Universal Motivations in the Early Works of Saul Bellow
Fundamental human similarities in motivation are at the core of the works of novelist Saul Bellow. Bellow was a Chicago born Jewish author, and as such his protagonists are often of a similar demographic, young Jewish men in Chicago. Despite Bellow’s uniformity of protagonists, his minor characters fit into a much wider demographic. In The Adventures of Augie March, the bildungsroman narrative follows young Augie as he ventures from Chicago to Mexico and beyond, encountering a cast of diverse characters. In Dangling Man, the protagonist Joseph is a Canadian born man living in Chicago, having quit his job to wait for the draft and enter World War II. The novel chronicles his experiences with his wife, the members of his apartment building, and his wealthy brother, Amos. Bellow’s uniform protagonists have a similar basic experience due to their shared demographic, but their experiences and views are also shaped by the variety of characters they encounter, who represent a wide range of social, political, and economic segments. Saul Bellow uses juxtaposition between socially and economically stratified characters to expose that all people have motivations universal to humanity.
In his books, Bellow often uses feelings of pride to show similarities between characters of different social or economic standings. For instance, Joseph and Amos’ disagreements and bickering show the pride they both possess, despite Amos’ obvious social and economic superiority. When Joseph visits Amos’ house, they get into an argument over Amos helping Joseph financially by giving him a “Christmas gift” of $100. Amos insists that his brother, who refuses the gift, ends his obstinacy, saying: ’Why can’t you take it? Nonsense, you can’t refuse it. I tell you, it’s a present.’ He picked up the bill impatiently. ‘Be a little more hardheaded, will you? You’re always up in the air. Do you know what I paid in income taxes alone last year? No? Well, this isn’t a drop in that bucket. I’m not depriving myself of anything to give it to you.’ … ‘You are the most obstinate jackass I’ve ever seen. You can’t stand being helped even a little, by anyone.’ (Bellow 48) Nonetheless, Joseph continues to refuse. “’But what will I do with it, Amos? I don’t need it.’” (Bellow 48). There is similar pride that both men possess, despite their juxtaposed economic differences, revealing that pride as a motivation transcends these differences. Pride again appears as a unifying factor in The Adventures of Augie March. The first occurrence of pride unifying characters in the novel is when Augie and Thea feel great pride in Caligula, their Bald Eagle, and express this pride even in more sophisticated company. In the presence of a well-respected newspaper editor, they show great pride in Caligula. At first, the successful newspaper editor is not interested in writing about their bird, and dismisses them: “Yet here, he was dressed to kill, with a new convertible and this beauty who was supposed to be an actress. And he really was the editor of Wilmot’s Weekly. Of which he now said ‘We’re interested mainly in political articles.’” (Bellow 390). Despite the importance of the man in front of them, Thea and Augie’s pride for the bird leads them to advocate for it and its importance, and they do their very best to explain its importance, even to someone of a higher social status. In Robert Dutton’s “The Adventures of Augie March”, Dutton discusses Augie’s abundant pride, saying “In any case, we wonder about Augie’s “better fate” and about his enthusiasm, about his high-spoken ideals concerning man’s potentialities, about his generous acceptance of all living things, and certainly about his pride of opposition.” (Dutton 56). Augie’s pride is shown once again when he turns down an offer of adoption from a wealthy family, the Renling’s, despite being relatively poor. Augie is opposed to the idea of the adoption because although it would help him significantly both economically and socially, he believes it would suppress his individuality. He expresses that fear of suppression in the novel, saying “Seeing that I could not stay with the Renlings unless I became their adopted son, which by now I knew would suffocate me…” (Bellow 169). This discussion of “suffocation” shows that despite Augie’s lack of wealth, he too is driven by a deep, universal, innate, human desire for individualism, and has too much pride, another universal quality, to accept their offer.
