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...
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