Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770
Tommy Wilhelm, born Wilhelm Adler, an unemployed salesman living at the Gloriana Hotel in New York City. Middle-aged and separated from his wife and sons, Tommy is mired in a professional and personal slump. Almost broke, he seeks financial help but longs for spiritual solace as well, and...
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Tommy Wilhelm, born Wilhelm Adler, an unemployed salesman living at the Gloriana Hotel in New York City. Middle-aged and separated from his wife and sons, Tommy is mired in a professional and personal slump. Almost broke, he seeks financial help but longs for spiritual solace as well, and he appeals to those around him for any help they can offer. His pleas to his father, not simply for money but for compassion or even a kind word, are met with scolding and impatient sighs of disgust. Down on his luck and reeling from some recent mistakes, Tommy is largely innocent of the selfishness and irresponsibility of which he is accused. Although misguided at times, he emerges as the most forgiving character in the story, compassionate even toward the father who has rejected him and torn inside at the thought that he might not be able to provide for the needs of his own two sons. Tommy’s struggles and his search for a humane response to his need underscore the novel’s major themes—suffering, compassion, and the blindness of greed.
Dr. Adler, Tommy’s father, a retired physician. Elderly and somewhat frail, Dr. Adler also lives at the Gloriana Hotel, but his substantial wealth allows him to indulge his taste for the luxuries the hotel offers—fine dining, saunas, and massages. It is not merely in his financial status, however, that he provides a stark contrast to his son. Tommy’s sufferings, though not enviable, are at least evidence of a rich inner life, and the pain that he feels is rooted in a concern for others as well as for himself. Dr. Adler, on the other hand, is moved to no emotion save anger, and even that he suppresses. He complains that the needs of others, even those of his own son, are an unwelcome burden on his hard-earned self-sufficiency. His sympathies, though never visible, are allegedly reserved for “real ailments”—fatal illness, injuries, and other physical hardships. He exudes a certain hardness, not only in his harsh assessment of Tommy’s pain as self-indulgent melodrama but also in his narrow concern for tangible, “skeletal” problems, such as the bone disease from which a retired business acquaintance suffers. His hard-hearted refusals not only add to his son’s misfortune but also serve to define Tommy further as a caring and generous man despite his limitations.
Dr. Tamkin, a self-proclaimed psychologist, poet, and healer, also a resident of the hotel. After Dr. Adler refuses to help his son, the eccentric and enigmatic Tamkin becomes the only alternative Tommy has in his search for a way out of his troubles. Dr. Tamkin (whose credentials are never established) allegedly “treats” a diverse clientele that seems to include a disproportionate number of attractive young women. Although he pays more attention to Tommy than does Dr. Adler, his behavior and his use of psychological jargon to deflect Tommy’s questions suggest ulterior motives, a suspicion that is confirmed at the novel’s end. Because there is wisdom and sense in much of what he says, he is able to exploit Tommy’s desperation and emotional vulnerability and divert attention from his own decidedly ungenerous actions. Tamkin speculates in the commodities exchange market, claiming that this market is driven by a collective guilt/aggression cycle that he understands and thus can predict. He persuades Tommy not only to invest with him as a partner but also to put up most of the front money. While at the exchange, he pressures Tommy, nervous about the downward turn in their investment, to escort an ill-natured old “friend” out on an errand. When they return, Tommy becomes frantic about their heavy losses, only to discover that Tamkin has cashed out what little money they had left and fled.
Mr. Rappaport, an elderly man who spends his days at the commodities exchange. The former owner of a commercial chicken farm and slaughterhouse, he is now a frail, bony old man and is nearly blind. He ignores those around him except to demand service or attention and is secretive and miserly while plotting his investment strategies. Tommy is coerced by Tamkin into accompanying the old man in and around the exchange.