Another way that Bellow uses feelings of pride to show universal motivations is by showing a fear of death and an obsession over legacy in diverse characters. While waiting to be drafted in Dangling Man, Joseph stagnates, and he reflects on what he is doing with his life. He also reflects on whether his life will have any sort of impact, and struggles with the idea of his own mortality. When he is looking through his apartment, Joseph comes upon an old picture of his grandfather, and sees himself and his own mortality in the picture. “Still later, I came to believe that (and this was no longer an impression but a dogma) that the picture was a proof of my mortality. I was upright on my grandfather’s bones and the bones of those before him in a temporary loan. But he himself, not the future past, hung over me. Through the years he would reclaim me bit by bit, till my fists withered and my eyes stared.” (Bellow 84). Here, Joseph struggles in the realization of his own mortality and the evanescence of his life, as he sees how he is slowly withering away as a loan of the life of previous generations, and will die soon as well. Joseph’s realization is one that he is preoccupied with for the rest of the novel, and shows the universal nature of humans to fear and be preoccupied with death. In Ralph Beret’s “Repudiation and Reality: Instruction in Saul Bellow’s fiction”, Beret discusses how Joseph’s being at home while waiting for the draft allows him to dwell on the topic of his future and legacy. “The appropriateness of Joseph’s position is thus emphasized, for he is given the opportunity of devoting the totality of his energy to deciding the nature of his future commitment.” (Beret 1). Beret shows how Joseph’s isolation allows Bellow to show the universal human preoccupation over the future and legacy, and criticize it more clearly by creating the best possible scenario for it to show itself.
The idea of a universal human preoccupation with death is also present in The Adventures of Augie March, when Augie has a severe injury, leading him to think about and have realizations about the nature of life and death. While recovering from the accident, Augie comes very close to dying, and contemplates the brevity of life and his legacy. “Death discredits. Survival is the whole success. The voice of the dead goes away. There isn’t any memory. The power that’s established fills the earth and destiny is whatever survives, so whatever is is right.” (Bellow 556). Here Augie realizes that his only legacy is life, and he must survive and live rather than be preoccupied over death, despite him seeing it universally motivate his peers. Despite his seemingly critical viewpoint of mortal preoccupation, and his newfound revelation, Augie’s thinking about it in the first place shows that it affects Augie just as it universally affects all humans.
Arguably the most important unifying factor that Saul Bellow shows to be universally motivating to humans in his novels is money. The most important instance that shows how money is universal regardless of socioeconomic class is when Augie is watching people go about their daily business in Mexico. As he observes them, he realizes how they are universally motivated by common goals despite surface diversity: “Here was vast humankind that meshed or dug, or carried, picked up, held, that served, returning every day to its occupations and being honest or kidding or weeping or hypocritic or mesmeric, and money, if not the secret, was anyhow beside the secret, as the secret’s relative, or associate or representative before the peoples” (Bellow 427). Augie realizes that money is both opportunity and sin at once and that all people are drawn to and affected by it, despite differences in social status, economic prosperity, or even geographic location. A second instance of money as a universal motivation is when Joseph goes to have his coat fixed, and is surprised when a service that is usually complimentary is now being charged for. On the realization of the price increase, Joseph has an epiphany on the nature of money itself, and its role in society. He talks about how money motivates everyone, even those who do not have it, and prevents unity while at the same time providing it through universal pursuit, saying “Life is hard. Vae Victis! The wretched must suffer” (Bellow 81). Despite having enough money to support himself, Joseph is against the principle of sharing with those who do not, motivated by a universal desire to keep his money that motivates him as well as the wealthier, and even poorer members of society universally.
The final example that displays Bellow’s use of money and economic inequality to show universal human motivations is when Augie is taken to see a prostitute by Einhorn on his 18th birthday. After the experience, Augie contemplates on what it truly meant beyond the simple sexuality of the act. “I knew it was only a transaction. But that didn’t matter…. Paying didn’t matter. Nor using what other people used. That’s what city life is. And so it didn’t have the luster it should have had and there wasn’t any epithalamium of gentle lovers” (Bellow 133). The prostitute lacks the luster Augie was expecting because she is a symbol for the entrapment of the city of Chicago itself. Just as the city, along with a need to have and gain money, forces Augie to resort to immoral methods of earning it, such as crime, and losing innocence, Einhorn, the book’s human personification of money, forces Augie to lose his innocence through the prostitute. Einhorn represents the money through both his and money’s imposed loss of innocence. This loss of innocence through desire for money is shown to be universal and innate in multiple places, such as in Augie’s crime for need of money, and Einhorn’s pushing of Augie to use a prostitute. In Martin Amis’ article “A Chicago of a Novel”, Amis explains the many odd jobs that Augie is forced into in the pursuit of money, much like how he is forced into the use of a prostitute by Einhorn. “Parentless and penniless: the basic human material. Penniless, Augie needs employment. If the novels of another great Chicagoan, Theodore Dreiser, sometimes feel like a long succession of job interviews, then Augie March often resembles a surrealist catalogue of apprenticeships. During the course of the novel Augie becomes (in order) a handbill distributor, a paper boy, a dime-store packer, a news vendor, a Christmas extra in a toy department, a flower deliverer, a butler, a shoe salesman, a saddle-shop floorwalker, a hawker of rubberized paint, a dog washer, a book swiper, a coal-yard helper, a housing surveyor, a union organizer, an animal trainer, a gambler, a literary researcher, a salesman of business machines, a sailor, and a middleman for a war profiteer” (Amis 1). The many odd jobs that Augie works show the universal desperation for money he experiences, as well as the loss of innocence in the pursuit of money that some of the jobs cause.
