Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Chicago. Midwestern city where Charlie grew up and still lives. Chicago is also the home of his mistress, Renata, and his ex-wife, who calls Chicago a deadly, ugly, vulgar, and dangerous place. In American culture, Chicago is indelibly associated with gangsters, and Charlie has adventures involving a gangster, Rinaldo Cantabile, who has Charlie’s beautiful Mercedes bashed repeatedly with a baseball bat and who takes Charlie up to a girder high on an unfinished skyscraper, where he throws down money Charlie lost to him in a poker game. To escape from Chicago and all the problems it represents to Charlie, he plans to fly directly to Europe with Renata but decides to stop at New York first to find out about a legacy he has been left by his late friend, Von Humboldt Fleisher.

*New York City

*New York City. Largest city in the United States, a place of great poverty and great wealth. When Charlie visits New York, he stays in the plush Plaza Hotel and enjoys all the luxuries money can buy. He and Renata visit an old-age home on Coney Island, where Humboldt’s uncle Waldemar lives. There Charlie gets the legacy Humboldt has left him, in a sealed package.

The last time Charlie sees Humboldt alive occurs while he is on a business trip to New York City. There, in the company of the state’s two current U.S. senators, Jacob Javits and Robert Kennedy, he flies over the city in a Coast Guard helicopter...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Feminism is a political and social theory that argues for equality of men and women with an understanding...

(The entire section is 714 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
Humboldt’s Gift is told in first-person point of view, which means the reader sees the events of...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Bellow said that he put the best of himself into Humboldt's Gift. It does seem to combine the best features of his earlier fictions....

(The entire section is 182 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1970s: Divorce rates are on the rise world-wide with approximately 50 percent of marriages in the United States...

(The entire section is 315 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Saul Bellow set a lot of his fiction in the city of Chicago, where he himself grew up. Research the history of this vibrant city, focusing on...

(The entire section is 380 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As Philip Toynbee has pointed out, Humboldt's Gift is probably America's nearest approach to those great Russian masterpieces, The...

(The entire section is 60 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Humboldt’s Gift was adapted as an unabridged audio book in 1992 by Blackstone Audiobooks. It is read by Christopher Hurt. As of...

(The entire section is 37 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, published in 1938, is Delmore Schwartz’s seminal book of short stories and poetry.


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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Bellow, Saul, Humboldt’s Gift, Penguin Books, 1996.

Broyard, Anatole, “Books of the...

(The entire section is 308 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Chavkin, Allan. “Humboldt’s Gift and the Romantic Imagination.” Philological Quarterly 62 (1983): 1-19. Discusses the novel as reflecting Bellow’s “essential romantic humanism” and interprets the flower symbolism at the end as “the possibility of spiritual rebirth.”

Dutton, Robert R. Saul Bellow. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Includes a detailed discussion of Humboldt’s Gift and concludes that Charlie needed to break with Cantabile, Denise, and Renata to achieve peace.

Newman, Judie. “Bellow’s ‘Indian Givers’: Humboldt’s Gift.” Journal of American Studies 15...

(The entire section is 195 words.)