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People grow up to respect their elders, their society, and their lifestyle. We learn from the people around us and our own experience. Saul Bellow presents his moral code and the standards that he believes people should follow. His characters experience loneliness and alienation from society. They place blame on the people around them, society, and religion. Each character believes in something; hope is everything to them. They think they can promote change and achieve a moral standard. Bellow believes in the human spirit. His characters show that no matter what we are presented with, or what hand fate deals us, we can conquer.
Bellow acknowledges the primitive tendencies latent in human beings. Scratch the surface of human civilization, and you will find the beast lying just below. As Frank D. McConnell states "the shuddering recognition of how little distant we actually are from the savagery of our origins, how fragile a thing is the civilization which makes, we continue to tell ourselves, our life worth living". Bellow's protagonists sense this dark side of the human spirit lurking within society. They struggle to find decency and meaning in the chaos of the world.
In Bellow's novel The Victim, the main character, Asa Leventhal, a resident of Chicago, struggles with his identity in a subtle way. Instead of philosophizing about who he is and what he is doing, he creates conflict with people and society. Allbee lost his job and had a drinking problem, Levanthal could have helped get him a new job or given him assistance. He is insecure about what he is doing, because despite his wish to ignore and turn away his old friend Kirby Allbee, he also feels compelled to help him. Allbee places all the blame on Levanthal for losing his job. If Levanthal had talked to him and told him it was also due to his drinking problem and relationship difficulties, he would not be blamed for costing Allbee his job. Instead, he takes responsibility he is unwilling to confront Allbee, wanting none of Allbee's problems to invade his life. As Derek Rubin writes in his analysis of Levanthal's faults "Levanthal's being caught between his desire to turn Allbee away and his inability to ignore Allbee's demand for help is related to his insecurity as a marginal man"(1). Kirby tries to reason with Leventhal, but is turned away " 'Watch your talk,' said Leventhal stiffly.
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Bellow chooses Chicago as his setting, because it mirrors his youth and is a city where self discovery is possible. He himself grew up in the slums and he gives Chicago credit for helping him rise above the poverty that surrounded him.(Kramer, 1) Despite the grimness of the city and the depression that many characters have to overcome in such a setting, it is a place of hope where moral superiority and achievement can take place.
Leventhal demonstrates this by overcoming his fear of society and being able to deal with other people, just as he can deal with the life problems and sickness presented before him. He can help people and help himself. Leventhal reunites the sick child with his father, after the boy becomes ill due to Levanthal's sister-in-law's inability to help the child. He cares for the child and finds a good physician, even though it interferes with his job which he eventually loses.
In Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow creates Eugene Henderson: an eccentric, manic, crazy, rich and unbelievable character. He does not know what he is doing in the world; He has little respect for family and no path to follow. Henderson is the perfect example of someone who will never be happy. He has inherited his fortune, an easy luxurious lifestyle, and he is the beneficiary of a wonderful education. He was given chances at life that many would never be offered. Henderson would be completely free if not for an enemy he created in himself through his own habits. He has sought out misery and society helped him find it. In the second paragraph, Henderson complains about his life:
"my parents, my wives, my girls, my children, my farm, my animals, my habits, my money, my music lessons, my drunkenness, my prejudices, my brutality, my teeth, my face, my soul! I have to cry, 'No, no, get back, curse you, let me alone!' But how can they let me alone? They belong to me. They are mine. And they pile into me from all sides. It turns to chaos." (1)
Henderson does not believe in himself or his abilities and cannot enjoy the life he is presented, so he takes a trip to Africa. At the beginning of the book Henderson asks himself, "What made me take this trip to Africa?"(1). He takes this journey to rationalize all the bad habits he has accumulated in his life, thinking that Africa presents a stable society that will explain all of his urges and actions. Instead, he finds quite the opposite, as society becomes the oppressor. Through Henderson's experience, that he has defeated his goal to justify his life. In the words of Frank D. McConnell "The rationality he discovers, then, is a rationality which condemns his own egoism, even though it is his very egoism, his heroic insistence in seeing things through, which leads him to the discovery of that rationality"(34). On his quest to find purity in the savage and common people, Henderson is defeated, and he is reminded of Hobbes' philosophy, that people are born evil, and must strive to become good. Henderson, who believed the opposite and had his own naive ideas of such cultures must overcome his previous perceptions and make sense of his purpose and place in the world. In his quest for self achievement and moral victory, his lack of love and respect for those that cared for him were his greatest enemy. He ends with the realization that in order to find the greatest meaning in life, you must love people back and embrace life.
