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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1782

First published: 1947

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Modernist

Time of work: Several weeks during a hot summer in the 1940's

Locale: New York City

Principal Characters:

Asa Leventhal, the protagonist

Mary, his wife

Max, his brother

Elena, Leventhal's sister-in-law and Max's wife

Philip, Elena's elder son, perhaps twelve or thirteen years old

Mickey, Elena's younger son, eight or nine years old

Kirby Allbee, an acquaintance who plagues Leventhal by forcing him to examine the meaning of certain events in his life

Daniel Harkavy, Leventhal's friend

Stan Williston, Allbee's friend


Like all good fiction, the novels of Saul Bellow are founded upon solidity of character and authenticity of event. This is not to say that they are always realistic; obviously the Africa of HENDERSON THE RAIN KING is to be found nowhere beyond the boundaries of Bellow's imagination. The people, places, and events in these novels, however, have an intensity of presence that forces them upon the reader's senses and causes them to lodge in his memory. Despite the elements of fantasy, the peculiar twists of character, the disquieting failures of modulation (the excessive agonizing, for example, of some of the early works), there is never in Bellow's fiction an air of contrivance. This last, however, can be said of a number of writers of lesser stature. The distinguishing quality that gives these works their unique pressure is their depth of moral implication. Many writers are interested in moral issues, but few are able to enter that awesome territory of confusion and paradox in which moral concern can have its only real trial. In a world where the consequences of an act are severed from its motive, Bellow's characters seek, often unconsciously, for a mode of behavior that will restore the link, bind intention to effect, and thus create the possibility of moral choice—or at least of potency. Instead of issues, which at least would be clear in their terms, they face a confusion, a turmoil, a darkness noisy with unforeseeable moral collisions.

For Asa Leventhal, the protagonist of THE VICTIM, the question of a man's responsibility for his actions is personal, immediate, painful, and as insistent as a wound. It is, in fact, hardly a question at all but rather a pathology, something to be healed more than answered. On the one hand, he is plagued by a sense of persecution, a conviction that others are consciously and deliberately responsible for his sufferings, that society is joined in a total effort to exclude him from its graces. On the other, he is infected with an increasing sense of culpability by the woes of those around him. His condition is aggravated by an inability to measure either his virtue or his potency. Though afflicted by an image of himself as inconsequential, a reject destined to dwell forever on the fringes of possibility, Leventhal nevertheless has a megaloid streak: he fears his own powers and sees himself as a man who cannot budge without visiting disaster upon his fellows.

Involved in Leventhal's consciousness of himself are three areas of action. First, there is his past, presented retrospectively in the novel. It is from the shocks of this personal history that his tenuous relation to the present derives. His mother having died in an insane asylum when he was eight, Leventhal, after finishing high school, left Hartford and went to New York where he worked as the assistant to an auctioneer. When the auctioneer died, he lost the job and began to drift, living in a dirty room on...

(This entire section contains 1782 words.)

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the lower East Side, working at odd jobs. The job that affected him most was a clerking position in a flophouse on lower Broadway, the ruined and outcast transients representing for him a condition that was a constant threat in his own life. After several years of this borderline existence, he took a civil service job in Baltimore, where he found a girl and became engaged, an event that promised to ameliorate his fears. But he was fated to suffer shock and delay before his marriage could come into being with any degree of security. Though he had in effect rediscovered his mother—this time young, attractive, eminently sane—in the person of his betrothed, he found that she had continued, during the engagement, a lingering affair with a married man. The result was immediate trauma and several years of separation before they finally married.

The crucial elements in that history, all reflected in his present phobic sense of being, are insanity, infidelity, and poverty. Together these represent for him the ingredients of disaster in his relations with the world. The threat of insanity, a heritage from his mother, is in effect a threat of lost control, that state in which he may unintentionally bring harm to others. It evokes fears of personal irresponsibility, of the arbitrary, the disordered, the perilous within the self. Infidelity implies the antithesis of this: deception by others, the conscious attempts of the world to smash personal defenses. Finally there is poverty, the potential effect of aimless forces, accidents of circumstance which seem always to Leventhal to exert a downward pressure, a thrust toward calamity. He sees himself as perpetually at the point where all of these possibilities intersect. Everywhere, within and beyond the shell of his being, is peril.

