(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1581 words.)