Another thing that Bellow uses to show universal human motivations is a universal search for identity and purpose in his characters. At the end of the Dangling Man, Joseph finally gets drafted, and finally finds a purpose for himself. In the final line of the book, when Joseph is drafted, he is happy to find new purpose within the military after living for so long as a “Dangling Man”, saying “I am in other hands, relieved of self-determination, freedom canceled. Hurray for regular hours! And for the supervision of spirit! Long live regimentation!” (Bellow 143). Joseph had been living without a purpose for the entire book, having just quit his job in the exposition. He spends the novel desperately searching for purpose and his obviously extreme and incredibly enthusiastic optimism about the regimentation of the army shows just how innate the search for a purpose was within Joseph, and just how desperate he was to find one. Augie also spends a lot of time searching for an identity and a purpose in his life. He uses his adventures to try to find a niche in which he can find his individual purpose, without becoming solely based on the niche. Augie also talks about over-individuality, and how it can be just the same as none at all. “But I had the idea also that you don’t take so wide a stand that it makes a human life impossible, nor try to bring together irreconcilables that destroy you, but try out what of human you can live with first” (Bellow 283). Augie is discussing that while it is necessary to have a stand, and be an individual, having an extreme stand just for the shock factor, or just to have one, is non-individual in itself. In his criticism Soul Bellow, Craig Raine discusses how being around extremely diverse characters, ones who had been successful in the universal pursuit of personal identity, leads to Augie’s quest for individuality. On the other hand, there are the impracticalities of pure feeling, of idealism, which at first are embodied by brother Simon, on whom ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays for many years had an influence we were not in a position to afford.’ Even the eagle in Mexico conforms to the pattern—by turning out, after all, to be less than one hundred per cent ruthless; `well, it was hard to take from wild nature, that there should be humanity mixed with it.’ Augie himself is poised between the two poles, though there is no doubt that his final destination will be in the camp of those with feelings. (Raine 32) Seeing all of these characters who have found their identity, and have been successful in their universal quest, which transcends their social and economic differences and affects them all, prompts Augie to continue the search for his own identity.
Bellow also uses Antagonism and Competitive behaviors in his characters to portray that competiveness is a universal human motivation. The motivation is demonstrated in Dangling Man when Joseph faces off with his old friend in a diner. Joseph is ignored by an old acquaintance, and the neglect irritates and angers him. When his friend asks Joseph why he is getting so riled up over it, Joseph responds obstinately, saying “Because I feel like making trouble.” (Bellow 19). Joseph is unable to fully explain why he is so angry because what he is experiencing is innate to humanity, and cannot be adequately put into words. He further justifies his anger by suggesting that the person who he is feuding with has violated his personal human rights. “I’ll tell you what’s involved. I have a right to be spoken to. It’s the most elementary thing in the world. Simply that. I insist on it.” (Bellow 20). Joseph’s personal defense is further evidence of the innate nature of the competitiveness he feels. The universal motivations of antagonism and competition are also seen in Joseph fighting with Amos’ daughter. While visiting Amos’ house, Joseph feuds with his more successful brother’s daughter. Amos’ daughter, who was raised in wealth and has been accustomed to it her whole life, dislikes the poorer Joseph, and they fight. “In spite of our antagonism I had until lately tried to influence the girl, sending her books and, on her birthday, record albums” (Bellow 41). Their differences, in age, gender, social status, and life experience show that the feeling of competition they are experiencing is a truly universal human motivation.
