Seize the Day presents a character who is caught up in the impersonal American quest for money and success, yet who cannot ignore his own need for personal respect and compassion. A middle-aged Tommy Wilhelm is faced with the need to make money and to avoid looking like a failure, yet he longs for the solace of his father’s approval. Tommy wants to listen to his heart, to trust even when that trust is foolish, as in his relationship with Dr. Tamkin. Tommy is an example of the long-suffering sensitive victim who, despite life’s hardships, remains basically noble in a fragmented world. Tommy’s plight is darkly comic—the poor soul who succumbs to the wiles of the fast-talking con artist and who is ultimately bereft of everything.
Tommy is a representative example of Saul Bellow’s typical hero, a man trapped in the contradiction between desire and limitation, aspiration and ability. Such a hero experiences a conflict between head and heart. He is unable to reconcile the disparity between knowing and feeling. Tommy knows, for example, that Tamkin is not to be trusted, but he wants in his heart to trust him. Tommy sees his father’s mean-spiritedness and contempt, but he wants his father’s sympathy nevertheless.
Characteristically, Bellow depicts this contradiction not in naturalistic terms, as in the works of many of his contemporaries, but from a distinctly comic point of view. In this connection it is interesting to note...
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