The Adventures of Augie March Analysis

Saul Bellow

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Chicago. Growing midwestern metropolis whose diversity and harshness in the post-Depression era create opportunities and conflicts at every corner. The novel alludes to the city’s ethnic diversity but pays greater attention to its economic diversity and variety of locales. Augie’s coming-of-age is shaped by place as he brims with hope and imagined possibilities yet struggles against economic realities, competing ideas and desires, the manipulations of friends and strangers, and freedom of choice in an economic downturn. Chicago offers Augie philosophers, hucksters, con men, shrewd businessmen, thieves, fallen aristocrats, and new-monied didacts who influence his understanding and direction.

The novel offers a smorgasbord, more than a melting pot, of human habitation and business: the free eyeglass dispensary on Harrison Street, a greasy spoon restaurant on Belmont Avenue frequented by truckers, conductors, and scrubwomen, Dearborn’s unemployed musicians, South Side slums, the stockyards, the coal yards, leather-goods shops on Lincoln Street, Crane College, the penthouses and lavish hotels of Benton Harbor, and the millionaire suburbs of Highland Park, Kenilworth, and Winnetka.

Bellow’s Chicago renders the harsh, unfair disparity of wealth in twentieth century America, the unpredictable opportunity and promiscuity of a struggling free market economy, the temptations of criminal behavior in a discriminating yet widely unregulated society. Augie’s adventures reveal the variety of possibilities in metropolitan America as he bounces from job to job, while simultaneously depicting the existential angst of living in such freedom where boredom is pervasive and, according to this novel, the source of modern evil. Augie’s period as a petty thief is motivated by both his family’s lack of money and his own lack of professional direction. Yet when he meets the affluent Renlings, who seek informally to adopt and support him, his desire for experience and understanding is not satiated, even though his basic necessities are met, and he leaves the city. Through both Augie and Chicago, Bellow shows that the glory, misery, and disparity of place are products of the restlessness of vibrant, sympathetic, yet unresolved people.

The Irish author James Joyce once observed that one could rebuild the city of Dublin from the pages of his novel Ulysses (1922). One could say the same...

(The entire section is 998 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Adventures of Augie March is a picaresque narrative. Augie himself is a "picaro" or "rogue." Typical of the genre, the subject of...

(The entire section is 180 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

"I am an American, Chicago born." The famous opening words indicate that The Adventures of Augie March is a novel deeply rooted in a...

(The entire section is 94 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Adventures of Augie March resembles The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and The Catcher in the Rye (1951) in...

(The entire section is 78 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Suggested Readings

Clayton, John Jacob. Saul Bellow: In Defense of Man. 2d ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968. An early book-length study of Bellow. Says the novel is about reaching after personal uniqueness and the way each person tries to convince others that he has “captured reality.”

Cohen, Sarah Blacher. Saul Bellow’s Enigmatic Laughter. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1974. Argues that in this “comedy of character,” Augie is a kind of Columbus exploring America and Americans. He is “the picaresque apostle” who hears all confessions and forgives all sins.

Dutton, Robert R. Saul Bellow. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Treats the novel on three levels: as a picaresque, as a “fictional history of American literature,” and as a comment on the “contemporary human condition.” Augie turns out to be a “fallen angel” and “artist of alienation.”

Gerson, Steven M. “The New American Adam in The Adventures of Augie March.” Modern Fiction Studies 25 (Spring, 1979): 117-128.

Harper, George Lloyd. “Saul Bellow.” In Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, edited by George Plimpton. New York: Penguin, 1977.

Kiernan, Robert F. Saul Bellow. New York: Continuum, 1989.

Pifer, Ellen. Saul Bellow Against the Grain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. Describes how Augie travels through “a New World Babylon” on a pilgrimage to discover what is “uniquely meaningful” in his life. He refuses to yield to the authority of people who claim to be authorities but instead seeks his own truth.

Wilson, Jonathan. On Bellow’s Planet: Readings from the Dark Side. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985. Augie’s main conflict is internal. For him, growing up does not bring with it control over the self. Instead, he struggles between the will to freedom and the need to be controlled.