Tuesday, 24 August 1999

Saul Bellow: The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

Edition: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1954
Review number: 318

Like Henderson in Henderson the Rain King, Augie March is a misfit. Neither character is willing to accept the constraints imposed by the society around them. Henderson is a larger than life, socially simple-minded individual who cannot understand society's barriers, that behaving as he pleases makes him unacceptable, unfit for company. March, on the other hand, is a misfit because he has an unconventional ambition - he is looking for an "acceptable fate" - and is willing to walk away from anything that he feels is tying him down. Instead of just acting as he wants and accepting the consequences as Henderson does, he wants to establish his right to be himself.

March's problems occur principally because his ambition is too diffuse. He doesn't know what his acceptable fate will be, so seeking it is unlike the single-minded desire of his brother Simon to make money in any way he can. This aimlessness, together with what he describer as an "adoptive air" means that others keep on suggesting how he should live his life, how he should make his way in the world. So he ends up in a succession of bizarre jobs and relationships, all of which is short term because he turns out to be unable to be himself. He cannot bring himself to compromise his independence.

The reason that Bellow writes about people who don't fit into conventional society is to get his readers to think about the relationship between the individual and the community in which they live. This is particularly aimed at an American readership, for in the United States there has for some time been a very strong tension between ideals of liberty and individualism and the way in which people live their lives in the country which invented the production line. To fit into society both costs us something and brings us benefits, as there is no way that industrial civilisation could survive without the individual subordinating themselves to the whole. Bellow's purpose is to question how much compromise is desirable and how much is necessary, and what make us think about which parts of ourselves do we want to remain individual.

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