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The Adventures of Augie March
The Adventures of Augie March is a picaresque novel by Saul Bellow, published in 1953 by Viking Press. It features the eponymous Augie March who grows up during the Great Depression and it is an example of bildungsroman, tracing the development of an individual through a series of encounters, occupations and relationships from boyhood to manhood.
The Adventures won the 1954 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction. Both Time magazine and the Modern Library Board named it one of the hundred best novels in the English language.
When the Swedish Academy awarded Bellow the 1976 Nobel Prize in literature, their press release noted that his novels, including Augie March, use a picaresque style that dates back to the earliest origins of the European novel. However, according to the Academy, Bellow uses this episodic traditional form to investigate modern concerns: "the outer and inner complications that drive us to act, or prevent us from acting, and that can be called the dilemma of our age." With an intricate plot and allusive style, he explores contrasting themes of alienation and belonging, poverty and wealth, love and loss, with often comic undertones.
Its protagonist may be said to represent the modern Everyman—an individual struggling to make sense of, and succeed in, an alienating world. The novel is also specific to the American literary canon in that it celebrates the capacity of the individual to progress in society by virtue of nothing more than his own "luck and pluck." This idea is stated explicitly in the opening and most famous lines of the novel, in which the narrator defines himself as an American. This was an important act of self-definition for the author and narrator, both immigrants to America. It also establishes the dual meaning of "America" in the novel: that is, the physical and political "America," as well as the more figurative "American" as a state-of-mind:
This celebration of the individual determines Bellow's presentation of fate in the novel. Unlike other picaresque novels, such as Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, the plot of Augie March is never pre-determined. Things simply happen to Augie, one after another, with no evident story arc or hint as to where his adventures are leading. This contributes to the sense that Augie, as the Everyman, is lost in a chaotic world, but it also enhances the sense that the Everyman, as an autonomous creation, is in control of his own fate. By turns, Bellow exposes the alienating forces of the American city, while revealing the great opportunities that it offers.
The story describes Augie March's growth from childhood to a fairly stable maturity. Augie, with his brother Simon and the mentally abnormal George have no father and are brought up by their mother who is losing her eyesight, and a tyrannical grandmother-like boarder in very humble circumstances in the rough parts of Chicago. Augie drifts from one situation to another in a free-wheeling manner—jobs, women, homes, education and lifestyle.
Augie March's path seems to be partly self made and partly comes around through chance. In lifestyle he ranges from near adoption by a wealthy couple who spoil him, to a struggle for existence stealing books and helping out friends in desperate straits. His most unusual adventure is his flight to Mexico with the wild and irrepressible Thea who tries to catch lizards with an eagle. Thea attempts to convince Augie to join her in this seemingly impossible task.
His jobs include general assistance to the slightly corrupt Einhorn, helping in a dog training parlour, working for his brother at a coal-tip, and working for the Congress of Industrial Organizations until finally he joins the merchant navy in the war.
Augie attracts and gets involved with a string of different women. Firstly a casual acquaintance as a youth, he gets engaged to a wealthy cousin of his brother's wife. However, through a scandal not of his fault, he is discarded. After a casual affair with Sophie, a Greek hotel maid, he is swept off by Thea, whom he had met when living with the rich Renlings and who forecast their relationship even though he loved her sister. After the fiasco in Mexico, where he suffered a terrible accident on a horse, he and Thea began drifting apart; he spending his time playing cards and she hunting for snakes and lizards in the mountains. Their inevitable split came the night he agreed to drive another woman, Stella, to another town to escape her troubled boyfriend. After the break-up, Augie returned to Chicago and picked back up with Sophie until joining the merchant navy and heading to New York. There he met up with Stella again and married her.
All through the book, Augie is encouraged into education, but never quite seems to make it; he reads a great deal for himself and develops a philosophy of life. Something or somebody always tends to crop up, turning his path before Augie seriously considers returning to education.
During the war, his ship is sunk and he suffers a difficult episode in a lifeboat with a man who turns out to be a lunatic. After rescue, he returns to Stella and the book ends with them living a slightly dubious existence in France, he involved in some fairly shady business deals and she attempting to pursue a career in acting.
Literary significance and criticism
In some ways, The Adventures of Augie March is seen as a dispelling of the traditional idea of an American hero. He is "the American chasing after self-exploration." He is given a background common of protagonists in inspirational American stories; "he comes from a poor family; he does not know the identity of his father; he refuses to be trapped by fine clothing, social position, or wealth," and he has plenty of "heroic qualities" such as his intelligence, compassion, and clear observation. However, despite these advantages, Augie does not truly live out the life of a hero. He has no commitments of his own, and merely goes along with plans and schemes developed by others. He never truly decides what he wants to do with himself, and "manages a deep enthusiasm just twice in the novel: he falls in love twice...The first experience fails completely; and the second, as the novels ends, is failing." Everyone around Augie finds a greater measure of success than he because they commit themselves to some pursuit or goal, even if it is not the most noble. Ultimately, though Augie has every chance to succeed in the world, he never does so because he refuses to engage in that world, and instead keeps chasing the vague "better fate" he has convinced himself he deserves. Through this Bellow makes his case that a sharp mind and pure ideals are of no value if they are not coupled with active pursuit and a clear understanding of one's relationship with others.
Widely heralded as a classic of American literature, the novel was named one of the 100 best novels in the English-language by TIME magazine (best in the history of TIME, 1923 to 2005) and by Modern Library (number 81 of the editorial board's 20th-century hundred).
As a novel "centering on the quest for identity," it has been compared to novels as diverse as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, and The Catcher in the Rye.