Because Dangling Man is a journal, it is inevitable that its protagonist, the diarist, dominates the novel. Like Saul Bellow at the time of the book’s action, Joseph is in his late twenties, Canadian-born, the son of Russian immigrants who relocated to Chicago during his boyhood. Yet Joseph—his surname is conspicuously omitted—is less an autobiographical character than a kind of 1940’s American Everyman. In his state of dangling between civilian and military life during a period of historical crisis, Joseph, with all the young men of his generation, awaits war and future uncertainty. This tenuous limbo, rendered increasingly absurd by the length and unpredictability of its duration, triggers the obsessive introspection that produces his journal. An eighteenth century aficionado as a college history major, a former Communist, a lover of classical music, Joseph sprinkles his entries with references to figures as disparate as Denis Diderot, Karl Marx, and Joseph Haydn as he gropes toward self-understanding. Unwilling to accept either of the fashionable modern shibboleths—unreason or nihilism—Joseph at first welcomes his enforced freedom as an opportunity to discover how a good man should live. Paradoxically, however, he is undone by the very moral idealism he espouses. Racked by guilt, beset by dreams of death, increasingly at odds with friends and relatives, he grows masochistic and misanthropic in his deepening isolation. Whether his ultimate failure is a paradigm of human frailty or merely a result of personal inadequacy, Joseph’s attempts to answer the big questions, no matter how often they misfire, lend status to his characterization.
The progress of Joseph’s alienation can be traced in his worsening relations with friends and relatives. Nearly every human contact is designed by Bellow to reveal aspects of his hero’s trauma. Myron Adler, Morris Abt, Minna and Harry Servatius, old...
(The entire section is 785 words.)