Sorella Fonstein, the central figure in the novel, is a woman of great intelligence. Her bulk and her plainness serve, to the narrator, as physical emblems of her inner strength and dignity. Unlike some other women portrayed in Bellow’s novels, Sorella is a “tiger wife” of admirable force and humanity. She does not subdue Harry with the force of her character but acts as his liberator, one who understands his need for respect beyond the middle-class values of success. She has impressed the narrator with her persistence and her wit. She takes on the role of the Furies to Billy Rose’s conscience, forcing him to acknowledge what his personal crudity and selfishness seek to conceal. Like the Furies of ancient Greek myth, Sorella is unbending, inexorable. There is nothing of self-consciousness, nothing of personal vanity in her campaign. It is deliberate, direct, and natural, like a life force.
Though his is the story that forms the central focus of the book, Harry Fonstein is, ironically, not the central character nor even a minor one. Though his rags-to-riches narrative is summarized early in the novel, Harry himself is a pointedly shadowy figure, existing on the periphery of the action. He has little dialogue, no movement, no real physical presence. Harry is, in fact, an abiding presence as a concept, a point of reference from which Sorella and the narrator develop their own courses of action.
Billy Rose, the half-real, half-fictional...
(The entire section is 438 words.)