*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.)