Places Discussed

Wariri village

Wariri village. Domain of King Dahfu of the imaginary East African Wariri people. More lush than neighboring areas, the Wariri land also boasts a few of the modern amenities that Henderson associates with “civilization”: firearms, books, and Western furniture. Bellow often shows the village as a place of confinement; Henderson and his African guide are held captive when they first arrive, as they are again after Dahfu’s death, and Dahfu himself seems a prisoner in his own palace, chained by the obligations of his throne.

An atmosphere of death and danger hangs about the village, emphasized by Bellow’s repeated use of the color red. The Wariri people have a fearsome reputation, yet Henderson finds the inhabitants attractive and their traditional garb stylish. The opulence and pageantry of Wariri culture contrasts with the pervasiveness of death in the village, exemplified by the corpse with which Henderson wrestles his first night there and the fondness of the Wariri for ornaments made of human bone. This weaving together of death and life underscores one of Bellow’s favorite themes: In order to live fully, human beings must come to terms with their own mortality.

Dahfu’s palace

Dahfu’s palace. Home of the Wariri monarch, a place where human and animal, intellectual and sensual converge. Dahfu keeps lions in one part of his palace and a harem in another. He and Henderson discuss philosophy, yet Dahfu must live (and die) by the most elemental facts. Henderson at first envies Dahfu his exotic luxuries, but soon learns that they, like his own wealth, are accompanied by heavy burdens. Both characters, too, are displaced people: just as Dahfu once renounced his medical studies in Syria to assume his place as the Wariri king, so must Henderson renounce his Western arrogance in order to emulate the equipoise he admires in Dahfu.

The palace can be taken both as a literal location—one in which Henderson’s friendship with the king deepens and where, under Dahfu’s guidance, he faces some of his starkest fears—and as an allegory of Henderson’s inner self, with the harem symbolizing his many raging lusts and the lions, in contrast, his dormant potential for nobility and serenity. The subterranean location of the lions’ den is significant: In order to earn the freedom of his soul, Henderson must first descend into an allegorical Hell. Interestingly, Henderson’s and Dahfu’s friendship comes to its climax on a tower, outdoors, in direct antithesis to the palace’s enclosed underground lions’ den.



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Literary Techniques

Like most of Bellow's best novels, Henderson employs traditional narrative devices with subtlety, but innovation is not really the...

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Ideas for Group Discussions

Almost any discussion of Henderson the Rain King will focus on the protagonist and Bellow's ways of guiding readers in their...

(The entire section is 270 words.)

Social Concerns

Although Saul Bellow had established his position as an important American novelist with his previous four novels, Henderson the Rain...

(The entire section is 2196 words.)

Literary Precedents

An element central to Bellow's humor in Henderson the Rain King involves a subtle balance between allusion and parody. As many...

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Related Titles

The Masai tribe described in Ernest Hemingway's The Green Hills of Africa (1935) can be seen as a model for Bellow's Arnewi.


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Henderson the Rain King, itself informed by many and disparate literary and cultural sources, has itself been adapted as an opera,...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Dutton, Robert R. Saul Bellow. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Focuses on the underlying philosophical theme of humans as “subangelic,” situated between animals and divinity. Henderson the Rain King, with its biblical references and its menagerie of pigs, lions, cattle, and a bear, fits this theme easily.

Fuchs, Daniel. Saul Bellow: Vision and Revision. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1984. Traces the evolution of the novel from manuscript versions to the finished book.

Hyland, Peter. Saul Bellow. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Starts with a brief overview of Bellow’s life and...

(The entire section is 220 words.)