It is not fair to discuss The Dean’s December only in terms of what “happens” in the book. It is a novel of ideas or, to be more exact, of speculations. The person who constantly speculates, trying out new theories and coining witty phrases, is the dean, Albert Corde. Who is he? The title of the book notwithstanding, Corde is not really a dean. Although a college dean holds great prestige and power over people, the reader quickly learns that Albert Corde does not fit this mold. He has many insecurities. He regrets that he is not a “hard” scientist, and it turns out that he does not even have a Ph.D.—he is an “outsider” to academia, having made his reputation as a journalist for the Herald in Paris. It appears that diplomacy is not his forte, and this is one of his endearing characteristics; he has written several speculative, emotional articles for Harper’s Magazine about Chicago and has offended many people.
This notion of an “outsider dean” (some of his relatives call him the “dud dean”) lacks verisimilitude—Bellow never explains how or why Corde was appointed, and it would seem his university either lacked evaluative controls or acted suicidally. (Perhaps Bellow was imagining an analogy with his own unique position as a writer in a university.) Nevertheless, by the novel’s premise Corde is a dean, and a highly interesting one at that: humorous, given to theorizing, emotional, and apocalyptic, with a real gift for words. His background is French and “Huguenot-Irish-Midwesterner and whatever else,” and he is in his early fifties, very much in love with his Rumanian, “hard scientist” wife. His mind is the novel’s...
(The entire section is 691 words.)