Humboldt's Gift Analysis
by Saul Bellow

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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 and attends a political luncheon at the expensive restaurant, Tavern on the Green in Central Park. While on this business trip to New York, he sees the impoverished Humboldt on the street eating a pretzel for lunch. Charlie takes advantage of the anonymity the city offers to hide behind a parked car and watch Humboldt but does not approach his old friend. Two months later, Humboldt dies in the elevator of a flophouse near Times Square while taking out his trash. Afterward, Humboldt is buried in a crowded cemetery in the fictitious New Jersey city of Deathsville.

Valhalla Cemetery

Valhalla Cemetery. Graveyard in the New York City area, where the novel ends in early spring, when Charlie, Waldemar, and one of Waldemar’s friends have Humboldt reinterred. This cemetery, with its blooming flowers, represents a new beginning for Charlie.


*Madrid. Capital of Spain where Charlie is supposed to meet Renata. He wants to meet her there, rather than in Milan, Italy, where they first planned to meet, so he can begin writing a chapter for a cultural travel guide about Europe that will begin in Madrid. Through this travel guide, he hopes to make enough money to free himself from his creditors, the Internal Revenue Service, and especially his ex-wife. However, he eventually finds that no publisher is interested in his book.


*Paris Capital of France in which Charlie finds himself with the gangster Cantabile among the crowds on the Champs Élysées, one of the most fashionable streets in the city, waiting to see the film Cantabile mentions in Madrid. In Paris, Charlie also uses the package from Humboldt to prove that he and Humboldt did write the movie’s scenario and begins to engage in a series of deals that will enable him to rebury Humboldt as well as solve all of his economic problems and many of his personal problems.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Feminism is a political and social theory that argues for equality of men and women with an understanding that women have not historically been given equal opportunities and that these shortcomings must be acknowledged and repaired. First-wave feminism includes nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century feminist activity leading up to extending the franchise to women, which occurred in Great Britain in 1918 and in the United States in 1920. Second-wave feminism lasted from approximately 1960 through 1989. Radical feminism took hold in Western nations in the 1970s. Radical feminists take an extreme viewpoint, which some criticize as being misandrist, or man-hating. In the 1970s, two significant milestones in...

(The entire section is 2,910 words.)