Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1323
Alienation and Loneliness Tommy Wilhelm's sense of estrangement not only from his own family but also from his acquaintances and the entire city of New York places the themes of alienation and loneliness at the core of the novel. From the novel's opening scene, in which Wilhelm talks briefly with...
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Alienation and Loneliness
Tommy Wilhelm's sense of estrangement not only from his own family but also from his acquaintances and the entire city of New York places the themes of alienation and loneliness at the core of the novel. From the novel's opening scene, in which Wilhelm talks briefly with "Rubin, the man at the newsstand," it is clear that these men know many things about each other, and yet "None of these could be mentioned, and the great weight of the unspoken left them little to talk about."
Wilhelm longs to connect on an emotional level with his father, but old Dr. Adler speaks to his son "with such detachment about his welfare" that Wilhelm, Adler's "one and only son, could not speak his mind or ease his heart to him." Wilhelm's sense of alienation from himself is represented by his confusion over his different names: his father calls him "Wilky," his childhood name, but Wilhelm had chosen the name "Tommy Wilhelm," dropping the name Adler, when he went to Hollywood to pursue an acting career.
When Dr. Tamkin talks to Wilhelm about his ideas on the soul, Wilhelm recognizes himself in Tamkin's description of "two main [souls], the real soul and a pretender soul." Wilhelm is "awed" by Tamkin's vision: "In Tommy he saw the pretender. And even Wilky might not be himself. Might the name of his true soul be the one by which his old grandfather had called him—Velvel?"
Looking outside of himself and his small circle, Wilhelm feels alienated from humanity, as represented by New York City and its inhabitants. He feels that communication with others is as difficult as learning another language: "Every other man spoke a language entirely his own, which he had figured out by private thinking ... and this happened over and over and over with everyone you met. You had to translate and translate, explain and explain, back and forth, and it was the punishment of hell itself not to understand or be understood...." Wilhelm has a encompassing sense that the alienation he feels is not unique to him, but that "everybody is outcast," that the experience of loneliness is part of the human condition.
The so-called "American Dream" has taken many shapes—streets paved with gold, a chicken in every pot—but the theme is always the same: financial success. Bellow looks at a dark side of this dream—what happens when a believer in the American Dream fails to succeed? Tommy Wilhelm feels the pressure of the American Dream. Money, or the lack of it, is an irritant to Wilhelm. His success as a salesman for the Rojax Corporation is in the past, and "Now he had to rethink the future, because of the money problem."
Wilhelm's "money problem" is that he no longer has any—he has given his last seven hundred dollars to the dubious Tamkin to invest in stocks, but in the meantime he cannot pay this month's rent, nor does he have any money to send to his estranged wife to support her and their two sons. Wilhelm looks around him and sees everywhere the expectation that he should have money: "Holy money! Beautiful money! ... if you didn't have it you were a dummy, a dummy! You had to excuse yourself from the face of the earth."
Wilhelm's lack of income and his anxiety about his precarious position clearly influence his attitude about money and the American Dream. Part of this Dream is that one's children should find more success in the world than one has found, and Wilhelm is highly aware that his father, a respected doctor, amassed more wealth than Wilhelm himself will ever be able to do.
Father and Son
Wilhelm's sense of disconnection from the world seems to start with his relationship with his father. When Wilhelm tells Tamkin about his struggles with his father, Tamkin comments, "It's the eternal same story ... The elemental conflict of parent and child. It won't end, ever."
The theme of father and son appears in much of Bellow's fiction, and in Seize the Day it drives much of the plot. Wilhelm, or Wilky, as his father calls him, cannot satisfy his father, and his father refuses to help Wilhelm. "My dad is something of a stranger to me," Wilhelm tells Tamkin, although he admits, "of course I love him." When Wilhelm asks his father for help, Dr. Adler refuses "to take on new burdens," but Wilhelm replies, "it isn't all a question of money—there are other things a father can give a son." He pleads with Dr. Adler, "I expect help!" but Dr. Adler seems incapable of giving the kind of help his son needs.
Individual vs. Society
A teeming, confusing New York City provides an appropriate setting for Tommy Wilhelm's overwhelming day of alienation and ruin. Wilhelm sees himself as an outsider in his world. Although he was born and raised in this city, Wilhelm feels like a stranger here: "I don't belong in New York any more." New York takes on an apocalyptic quality for Wilhelm when he thinks about the failure of communication in such a place: "New York—the end of the world, with its complexity and machinery, bricks and tubes, wires and stones, holes and heights. And was everybody crazy here?"
Wilhelm's deepest need is for connection, for the sympathetic understanding of another person. He feels completely alone in a city that seems to assault him: "There's too much push for me here. It works me up too much." He does have one transcendental moment of connection with humanity—a "blaze of love"—while passing through an underground corridor beneath Times Square: "... all of a sudden, unsought, a general love for all these imperfect and lurid-looking people burst out in Wilhelm's breast. He loved them. One and all, he passionately loved them. They were his brothers and sisters."
But this romantically sweeping sense of connection does not last and in retrospect seems to Wilhelm to have been an arbitrary event, "only another one of those subway things. Like having a hard-on at random." Finally, in the last moments of the novel, when Wilhelm weeps in a funeral parlor over the corpse of a stranger, he is able to move "toward the consummation of his heart's ultimate need" when he recognizes that mortality is the bond among human beings.
Success and Failure
Tommy Wilhelm has made a series of mistakes and bad decisions in his life, and "through such decisions somehow his life had taken form." Motivated by feeling or emotion rather than by rational thought, Wilhelm decided to go to Hollywood to try to become a "screen artist," to leave the Rojax Corporation because his territory was being divided and he was not being promoted, and to give Tamkin the last of his money. All of these decisions, made in hopes of finding some kind of success, have resulted in Wilhelm's failure. He ponders the fact that in the past "He had been slow to mature, and he had lost ground." At the nightly gin game in which he often participates, Wilhelm "had never won. Not once ... He was tired of losing."
His father, in order to preserve appearances to his friends, emphasizes Wilhelm's past success as a salesman with the Rojax Corporation when he introduces his son, but this emphasis on the past only serves to highlight what a failure Wilhelm is now. Wilhelm's father, Dr. Adler, is considered a success, not only in terms of his financial attainment or his achievements in his field prior to his retirement, but also in terms of his character: "He was idolized by everyone." In contrast to his son, Dr. Adler is controlled and self-contained and is not ruled by his emotions but is instead rational. Wilhelm's failure is connected to his lack of control and "style," while his father's success stems from his restraint and his ability to master appearances.