The Dean's December

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

In his ninth novel, Nobel laureate Saul Bellow combines journalistic realism with fictional characters, composites “from several individuals and from imagination,” and a largely fictional plot, “portions” of which, the novelist admits in a headnote, “are derived from real events.” As in Bellow’s earlier novels, the hero is an intelligent, thoughtful man who seeks some sort of “human agreement” and whose consciousness forms the arena for a wrestling match with the issues of contemporary existence. Here, he encounters urban decay, random violence, political corruption and repression, and a general loss of value or meaning in life. Unlike those earlier novels, however, The Dean’s December lacks humorous episodes—with few exceptions—as well as comic, if troubled and suffering characters. It is a slowly paced novel of ideas whose significant episodes gain meaning primarily through their effect on the central character, Albert Corde—a journalist, former newspaperman, and Dean of Students at an unnamed Chicago university.

The Dean’s December is set in two contrasting major world cities: Chicago and Bucharest, Rumania. The former represents a troubled urban center of liberal, materialistic America. A city governed by a powerful, corrupt political machine and crippled by brutal, senseless crime, debilitating poverty and fear, and moral apathy on the part of its citizens, Chicago is a mirror for the problems confronting modern democratic society. It is a demoralized place without a fixed ideology, excessively concerned with technological advancement at the expense of men’s souls. Believing primarily in progress, its people fail to perceive reality or to acknowledge the “horrible” existence of the underclass. To Albert Corde, Chicago is “the contempt center of the U.S.A.,” a place where one must be pragmatic and “tough” in order to survive, qualities Corde himself lacks. In such a world, communication and warmth are virtually nonexistent. Even family members—Corde and his nephew and Corde’s cousin Max—are enemies. Bucharest, in contrast, is filled with “warmhearted people,” representatives of the “old Europe,” who help one another survive despite the repression of their society. A dark and gloomy capital of a totalitarian government which sets “the pain level” for its citizens—forcing them to cope with a harsh reality—Bucharest is bitterly cold, but only in the physical sense. Here, emotion and intellect, humanism and science have not been severed. Doctors in a hospital intensive care unit where Corde’s mother-in-law is dying light candles for the old woman. In this world where freedom of speech is denied—the apartment where Corde and his wife, Minna, stay is bugged by the government—faith and love thrive. Indeed, recognition of this fact, a rediscovery of those qualities which make life both meaningful and moral, is one principal consequence of Albert Corde’s psychological journey—as well as of his literal one from Chicago to Bucharest.

Supported with vivid descriptions of the life of Chicago’s underclass—tenement horrors, heroin addiction, child abuse, arson, rape, and murder—and with visual and tactile impressions of Bucharest’s earthquake-damaged buildings and bitter cold, the novel depicts Corde’s confrontation with several deaths. There is the death of a young student at the Chicago university where Corde is dean, an apparent murder involving a black prison parolee and a prostitute; the murder of a young white woman in Chicago after repeated rape by a deranged killer; and the terminal illness and death of his mother-in-law, Valeria Raresh, which brings Corde to Rumania. Each death precipitates a metaphorical descent into hell, a descent which culminates with Corde’s going below the chapel of a crematorium in Bucharest in order to identify the body of Valeria moments before it is consumed in a huge furnace.

In Chicago, Corde must identify the body of the murdered student on a sweltering summer night. To do so, he must descend into the dark, polluted streets of Chicago, reeking of “sewer gases” and “hot sulfur” from a United States Steel plant. Agonized over the violence of prison life and the existence of the Chicago underclass, Corde writes a series of emotionally charged and politically volatile articles for Harper’s, alienating him from the unctuous provost of his university by creating controversy for the school. To gather material for these articles, Corde visits the slums of Chicago: stifling public hospital wards, a detoxification center for heroin addicts, tenement buildings with menacing hoodlums, and the dark and violent tiers of the Cook County Jail. He even attempts to interview Spofford Mitchell, the man accused of raping and murdering a young housewife but is able to speak only with the public defender, who tells Corde that Mitchell is housed in solitary confinement, in a hole in the basement of the prison. Each interview, each trip—recorded in the novel through a series of flashbacks, many generated by mail Corde receives in Rumania from the United States, and the reproduction of...

(The entire section is 2105 words.)