Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 551

The backdrop for this novel is not only New York’s diversity and decay; it is also the excitement then in the air about the Apollo Moon landing and the potential of a new frontier for humanity. Sammler, a character many have seen to be a thinly disguised Saul Bellow, is...

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The backdrop for this novel is not only New York’s diversity and decay; it is also the excitement then in the air about the Apollo Moon landing and the potential of a new frontier for humanity. Sammler, a character many have seen to be a thinly disguised Saul Bellow, is not so sure about humanity’s potential at all. He is greatly disturbed with the many forms of madness that are destroying the planet. Leaving the planet to inhabit a more pure one is no solution; the notion of purity will do nothing but bring about more violence such as the Holocaust.

Generally in his novels, Bellow allows for a solution, hard-won to be sure, to humanity’s problems, and Mr. Sammler’s Planet is no exception. During his travails in dealing with late twentieth century America, Sammler is still able to come to a moment of peace and of rebirth as he stands over Elya’s body. His prayer shows that Elya’s death brings about another rebirth in Sammler—this time into a life that can overcome the narrowness of his own modern thinking. Elya’s contradictory life of perfect giving to Sammler during the Holocaust and in America and his imperfection in the taking of Mafia abortion money make Sammler aware of the great contradictions in life. He sees in Elya a great life spent living out the knowledge that one must live one’s life for others, not only for one’s self. Although Elya showed weakness, his ability to give remained exemplary.

Upon its publication, Mr. Sammler’s Planet was considered one of Bellow’s weaker novels. It is somewhat of a departure for him. However, Bellow’s insights and critiques of the major elements of modern life made Mr. Sammler’s Planet one of his more powerful and enduring texts. Its many digressions extend and brilliantly negotiate the more important philosophical and ethical questions about life in the late twentieth century. This partially explains why Bellow received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976.

The scenes with the African American pickpocket, Govinda Lal, and Sammler’s recollections of the Six-Day War predate many of the current debates about Jewish-African American relations, various postcolonial theories, issues surrounding the Holocaust, and Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Bellow clearly teaches that acts of violence are an affront to all and are never justified simply by one’s history or political stance. For example, when Sammler sees the gashes on the pickpocket’s face after he is viciously beaten by Eisen, his own damaged eye begins to throb in complete sympathy for this new victim of violence.

Angela’s characterization and the lesson taught to Sammler in his apartment lobby provide valuable insights about regarding the female as other, power, and desire. Mr. Sammler’s Planet also contains a prolonged investigation about self-construction in late twentieth century America, particularly after such events as the Holocaust and rapid technological advance. Mr. Sammler’s planet is the reader’s planet, Bellow seems to suggest, and it is a sphere with a movement toward a greater human goal and toward a darker future ripe with brutality, selfishness, and violence. With Sammler, Bellow shows that personal rebirth is still possible on this planet but always at a cost of great sacrifice and suffering.

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