Saul Bellow’s novel Henderson the Rain King is a complex, richly comic novel of affirmation, at once serious, philosophical, and humorous. The hero, Eugene Henderson, undertakes a journey that parodies at the same that it reenacts the traditional heroic quest. In its interweaving of many thematic strands, this tightly knit work explores most of the major concerns of twentieth century American literature—self-definition, parents and children, death and life, good and evil, existential being and becoming, women and men—with humor and sympathy.
The narrative moves from sickness and sterility to health and fertility, from curse to blessing, from pointless materialism to spiritual direction, and from alienation to community. Henderson, through a comic heroic journey, overcomes his own sterility and fragmentation, brings water to the parched land of the Wariri tribe, and receives the blessing of wholeness himself. A boisterous, undisciplined giant, he learns the need for existential acceptance of his own limitations and of life’s inevitable admixture of good and evil. By identifying with others in their affliction and by learning to accept responsibility for his own acts, he comes to a full realization of his own potential for both aggressive action and nurturance; he grows from incapacitating, though comic, self-hatred and self-doubt to wholeness and health. On his return to Connecticut he is ready to begin healing others, to attend medical school, and to become a doctor.
Henderson, the first-person narrator, tells his tale through parody and self-mockery. He is unsure how to begin because he cannot separate the tangled strands of his life. Trying to explain his trip to Africa, he makes several false starts and has unconnected flashbacks, which provide a context for his adventures. The Henderson of the pre-African section is described in self-mocking terms. It is only after his arrival in Africa, after he has shed his possessions and technology, that his genuine sympathy and motivation for his frequently bizarre acts become apparent.
In this novel, Bellow exploits literary and comic conventions to deflate his hero and at the same time to place him in a larger heroic context. Bellow gives form to the spiritual dimensions of his story through classical and biblical allusions and through the recurring motif of signs and portents. The outrageous Henderson is ironically juxtaposed with such figures as the English physician and missionary Sir Wilfred Grenfell, the legendary Greek questing heroes Ulysses and Oedipus, and the biblical figures Moses, Joseph, and Christ. By means of these references, the book is suffused with a sense of the sacredness and connectedness of life. Similarly, Bellow draws literary texts such as Jonathan Swift’s satire Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851), and the essays of American Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson and poetry of the English Romantics Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth.
Henderson’s mock-heroic journey recapitulates the stages of heroic development identified by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 study The Hero with a Thousand Faces as separation, initiation, and return. According to Campbell, the heroic journey is a rite of passage, a process of growth and self-knowledge attained by the death of an outmoded, ineffective pattern of behavior, and the rebirth of the self on a “higher spiritual dimension.”
The components of Henderson’s problematic life—potential sources of pride, pleasure, and meaningful identity such as his family, farm, animals, money and violin lessons—are unbearable burdens. He thinks of himself as a displaced person usurping the rightful place of a worthier one: “For who shall abide the day of His (the rightful one’s) coming?” Although he is of monumental physical stature, he is incomplete, his face is “like an unfinished...
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church.” Enmeshed in a world of “swinish materialism,” he has lost contact with the values of his ancestors and with his own inner being. Although his first name, Eugene, signifies that he is well-born, he must undergo a symbolic rebirth in order to attain spiritual wholeness. He must leave his suburban Connecticut life behind in order to regain his soul. This separation is the first stage of Henderson’s heroic journey, and it is marked by comic self-importance and self-doubt, by improbable encounters with primitive African tribes, and by deeply philosophical discussions with their princes and with King Dahfu, ruler of the fierce Wariri tribe. On his return, Henderson, having learned to heal his troubled soul, is prepared to become a healer of the body, but he is not shown actually carrying out the routines of daily life with his family in Connecticut. Instead, the novel closes with his plane’s stopover in Newfoundland (the name is symbolic) and with Henderson running in joyous circles in the snow. The novel’s optimistic ending remains controversial, and some critics have questioned its appropriateness.
Henderson is in the tradition of the American hero who is determined to “do something about it” (whatever present crisis “it” may be at the moment) and moves toward ever new frontiers. For Henderson, as for his generation, the only remaining significant frontier is the encounter with death and with the self in the knowledge of that death.
Although Henderson the Rain King is clearly in the mainstream of the American literary tradition, the novel’s brilliance derives from Bellow’s life-affirming vision. In Henderson, he creates a hero who tackles his problems head-on, and who can laugh at both life and himself. Because Bellow’s hero is able to bring a new self to birth, the novel, unlike many contemporary novels such as Norman Mailer’s An American Dream (1965) or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), ends not in existential despair or in avoidance and isolation but rather in a triumphal return to society.