Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 766
Dangling Man takes the form of a journal kept by the protagonist, Joseph, between December 15, 1942, and April 9, 1943. All the action is retrospective, filtered through the troubled mind of Joseph, and committed to his journal. Introspective and tentative, the entries record Joseph’s increasingly desperate quest for self-knowledge.
As the novel opens, seven months have passed since Joseph resigned from his job at the Inter-American Travel Bureau to await army induction. Because of snarled bureaucratic red tape, he dangles between civilian and military life. A sort of scholar manqué, Joseph had imagined that leisure would allow him to devote himself to study, but he finds himself unaccountably unable to read. Supported by his uncomplaining wife, Iva, in a desultory room in which they have lived since giving up their flat, Joseph grows heavy and dispirited. Continued errands and aimless wanderings signal a paralysis of will that takes the form of obsessive self-absorption. Joseph feels himself changing, becoming suspicious and ill-tempered in his relations with others; he begins to refer to his “older self,” as if he were once a different person. It is this identity crisis underlying Joseph’s journal entries that forms the true subject of Dangling Man.
While the device of the journal imposes an overall chronological pattern on the novel, several of the most important entries are devoted to Joseph’s extended accounts of prior events, some of which took place before his writing began. Perhaps the most crucial of these flashbacks, the one that goes furthest toward explaining how the old Joseph became the diarist, concerns the Servatius party of the previous March. At the party, Joseph is shocked by the defects in friends whom he had glorified as a “colony of the spirit.” Their petty cruelties, culminating in the sadistic treatment of the hypnotized Minna Servatius by Morris Abt, disillusion Joseph, who henceforth thinks of his friends as having failed him. The episode marks the onset of Joseph’s growing sense of alienation. Succeeding episodes trace his disaffection from his brother, Amos, whose money he refuses and whose spoiled daughter he spanks when she calls him a beggar; from his in-laws, the Almstadts, whose solicitousness he regards as phony; from his mistress, Kitty Daumler, who “betrays” him with another man after he neglects her; from his wife, Iva, who resents the role he imposes upon her; and, most critically, from himself.
Joseph’s alienation stems from his fatal inability, first revealed to him at the Servatius party, to answer the question, “How should a good man live; what ought he to do?” In the first of the two imagined conversations with an invented Spirit of Alternatives, Joseph thrashes about in a hopeless effort to close the gap between the ideal construction and the real world. Apparently one requires an ideal construction—God, art, money—as proof against chaos. Unfortunately, none of them suffices. Believing in the efficacy of reason yet haunted by a failure of vision, Joseph wallows in a sea of alternatives, obsessed by a seemingly insoluble dilemma. He begins his second conversation with the Spirit of Alternatives by returning to the question of how a man should live, arguing strongly that self-knowledge is a prerequisite for freedom, without which man can never attain the ultimate goal of governing his own destiny. “Then only one question remains,” replies the Spirit of Alternatives, “. . . whether you have a separate destiny.” Joseph pales, unable to answer the question posed by his alter ego.
With the coming of spring, Joseph’s despair deepens as he comes to realize fully that freedom, unaccompanied by comprehension, is meaningless. One dreary and drizzly night, having quarreled with Iva and noisily vilified their neighbors, Joseph rushes from the house, to stalk the streets aimlessly. Oppressed by images of dissolution—a scurrying rat, a torn umbrella, a stagnant puddle—Joseph takes the decision to surrender. Heading directly for the draft board, he writes out a request to be called up “at the earliest possible moment.”
The scene at the draft board is the climax of Joseph’s quest for self-knowledge and, therefore, of the novel. No longer dangling, Joseph has answered the question posed by the Spirit of Alternatives in the negative: He has no separate destiny. Henceforth, he will be defined as a soldier, a member of a group which confers that identity upon him which he could not achieve in solitude. Written on his last day as a civilian, Joseph’s final journal entry expresses only relief from the burden of self-determination and freedom: “Hurray for regular hours! And for the supervision of the spirit! Long live regimentation!”