Saul Bellow Long Fiction Analysis
Saul Bellow’s mature fiction can be considered a conscious challenge to modernism, the dominant literary tradition of the age. Bellow viewed modernism as a “victim literature” because it depicts alienated individuals who are conquered by their environments. According to Bellow, this “wasteland” tradition originated in the middle of the nineteenth century with the birth of French realism and culminated in the work of Samuel Beckett and other nihilistic contemporary writers. This victim literature reveals a horror of life and considers humanist values useless in a bleak, irrational world. Modernism assumes that the notion of the individual self that underlies the great tradition of the novel is an outmoded concept and that modern civilization is doomed.
Bellow’s first two novels owe a large debt to the wasteland modernism that he would explicitly reject in the late 1940’s. Dangling Man is an existentialist diary that owes much to Fyodor Dostoevski’s Notes from the Underground (1864). The demoralizedprotagonist, Joseph, is left “dangling” as he waits to be drafted during World War II. A moral casualty of war, he has no sense of purpose and feels weary of a life that seems boring, trivial, and cruel. Excessively self-conscious and critical of those around him, he spends most of his time alone, writing in his journal. He can no longer continue his past work, writing biographical essays on philosophers of the Enlightenment. Although he is alienated, he does realize that he should not make a doctrine out of this feeling. The conclusion of the novel reveals Joseph’s ultimate failure to transcend his “victimization”; he is drafted and greets his imminent regimentation enthusiastically.
Bellow’s next novel, The Victim, also depicts a passive protagonist who is unable to overcome his victimization. As Bellow admitted, the novel is partially modeled on Dostoevski’s The Eternal Husband (1870) and uses the technique of the doppelgänger as Dostoevski does in The Double (1846). Bellow’s novel presents the psychological struggle between Asa Leventhal, a Jew, and Kirby Allbee, his Gentile “double.” A derelict without a job, Allbee suggests that Leventhal is responsible for his grim fate. Leventhal ponders the problem of his guilt and responsibility and tries to rid himself of his persecuting double. Despite his efforts to assert himself, he is still “dangling” at the end of the book—still a victim of forces that, he believes, are beyond his control.
After his second novel, Bellow became disenchanted with the depressive temperament and the excessive emphasis on form of modernist literature. He had written his first two novels according to “repressive” Flaubertian formal standards; they were melancholy, rigidly structured, restrained in language, and detached and objective in tone. Rebelling against these constricting standards, Bellow threw off the yoke of modernism when he began to write his third novel. The theme, style, and tone of The Adventures of Augie March are very different from those of his earlier novels, for here one finds an open-ended picaresque narrative with flamboyant language and an exuberant hero who seeks to affirm life and the possibility of freedom. Whereas the environment has a profound influence on Joseph and Asa Leventhal, Augie refuses to allow it to determine his fate. During the course of many adventures, a multitude of Machiavellians seek to impose their versions of reality on the good-natured Augie, but he escapes from them, refusing to commit himself.
With his third novel, then, Bellow deliberately rejected the modernist outlook and aesthetic. The problem was to find an alternative to modernism without resorting to glib optimism. It seems that he found an alternative in two older literary traditions—in nineteenth century English Romantic humanism and in a comedy that he considered typically Jewish. Unlike the fiction of the modernists, which...
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