Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Although this story belongs to the tradition of American realism, its technique should be distinguished from the more external, hard-boiled objectivity of realists such as Ernest Hemingway. This story is more concerned with revealing the inward thoughts and feelings of its characters than to present them in a succession of dramatic incidents. Characters’ reactions to events are as important as the events themselves. The story is based on Woody’s memories and mental reflections, but it does not plunge the reader into a stream of consciousness. Thoughts and actions are presented objectively rather than subjectively, through the words of a narrator who refers to Woody in the third person. Such narratorial objectivity may blunt the lyricism of Woody’s plaint, though it absolves him of much of the onus of self-pleading.

Convincing characterizations are achieved through ingenious selection of revelatory detail, such as Morris’s theory of breast cancer, the image of Mrs. Skoglund’s servant wiping the doorknobs with rubbing alcohol after guests had left, or the mention of Woody’s wife still not being able to shop for herself though she had lived alone for fifteen years.

The style is, for the most part, casual and plain. The diction is generally less crude than that of most men such as Morris and Woody, but dialogue is rendered naturally, without obtrusive literary elevation.

The sound of bells is perhaps the most delicately drawn image in the story. Woody believes that their “vibrations and the banging did something for him—cleansed his insides, purified his blood.” Connected as they are with churches, bells recall the religious agony at the center of Woody’s life. They also symbolize the honesty that Woody and his father valued so highly, for, as the narrator says, “A bell was a one-way throat, had only one thing to tell you and simply told it.” Woody’s soul is perhaps best described by the narrator’s epithet, “bell-battered.”

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

The Great Depression

At the center of this story is Bellow’s description of the night when Woody and his father,...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)


Bellow makes the character of Morris Selbst enough of a likeable rouge that readers can easily see why...

(The entire section is 474 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1930s: An immigrant like Morris Selbst, who comes into the country by jumping off a ship before it docks, can live his entire lifetime...

(The entire section is 246 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Woody is divided between the religions of his father and mother, who are, respectively, Jewish and Christian. Explain the central event of...

(The entire section is 210 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

Bellow was interviewed by Matteo Bellinelli on the video Saul Bellow (1994), released by Films for the Humanities & Sciences....

(The entire section is 61 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Bellow’s essay “In the Days of Mr. Roosevelt,” originally written for Esquire magazine, is his non-fiction account of what life...

(The entire section is 156 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)


Bellow, Saul, “The Search for Symbols, a Writer Warns, Misses All the Fun and Fact of the Story,” in the...

(The entire section is 239 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Bradbury, Malcolm. Saul Bellow. New York: Methuen, 1982.

Braham, Jeanne. A Sort of Columbus: The American Voyages of Saul Bellow’s Fiction. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984.

Cronin, Gloria L., and Leila H. Goldman, eds. Saul Bellow in the 1980’s: A Collection of Critical Essays. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1989.

Cronin, Gloria L., and Ben Siegel, eds. Conversations with Saul Bellow. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994.

Goldman, L. H. Saul Bellow: A Mosaic. New York: Peter Lang, 1992.

Hyland, Peter. Saul Bellow. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.

Newman, Judie. Saul Bellow and History. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Siegel, Ben. “Simply Not a Mandarin: Saul Bellow as Jew and Jewish Writer.” In Traditions, Voices, and Dreams: The American Novel Since the 1960’s. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995.

Trachtenberg, Stanley, comp. Critical Essays on Saul Bellow. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.