Margaret Wilhelm, Tommy’s former wife. Still bitter over Tommy’s decision to leave, Margaret extracts vengeance by refusing him a divorce and by using their two sons, ages ten and fourteen, as bargaining chips in negotiating for money. She maintains a calm, polite exterior but seems to enjoy adding unmerciful demands to Tommy’s already considerable difficulties.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 878
Seize the Day is the story of one day in the life of Wilhelm Adler, aka Tommy Wilhelm, a man in his mid-forties who is going through a midlife crisis. As the book opens, he is standing outside the dining room of the Hotel Gloriana, the residential hotel in which he lives, contemplating his troubles and working up the courage to go in to breakfast and face his father, who also lives at the Gloriana. Wilhelm reminisces about how he left school twenty-five years ago in order to go to Hollywood to try to become a movie star. He had at first been approached by a talent scout, Maurice Venice, but even after the screen test went badly and the scout tried to discourage him, Wilhelm decided to change his name to Tommy Wilhelm and go to California. Once there he had discovered that Maurice Venice was himself a failure and that a recommendation from him was a curse.
He nevertheless stayed in Hollywood for seven years, unwilling to admit defeat. Now, twenty-five years later, Wilhelm finds himself unemployed, broke, and in despair. He is separated from his wife, but she refuses to give him a divorce. He has invested his last money in the commodities market, and he fears it is all lost. And he is endlessly quarreling with his father, who refuses to help him and who seems to be ashamed of his son.
Tommy Wilhelm's elderly father, while living in the same hotel, lives "in an entirely different world from his son's." Wilhelm's relationship with his father is at the center of the novel. Dr. Adler is a handsome, orderly, well-dressed man who is respected by all who know him. He has retired from his medical practice and is financially secure, but he refuses to lend money to his son, whom he continues to call by his childhood name, "Wilky." Tommy/Wilky disgusts Dr. Adler in his sloppiness, his emotional intensity, and his seeming inability to make a good decision, and Dr. Adler is impatient with his son's apparent lack of initiative.
When he talks about his son to friends and acquaintances, Dr. Adler builds up Wilky's achievements in an attempt to impress his listeners, although in truth he is not proud of his son. Although Tommy/Wilky pleads with his father to care for him, Dr. Adler is unmoved. He tells his son that if he were to help him by giving him money to cover his bills, it would only make Tommy/Wilky dependent on him. He also refuses to help his daughter.
Catherine, an artist who has taken the professional name "Philippa" wants money from her father to rent a gallery for an exhibition of her work. Neither Wilhelm nor his father thinks Catherine has talent.
Margaret is Tommy Wilhelm's estranged wife, whom he claims is "killing" him by constantly demanding money from him. Margaret will not divorce Wilhelm, and because she is raising their two boys, she refuses to get a job. Tommy sees Margaret as "unbending, remorselessly unbending."
Olive is Wilhelm's girlfriend in Roxbury, whom he used to see when he was working for the Rojax Corporation. He wanted to marry her, but their marriage was prevented by Margaret's refusal to divorce.
Mr. Perls, an elderly resident of the Hotel Gloriana and a friend of Dr. Adler's, is introduced to Wilhelm as having been a "hosiery wholesaler," but Wilhelm perceives from his appearance that he has had a difficult life. His presence at breakfast annoys Wilhelm: he sees Perls as his father's way of avoiding being alone with him. Wilhelm also despises his father's need to impress Perls by boasting about his children's accomplishments, particularly because neither one has been especially successful. Perls is eager to know the details of Wilhelm's salary and position at the Rojax Corporation, and Wilhelm is disgusted by his intense interest in money.
Dr. Tamkin is another resident of the hotel and the man Wilhelm had trusted to invest his last $700 in the commodities market. Mr. Perls and Dr. Adler believe that Tamkin is a fraud and a fool, and Wilhelm comes to view him as a charlatan. Following his breakfast at the Gloriana, Wilhelm seeks out Tamkin, and they head to the commodities market to see how their stocks have done. Tamkin convinces Wilhelm not to sell the stocks that have risen in order to recover their losses. When all the money is lost, Tamkin disappears.
Mr. Rappaport is the blind, old, retired chicken merchant who sits near Wilhelm in the brokerage office. Wilhelm envies Rappaport's ability to remain calm about the fluctuating stock market; he does not have as much to lose as Wilhelm does. As Wilhelm returns to the brokerage office after leaving for lunch, Rappaport meets him outside and asks him to take him across the street to the cigar store. This errand will delay his return to the market, but Wilhelm reluctantly agrees. When he does return, he learns that he is ruined.
Mr. Rowland is another trader who sits near Wilhelm in the brokerage office as they watch the progress of their stocks. According to Tamkin, Rowland supports himself on his earnings from the stock market. This fact gives Wilhelm hope as he invests his last few hundred dollars.