Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.