Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 679

Although creditable as a short story in its own right, Saul Bellow’s “A Father-to-Be” can be appreciated also as a kind of working draft for his short novel, Seize the Day, which was published in 1956. In that work, Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist, feels overwhelmed by his financial and emotional debts to his estranged wife and to his father, whom he both loves and despises for his mean-spiritedness. Rogin, like Tommy, feels burdened by what he believes are his obligations to support Joan and his conflicting desire for freedom as a man.

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The character of Rogin most engages the reader, for the plot is really a series of contemplative actions that shed light on his personality. His name—related to the Latin rogo, to ask—suggests an essential element of his nature, that of the questioner, the seeker. As in many of Bellow’s works, much of the action and meaning of the plot depends on a character’s attempt to interpret, to seek, to plumb the bottom of the well of experience.

What Rogin seeks is at the crux of the meaning of “A Father-to-Be.” He is a research chemist by profession, one who seeks answers in the elemental substances of nature; but he is a researcher into the human heart by inclination, seeking to find sympathy and understanding as a man in a tough, desensitized world. His adventures on his way to Joan’s apartment form steps in his contemplation of his own place in that world. The journey Rogin makes is one of discovery about himself.

In his first step—the delicatessen—Rogin sees himself as the harried provider, a financial supporter of Joan’s extravagant lifestyle. He also reveals that he is a man in love with life: He appreciates the smells of food and admires the honest toughness of the counterman, a man of the city, a survivor.

By the end of this first stage, Rogin is suffering, in conflict between his feeling of being used and his desire for love; he recognizes Joan’s faults but chooses to ignore them. In the second stage of his contemplation, Rogin descends into the subway, a symbolic descent into the underworld in which he learns more about himself and his conflict. He does this by studying his fellow passengers. They provide his personal summary of humanity and their foibles—the alcoholic man, self-deluded by his presumed cure; the two little girls and their mothers, by turns smug and annoyed; the strange foreign family with their androgynous offspring—these help Rogin understand his own need for finding a place in the world, a place secured not by money but by love.

The third and final stage of his contemplative journey begins with his observation of the subway passenger next to him. This stage is introduced by Rogin’s recollection of his recent dreams. The significance of these dreams is both symbolic and foreshadowing. The undertaker who wants to cut Rogin’s hair is a figure of emasculation, a modern allusion to the biblical story of Samson and Delilah. As Samson’s strength was in his hair, so the undertaker’s cutting of Rogin’s hair is an image of emasculation and the death of his manhood. The woman on Rogin’s head, the figure of the second dream, is a clear evocation of Joan, who Rogin is carrying, supporting. Both images ultimately connect with the final scene in which Joan, Delilah-like, washes Rogin’s hair while he weakly submits.

In the third stage, Rogin observes the man who he imagines resembles Joan and her father. Prepared by his previous observations, Rogin invents a clever way of breaking his relationship with Joan. He convinces himself that this future son will be the end result of this relationship, this son who will be a curse to his father.

Rogin’s illumination in this last stage seems born out of delusion, out of the preposterous notion of himself as a father-to-be. In a real sense, however, Rogin understands that he is, indeed, a victim, ill-used but ultimately helpless, weak, submissive.

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