love, Augie moves almost always in the company of Jews. The respectability toward which he is pushed is always that of the Jewish middle class, particularly that of the Jews who have lost their religion and have turned to worshiping success in moneymaking and in a passion for fleshy women, flashy cars, and too much rich food. While in one sense Bellow’s novel is one of an adolescent discovering the world, it is a restricted world. Augie seems never to understand the vast fabric of American culture that lies about him. If his is a sociological tragedy, and many readers find it so, it is not a broad American tragedy. Rather, it is the tragedy of a Jewish child who sees only the materialism of Jews who have forsaken their rich tradition and who have found nothing to replace it.

While some readers will readily grasp the tragic elements in The Adventures of Augie March, others will grasp more readily the comic aspects. Following as it does in many ways the picaresque tradition, the novel has a wide strain of the comic. Neither Augie nor his creator takes some of the main character’s deviations from conventional standards of conduct very seriously. Augie bounds in and out of crime and of sin with scarcely a backward glance. If his loves seem empty and his women unfaithful, Augie accepts that with lighthearted aplomb. Unheroic, weak, and ineffectual, Augie can be viewed as a comic protagonist in a comic work. The comic spirit, however, is used traditionally for satiric and serious purpose. While the comic elements are undeniably woven into the novel, adding to the richness of its texture, one may wonder about their purpose. Does the creator of Augie share his character’s belief in the irrational nature of the individual, of society, and of the universe?

Augie seems at times to be a symbol of the irrational, mirrored in the eaglet that Augie and Thea train to hunt. The young bald eagle, fierce in appearance, proves to be an apt pupil: He is marvelously equipped, with powerful wings, beak, and claws, to be an instrument of destruction, and he learns well how to attack a piece of meat tendered by his trainers. Nevertheless, when a live creature, even a tiny lizard, puts up resistance, the eagle defies his nature, turning away and refusing to do what he is capable of doing. Like the eagle, Augie fails, too. Young, handsome, charming, and intelligent, Augie refuses to face life, always seeing it as something someone else wants him to do. When life hits back at him, Augie turns away. He strikes the reader as being without purpose. Like the trained eagle, he exists to exist, to be looked at, and to be fed. That the character sees this as living is perhaps the greatest irony of all. Augie is an antihero; he is not so much comic as pathetic. As a narrator, he realizes, vaguely, that while he denied the traditional goals that others held up for him, he failed to find for himself a worthwhile goal. In trying to live, he found little but a meaningless existence.

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