In the present time of the novel, Leventhal's frighteningly delicate condition is further elaborated through two involved situations, one happening at a distance, the other up so close that it is as much a manifestation of his frenzied consciousness as of realistic circumstance. His wife having gone to Maryland for several weeks to visit her mother, he is thrown into a period of isolation in the oppressive heart of New York, the stifling solitude of their Manhattan apartment, the opiate routine of his job on a trade paper. His sister-in-law on Staten Island, desperately worried during this time over the sickness of her younger boy, makes repeated demands upon Leventhal's attention, and he finds himself impelled to take on the emotional responsibilities of his brother, who has left his family in order to work somewhere in the West. Simultaneously, he is visited again and again in his apartment by an old acquaintance, Kirby Allbee, who accuses him of having wrecked Allbee's life. Like the heat, these oppressions are constant, debilitating, and disorienting.

Whereas Allbee's visits seem almost unreal, the hallucinations of a lonely mind, the events in Staten Island are in no important sense projections of his fear but disturbing occasions in the world beyond. His sister-in-law, an Italian, is a woman with alien responses. Fearing hospitals, she resists sending her child to one despite the seriousness of his condition. Thus she is, for Leventhal, an outsider, a stranger dwelling in a different set of attitudes, a different locale of consciousness. All strangers signify to Leventhal's paranoid spirit an accusation, a proclamation of his difference and therefore his error and guilt. When her child dies in a hospital to which Leventhal has urged her to commit him, this sense of accusation oppresses him despite the absence of vindictiveness, of any charge from his sister-in-law. A victim of outer circumstance and inward predilection, Leventhal stands accused of the sins, the enormities, of chance.

It is in the central situation of the book, the encounters with Allbee, an experience at once literal and fantastic, that the ordeals of Leventhal's conscience are most strikingly elaborated. Allbee, his accuser, is the personification of everything that Leventhal is oppressed by. Shabby, penniless, half-deranged, he evokes images of all those broken creatures in the flophouse of Leventhal's past. Allbee's accusations—that Leventhal had lost him his job by being rude to his employer, had thereby indirectly caused his wife to leave him, was even somehow responsible for the death of that wife in an automobile accident—are like dream representations of the vague but deep-seated guilt dragging constantly at Leventhal's life. Despite Leventhal's confused attempts to remove this specter from his consciousness as well as from his presence, Allbee presses closer, forcing a kind of intimacy that fuses the two in a grim relationship of hatred and compassion. Prevailing upon Leventhal to let him move into the apartment, he takes to wearing Leventhal's robes, to reading postcards from Leventhal's wife on which are intimate references to details of their sex life, even brings a woman into Leventhal's bed and locks his harried host from the apartment. It is as though he has taken Leventhal's wife and is absorbing his existence. The result of this strange pattern of circumstances is that Leventhal—victimized, driven, tormented by Allbee's transgressions—finally comes to acknowledge his own complicity in his tormentor's plight. However inadvertently, he had initiated the chain of events that led to Allbee's disintegration. Allbee, his tormentor, is his victim and is also himself.

In the end, the increasing fusion of identities, Allbee's complete failure to distinguish between himself and his surrogate, brings the erratic relationship to a conclusion. When Allbee attempts suicide by turning on the gas in the middle of the night, an act that will of course destroy Leventhal as well as himself, Leventhal drives him from the apartment and shuts him from his life. Through the experience with Allbee, he seems to have sensed not only the necessity of recognizing one's part in the trials of his fellows but also the near madness of that lingering self-renunciation which obliterates the borders of identity. To be totally victimized by the sense that one has victimized others is to bring ruin not only upon the self but upon one's victims as well. When Leventhal encounters a somewhat regenerated Allbee several years later, this implicit lesson is reinforced by the happier circumstances of each. Though no man is an island, neither is mankind an indivisible continent. Unchartable, the topography of human relation is a paradox as deep as time.


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