The final universal human motivation that Saul Bellow shows in his works is Love. Love unites many of Bellow’s characters, both platonically and romantically. One of the clearest examples of the former is Augie’s relationship with the wealthy Einhorn. Despite his extreme wealth, Einhorn needs Augie to keep him company. Augie works for Einhorn, but also develops a special bond with him, and is his companion throughout the years. “But it was my only one function of hundreds, some even more menial, more personal, others calling for cleverness and training, secretary, deputy, agent, companion.” (Bellow 124). Bellow shows that Einhorn, the very personification of the upper class and money, needs companionship and love, and that they are universal motivations in humanity. Another instance of love unifying diverse characters is in Augie and Thea’s relationship. Their love for each other despite different socioeconomic backgrounds demonstrates love’s universality. Thea grew up in a much “better” family in terms of socioeconomic status, yet they still are deeply in love with one another regardless of these differences. “She assumed she understood everything about me, and it was astonishing how much she did know; the remainder she made up with confidence and trusted to closed eyes and fast strokes.” (Bellow 345). Their love is shown to be not greatly inhibited by their socioeconomic differences, and they are still able to understand each other as human beings, since love is a universal motivation of humanity. In Martin Amis’ “A Chicago of a Novel,” Amis discusses how Thea is very different from other characters in the novel. “Thea is both lover and mentor, perhaps an untenable combination. Augie has grown used to eccentrics by now, as has the reader; but Thea, a wealthy and resolute young woman, is eccentric simply because she wants to be–not forced into a weird shape by heredity or personal history or blind circumstance.” (Amis 120). Despite difference in their characters, because of the universality of their motivations towards love, Augie and Thea are able to form a close bond with one another.
Throughout his works, Bellow depicts the the universal motivations that affect all of humanity; in fact, Bellow demonstrates the true continuity in the human experience despite surface inequalities or diversity. His characters are creatures of an earlier era of history, and yet we are able to sympathize with them nonetheless because of Bellow’s use and display of these motivations. Despite homogeneity in his protagonist choice, however, his extremely diverse cast of side characters provides the perfect contrast, and in their juxtaposition reveal a deeper similarity. In “Soul Bellow”, Craig Raine discusses how Bellow does not use outlandish situations, but his own, human experiences to show the motivations that lie within us all: “Bellow is not one of those purely imaginative writers like Golding or Ian McEwan who invent copiously and logically from first premises. You cannot imagine him wondering what it is like to be an ape married to a young woman writer who is having trouble with her second novel after the success of the first. Or wondering what might transpire if a group of boys was placed on an island without adult supervision. Bellow uses experience, his own life” (Raine 1). Bellow also uses revelations of inner similarity to show that, despite the need for individuality and pride and love and many other things in society, we share a common experience because we all need those things, and diversity comes solely from how we choose to acquire and retain them. Bellow’s message is that although we are different, and we may argue and disagree, that is simply part of our human nature. He argues that we should strive to understand that even the most opposite goals are often motivated by similar motives, many of which are innate to humanity itself.
Bellow, Saul. The Adventures of Augie March: A Novel. New York: Viking, 1953. Print.
Bellow, Saul. Dangling Man. New York: Vanguard, 1944. Print. Raine, Craig.
“Soul Bellow.” London Review of Books 9.20 (12 Nov. 1987): 3. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Roger Matuz and Cathy Falk. Vol. 63. Gale, 1991. Literature Resource Center. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.
Amis, Martin. “A Chicago of a Novel.” Atlantic Monthly 276.4 (Oct. 1995): 114-127. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed.
Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 190. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Contemporary Literary Criticism Online. Web. 17 Apr. 2016
Berets, Ralph. “Repudiation and Reality Instruction in Saul Bellow’s Fiction.” The Centennial Review 20.1 (Winter 1976): 75-101. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Sharon R. Gunton and Laurie Lanzen Harris. Vol. 15. Gale, 1980. Contemporary Literary Criticism Online. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.
Dutton, Robert R. “The Adventures of Augie March.” Saul Bellow. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1982. 42-74. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 190. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center. Web. 17 Apr. 2016.
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