Henderson's love for a young orphaned boy helps him recognize what he was missing in his life. Love was what was missing in his life. Henderson is cured from his blind pursuit of moral victories by the innocent young orphan who has given him something to believe in. His unselfish love for the boy has allowed him to defeat Hobbes' theory, and go on living: "I held him close to my chest. He didn't seem to be afraid that I would fall with him. While to me he [the boy] was like medicine applied, and the air, too; it also was a remedy. Plus the happiness that I expected at Idlewild from meeting Lily"(Henderson 340). Henderson has found a way to forgive himself, and now has hope for the future. He has achieved his victory, and love has given him a reason to go on.
Usually Bellow's characters, such as Asa Leventhal, are victims of society. Levanthal was dealt cards that were not a winning hand, yet he played them anyway. Henderson was given the right cards, but he made the wrong decisions. He could not live with himself without finding a purpose. In Saul Bellow's Seize the Day Tommy Wilhelm is a victim of himself. He wishes to become a salesman, an actor, and a stockbroker. He wants to make something of his life, but he has to overcome too much. Helen Weinberg suggests that Tommy is "too human, too simple a man-he is a slob or a schlemiel, and he suffers for it"(62). Tommy has had problems with his father's lack of understanding what he wanted or what he wished to be. He is not willing to acknowledge his problems, but instead he finds fault with others. He blames society, he blames his ex-wife, and he blames his father for not believing in him. Tommy never accepts the fact that it was his own laziness and inadequacy that kept him from the things he wanted, until the very end when we see hope for Tommy. Wilhelm goes to a funeral and cries: "Standing a little apart, Wilhelm began to cry. He cried at first softly from sentiment, but soon from deeper feeling. He sobbed loudly and his face grew distorted and hot, and tears strung from his skin" (Seize ,117). Tommy gives up his need for just a moment, and realizes for a split second when faced with death, that he must prevail, he must overcome himself. In that moment, Tommy realizes it is not society and life holding him back but his own lifestyle. He is no longer so selfish that he is unwilling to go on. He has hope, and he has respect for life. Tommy's victory over himself is subtle. We are not convinced that Tommy will succeed, but we are presented with hope for him. To Tommy, hope is something he never has had before, and in Bellow's world, hope is all you will ever need. Hope leads to belief in yourself, despite your faults, bad luck, and obstacles in your path.
As Rita Jacobs analyzes Bellow's intent "the central purpose of his fiction has been to respond to modern man's desire 'to be and in that be-ing know a true direction'"( Brucker 6). Bellow shows us that no matter what faults and problems one faces, these problems are only what you make of them. He believes in the ability to overcome all odds through hope in oneself. Bellow stresses the importance of order and a set path in life. Bellow's characters all have common characteristics. One of the most prevalent is that they create their own problems. Henderson can not live with who he is but must reach for something more. Asa Leventhal cannot accept society or those around him. He seeks instead to place blame on others. Tommy lacks self confidence and self-respect. However, they find a will to go on. Whether it takes a small child, a trip to Africa, or the realization that society is not to blame, these characters march on and face their fate. For Bellow's protagonists, life is what we make of it, never what it makes of us.
Bellow, Saul. Henderson The Rain King. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1958.
_____. Seize the Day. London: Penguin, 1956.
_____. The Victim. New York: Vanguard Press, 1947.
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McConnell, Frank B. four postwar american novelists. Chicago: Chicago University, 1977.
Rovit, Earl. Saul Bellow. New York: American Writers, 1974.
Rubin, Derek. Marginality in Saul Bellow's Early Novels: From Dangling Man to Herzog http://www.let.ruu.nl/nasa/rubimarg.htm, 1995.
Weinberg, Helen. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University, 1970.
Kramer, Victor A. Saul Bellow World Book, 1999.