Saul Bellow Bellow, Saul (Vol. 15)

Start Your Free Trial

Ralph Berets

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Download Saul Bellow Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Most of Saul Bellow's novels employ polarities that structure the dramatic development of each work. The central character becomes conscious of these polarities after he encounters various antagonists who either illustrate one of these dimensions or force the hero to acknowledge them as part of himself. On the one hand, there are the characters who challenge and perhaps even repudiate the definition of self that the hero has formulated. On the other hand, there are the "reality instructors" who may present alternative philosophical perspectives, but ironically their very life style seems to call these options into question. In some works the same individual is the vehicle for repudiation and redemption, but in most works different characters perform these roles.

Bellow has never been circumspect about the themes he explores and the justifications he seeks. From Dangling Man to Mr. Sammler's Planet, the Bellow hero has been faced with the challenge of reconciling the views he has of himself with those that others have of him. The major narrative structure is controlled by the hero who must decide whether to conform to the pattern of existence that surrounds him, or to explore new possibilities. He may ultimately not discover what he seeks, but the search itself is of prime significance. In Dangling Man, The Victim, The Adventures of Augie March, and Seize the Day only ambiguous resolutions are attained. In contrast, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler's Planet end much more optimistically; however, only in the last of these do we discover a character who has not merely contemplated a new lifestyle, but one who has actually attempted to put it into practice.

Bellow's novels contain many similar elements: each focuses on a character who appears to be alienated from his environment, each explores the psychological alternatives of commitment and disengagement, and each challenges the hero to demonstrate his personal worth as well as his faith in humanity. Even though these appear to be serious themes, Bellow always treats them with irony, linking his work to the cynical tradition of Jewish fiction. (pp. 75-6)

Bellow began his fiction writing career by arguing against the values of an established tradition, one which admired physical strength and stoicism. He advocated an alternative approach, which commended the more feminine virtues associated with the heart and the emotions…. Bellow has never diverged very far from this central position, since the idea of exploring the inner emotions of his characters and providing the justifications for their humanistic feelings remain his basic themes.

As Dangling Man progresses, it suggests the themes, conflicts, and essential plot that Bellow has consistently employed in his fiction…. [The] image of the dangling man represents the modern hero who has severed his ties with the values of the past, but who has not yet discovered those objectives for which he may be asked to die. The appropriateness of Joseph's position is thus emphasized, for he is given the opportunity of devoting the totality of his energy to deciding the nature of his future commitment. (pp. 76-8)

Serving the opposite function of the character who appears to repudiate the hero's definition of himself is the character who appears in each of Bellow's works to assert or represent the posture more closely aligned with the author's personal beliefs. These role players annunciate philosophically viable options, even if they, themselves, are unable to demonstrate the validity of this position. Bellow starts out rather hesitantly giving credence to this possibility in his first novel. For in Dangling Man , the Spirit of Alternatives is obviously an alter ego, a psychological construct that Joseph creates for himself to suggest other possibilities than those he had considered to justify his lifestyle. It is an awkward literary device, although it also represents the novel's most interesting philosophical confrontation. It, more than any...

(The entire section is 13,307 words.)