Analysis

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Last Reviewed on October 4, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 349

George Grebe is the protagonist of Saul Bellow's short story "Looking for Mr. Green." Grebe is the epitome of the modern man, specifically the Western male in the twentieth century. The short story is about how an individual defines one's identity and existence in a world that has become machine-like....

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George Grebe is the protagonist of Saul Bellow's short story "Looking for Mr. Green." Grebe is the epitome of the modern man, specifically the Western male in the twentieth century. The short story is about how an individual defines one's identity and existence in a world that has become machine-like. In essence, the story of Grebe is a microcosm of how many modern people feel in a fast-paced world that is run by systems: political institutions, economic structures, religious organizations, corporations, and so on.

Saul Bellow uses the character of George Grebe to comment on the human condition. Grebe, in the end, is a speaker of truth. The truths he holds, however, are subjective and are based on Saul Bellow's own perspective of the world and personal philosophy. What is truth? What is freedom? Bellow asks indirectly through this short story. Grebe represents the modern man trying to liberate himself from the suffocating constraints of modern society. Grebe is also concerned with liberating others in the same way and does so as a Koheleth, or "preacher."

Modern American society is represented by the city of Chicago. What's interesting about Chicago as the setting for the story is that, unlike New York City, it is a major metropolis that doesn't have a very old history. Unlike places on the East Coast—many of which were founded as colonies before the United States existed—cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Seattle were born out of America's ambition to expand westward. Chicago can be a figuratively and literally cold city. It is a city where capitalism and political corruption are conjoined twins, and this creates a sense of alienation for characters like Grebe.

Grebe sees himself as part of a generation that was born in the New World. This highlights his immigrant background, as his parents were first-generation Americans who left Europe to avoid persecution as Jewish people. Grebe offers the perspective of the American who doesn't feel very American; he is a person who represents the new American society while still having roots in the "old world" his ancestors came from.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 359

Structurally, “Looking for Mr. Green” consists of two scenes set on the streets and in the tenements of Chicago, separated by a scene at the relief agency in which a philosophical discussion between Grebe and Raynor is interrupted by a welfare mother’s tirade. Within this basic structure, a number of ironies and contrasts occur. It is, for example, oddly ironic that Grebe would have trouble delivering relief checks to people who have desperate need of them.

The realistic, richly detailed characters and setting also are in contrast to the symbolic intentions of the work. The conversation in Grebe’s office makes apparent that the story exists on two planes, the concrete and the symbolic. The drunken, naked woman whom Grebe meets in Mr. Green’s bungalow is, for example, not only a living character but also a symbolic figure: She, like Staika, represents the misdirected human spirit. Several allusions and metaphors during the course of the work also place the story in a larger context. The walls of the tenement, with their writings and scribblings, are like “the sealed rooms of pyramids” and “the caves of human dawn.” When Grebe enters one of the apartments, he finds ten or a dozen people “sitting on benches like a parliament.” Field is described “like one of the underground kings of mythology, old judge Minos himself.” The ghetto and its inhabitants become metaphors for man and the dark, incomprehensible world in which he moves.

The most interesting technique that Bellow utilizes, however, is the absence of the title character, Mr. Green. Because Grebe never actually meets Mr. Green, there have been diverse assertions concerning Grebe’s “success” in delivering Mr. Green’s check. Some critics thinks that Grebe has put himself in the position of deliberate self-deception, although others think that Grebe’s giving the check to “Mr. Green” should not be interpreted as an act of failure or defeat but as a symbolic gesture connected with all he has experienced and learned that day. In this reading, the story does not end with self-deception but rather with hope, with Grebe’s awareness of his own identity and function in society.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 136

Bradbury, Malcolm. Saul Bellow. New York: Methuen, 1982.

Braham, Jeanne. A Sort of Columbus: The American Voyages of Saul Bellow’s Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984.

Cronin, Gloria L., and Leila H. Goldman, eds. Saul Bellow in the 1980’s: A Collection of Critical Essays. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1989.

Cronin, Gloria L., and Ben Siegel, eds. Conversations with Saul Bellow. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

Goldman, L. H. Saul Bellow: A Mosaic. New York: Peter Lang, 1992.

Hyland, Peter. Saul Bellow. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Newman, Judie. Saul Bellow and History. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Siegel, Ben. “Simply Not a Mandarin: Saul Bellow as Jew and Jewish Writer.” In Traditions, Voices, and Dreams: The American Novel Since the 1960’s. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995.

Trachtenberg, Stanley, comp. Critical Essays on Saul Bellow. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.

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