Saul Bellow American Literature Analysis
What sets Bellow’s novels apart from those of his major contemporaries, such as Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and Norman Mailer, is primarily the treatment of the hero. The critical consensus is overwhelming in its assessment of the Bellow protagonist as a sensitive, thinking being who contends with the soul-destructive forces of modern society. Though often a victim and a spiritual alien in a materialistic world, Bellow’s protagonist is nevertheless capable of dignity, sympathy, and compassion.
In his critical essays as well, Bellow calls for a more positive vision of humans as glorious sufferers wounded by their own aspirations and ideals in a world that has lost its belief in both. Bellow’s vision of humankind’s conflict with the world is not presented as a journey into chaos, as such a conflict is often portrayed in contemporary works. Unlike his contemporaries, Bellow does not locate his hero in a world where meaning and purpose are nonexistent or, at best, random. In Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) or Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy (1966), for example—or even in the works of the South American Magical Realists such as Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges—reality is a virtual factoid, a fabulous construction, an existential hall of mirrors against which the hero or antihero bumps his psyche.
By contrast, Bellow’s world has substance. The settings of his novels—New York, Chicago, or even the countryside—are fully realized, authentically felt places. These environments, in fact, thrust the hero into a kind of moral laboratory in which to test his or her own values and gradually come to terms with life. For Bellow, it is not the world that is illusory but the hero’s ability to achieve certainty of comfort and intellectual ease. The hero, in fact, must always strive to understand his or her place in the order of things. “The fault, dear Brutus,” as William Shakespeare wrote, “is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
The hero as underling, what Bellow himself called the greatness of humankind’s “imbecility,” is explored in the novels not with naturalistic gloom but rather from a point of view that is, above all, genuinely comic. Bellow is one of America’s supreme comic novelists. His vision of humankind’s plight entails an awareness of the contradiction between desire and limitation, between aspiration and ability. Such a contradiction has been, throughout Western literature, a vital source for the comic temper. It is interesting to note that among the novelist’s other pursuits is his translation from the Yiddish of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel Tam” (1945; “Gimpel the Fool,” 1953), a work spiritually akin to Bellow’s own point of view. Gimpel is the schlemiel, the loser with the soul whose place in heaven is assured by the genuine humility of his earthly naïveté, a humility amounting to a holiness through submission. The Bellovian hero is the intellectual schlemiel, aggrieved by the madness of contemporary life but unable to submit with Job-like serenity, as Gimpel does.
Bellow is thus at odds with the naturalistic writers who preceded him and from whose tradition he emerged. Those writers, such as Dreiser, saw humans as basically victims, creatures irredeemable by any imaginative aspirations because the weight of social forces—dramatized as economic imperatives or as ethical and emotional bankruptcy—keeps them down.
The problem for Bellow’s heroes is not the lack of imagination or the inability to feel but the reverse. Protagonists such as Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day, for example, suffer—like Gimpel—not only because the world is a pitiless place but also because they refuse to submit to the pitilessness, striving instead for some humanistic ideal. Tommy Wilhelm wants sympathy; he demands it as a human being. Yet his expectations lie fallow in the stony ground of his father’s heart and in the heartlessness of Tamkin and the commodities exchange.
(The entire section is 5,593 words.)