A plot summary of Humboldt’s Gift hardly does justice to the novel. In 1976, the year after its publication, Saul Bellow received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although the prize is given for the complete body of an author’s work, many critics insist that Humboldt’s Gift won Bellow the prize.
Like most of Bellow’s novels, Humboldt’s Gift is highly intellectual and digressive. Critics have noted that, as of Herzog (1964), Bellow’s novels begin to resemble philosophical essays. Charlie Citrine ponders at length abstract topics such as death, reincarnation, friendship, love, and memory. Often he meditates or launches into monologues containing philosophical and theological speculations. These digressions occur so often that at times readers may have trouble following the narrative thread and distinguishing between the narrative’s past and present.
Some critics interpret Humboldt’s Gift as having two protagonists, Charlie and Humboldt. Humboldt, incidentally, is modeled in part on the poet Delmore Schwartz, whose first published work, In Dreams Begin Responsibility (1938), was called the decade’s most promising book but whose reputation quickly faded when his later works were not perceived to live up to the early promise. Most critics agree, however, that Charlie, the first-person narrator, is the main protagonist and that as Humboldt’s fame fades, Charlie’s begins to shine. Charlie’s narrative weaves present and past events, and while most of them involve Humboldt, Charlie’s point of view predominates.
Charlie can, with some justification, be accused of being foolish. He finds himself attracted to people like Cantabile and his former wife Denise, who bully and use him, and until near the end of the book, he lets them have their way. His association with Renata is self-destructive. While claiming to be interested in philosophical matters, Charlie views Renata primarily as a source of sexual gratification. She in turn treats him mainly as a source of money and, through the marriage she hopes for, prestige. When she comes to believe that he probably will never marry her, she ruthlessly uses his money to meet in...
(The entire section is 534 words.)