The Great Depression
At the center of this story is Bellow’s description of the night when Woody and his father, who are both poor, travel from the south side of Chicago to the affluent suburb of Evanston to the north. The contrast between the two worlds is made clear to readers, as the contrast between the rich and the poor was very clear during the Great Depression. Like most large social phenomena, the Depression was the result of many events occurring simultaneously, such as the destruction of Europe during World War I finally taking effect and poor financial planning by the United States, which, after the war ended in 1918, failed to anticipate its rise to global financial dominance. America was a rich country throughout the 1920s, but some of that wealth was only on paper: the wealth that showed in bankbooks and stock transactions was not backed up by enough production of tangible goods. An important event that heralded the Depression was the New York Stock Market crash on October 29, 1929. Stock prices tumbled, causing other stockholders to sell their holdings at discount prices to cover their losses. People lost their savings when banks were forced out of business by large depositors pulling out. From 1929 to 1933, the U.S. gross national product fell by nearly half, from $103 billion to $55 billion. Unemployment, which usually stays under 5 percent, reached 30 percent at the height of the Depression in 1933, which is when Franklin D. Roosevelt became president and initiated new economic policies. Roosevelt’s New Deal consisted of a variety of plans that gave work to many people.
Globalization in the 1980s
In this story, Bellow describes his protagonist, Woody Selbst, as a world traveler, experiencing exotic lands such as Kampala, the White Nile, and Japan, and important cities such as Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Delphi. While such international travel was of course possible then, it was by no means as common as it is in the early 2000s. Several factors made world travel more attainable for the common person in the last two decades of the twentieth century. For one thing, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which had been in existence since the end of World War II, became more involved in regulating commerce between countries. Previously, the IMF had been charged with tending to the interactions between a few developed countries, but in 1982 it was shaken from its slumber by an international debt crisis. With a strong regulatory body directing financial traffic between countries, international involvement increased.
Also, communications improved after the 1980s. The fax machine, which allowed a copy of a document to be transferred across phone wires, had its origins in a device that was copyrighted in 1862, but it did not become a practical tool for business offices until the late 1980s. Just as the fax machine was revolutionizing international information sharing, the Internet boom transformed business throughout the 1990s: within a matter of years, companies that had relied on verbal communications or couriers could exchange information accurately and immediately. As businesses spread their scope throughout the world, so did individuals. The Internet and cable television brought a steady flow of information about other cultures, removing some of the fear and mystery of other lands. Tourism became a streamlined industry, so that agents in different countries could offer amenities that they knew their foreign customers wanted. Airlines became increasingly efficient at moving passengers, bringing fares down to levels that could be reached by middle-class Americans. Since the 1980s, international travel has become much more practical and desirable for millions of vacationers who once could only dream of going abroad.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Saul Bellow, Published by Gale Group, 2010