The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Joseph, an unemployed man dangling between civilian life and his final draft call into the U.S. Army, his induction delayed by bureaucratic red tape. A tall, handsome, flabby, well-educated man of introspective and philosophical habits of mind, he keeps a journal of his feelings and musings, growing more bitter, dispirited, and demoralized as he assesses the damage inflicted on his sense of self-identity by the seven-month delay. The major anxiety he feels is existential, such as how to keep his sense of being intact and unencumbered and how to keep his balance between his personal desires and the coercions of society. The problem of freedom is crucial for Joseph, as he clearly recognizes the environmental pressures toward conformity that threaten his personal freedom: the sorrowful, ugly cityscape of Chicago; the stigma of poverty; the demands of his mistress; and the relationships with his wife, family, and friends, all of whom urge him to make something of himself and behave respectably. In a secular age with no deep structure of belief or a priori models of conduct, he is haunted by the question of how to live as a good man. He becomes more peevish, irritable, and quarrelsome as the weeks go by, his life an unrelieved tedium of idleness in the single room he and his wife are renting until his departure. Joseph broods about the avidity of his friends and about his own limitations and sense of mortality. He becomes increasingly disappointed in others, separate, distrustful, and alienated. Feeling constantly badgered by the public conscience, he clings desperately to the one true virtue of preserving oneself: deciding what one can decide and recognizing what is beyond one’s control. After quarreling with his wife over his refusal to cash her paycheck and with Captain Briggs, the landlady’s...

(The entire section is 748 words.)