Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*New York City

*New York City. Like many of Bellow’s protagonists, Sammler functions chiefly as an eye and a brain, and audiences see New York through his eyes. The city is, to use a phrase of Saul Bellow’s that he got from Wyndham Lewis, a “moronic inferno,” a metropolis ridden with detritus, broken objects and wrecked people, reduced to the level of a Third World capital. Its parks are full of dog excrement, and their flowers are soiled with pollution almost immediately after blooming. The X’s painted on the windowpanes of a building marked for demolition loom in Sammler’s mind as portents of the end of time. In a notorious scene, an African American pickpocket whom Sammler observes threatens retribution by physically exposing himself to Sammler in the run-down lobby of his own apartment building.

In Sammler’s mind, this decay is the result of Western civilization’s surrender to the philosophies of the Enlightenment, the concrete aftereffects of the dreams of nineteenth century Romantic poets. His images for the city’s denizens are based in literature; at one point they are spider monkeys, throwing their excrement at passersby—in other words, Yahoos. Later, the zonked-out youths lounging in the city’s parks remind Sammler of H. G. Wells’s effete Eloi race of the distant future in The Time Machine (1895); they are almost feral, tinged with a decadent grace. Outside the city, even the flora can be ominous; like the ancient Roman poet Juvenal, Sammler views the plant life as providing hiding spaces for thieves, robbers, or even worse. “Great cities are whores,” he concludes.

Yet even in this metropolitan circle of hell, Sammler can find pleasure—“Bliss from his surroundings!” as he calls it. There is a hint that Sammler resists such delights as the city can provide him,...

(The entire section is 758 words.)