Woody Selbst loves his father much like an indulgent father might love his irresponsible, yet self-serving son. Woody loses the opportunity to have his education paid for because of the selfish actions of his father. Because he loves his father, he gives him his savings when the old man wants to hire a taxi and leave the family. Because he loves his father, he takes him to the house of his patron, Mrs. Skoglund. Having gone that far against his better judgment, Woody distances himself from his father after the older man steals the silver dish. The brief wrestling bout on the living room floor is caused by the son trying to keep the father from misbehaving. Acting out of love rather than anger, Woody tries to restrict his father, just as later he climbs into the dying man’s bed to prevent him from disconnecting his tubes. The narrative states explicitly that Morris Selbst loved his son, too, listing him second only to Halina, his mistress, in the older man’s life. Though Morris tries to take advantage of Woody, in his own mind, Morris wants to spare Woody the indignities of having to associate with people who only pretend to care for him.
Snobs and Snobbery
Pop Selbst justifies his behavior by characterizing the people who have converted Woody and his mother to Christianity—Mrs. Skoglund, the Reverend Doctor Kovland, and Aunt Rebecca Kovland—as snobs, who look down upon him because of his humble background and, perhaps, because of anti-Semitic feelings. Whether he is right, or is just using their disapproving attitude to excuse his own criminal behavior, it is nonetheless clear that Woody agrees with him. Woody characterizes his mother as waiting, like a queen, for her husband to return to her, even forty years after he left the family, but refusing their daughters to have anything to do with him: “The Empress of India speaking,” Bellow writes, to show Woody’s disdain for his mother’s pretentious ways. As a grown man, Woody still battles snobbery. His opponents are not religious, though: in the late twentieth century, religion is not the powerful force it once was. Woody smuggles hashish in from foreign lands and grows marijuana in the field in the back of his warehouse, not because he feels the need for such things, but in effect to snub authority. Though he is a respected and responsible member of his community, he retains the attitude that his father had, challenging, with his very respectability, the people who might look down on him.
Though the story does not show how he was able to do so, it is quite clear about the fact that Woody has been able to derive some moral advantage from what might have been a crippling humiliation. His father’s actions at the house of Mrs. Skoglund resulted in his losing his scholarship and being thrown out of school. Such a traumatic event might have driven him to follow Pop into a life of crime, but, instead of becoming irresponsible, Woody grows up to be a man with a weighty conscience. He does not abandon his family, the way his father once did, but he works to support them all. An example of this is the way he shops every week for his wife, even though they have not lived together for fifteen years. Even more notable is the fact that Woody pays for vacations to Disney World for all members of his extended family (though he cannot, of course, send his mother and his father’s mistress, his own wife and his mistress together). Though Woody engages in some petty crimes as a matter of self-esteem, his life is generally focused on his responsibility toward others. He does not allow himself to feel that he deserves better.
Since most of this story takes place in retrospect when Woody Selbst is a young man, it may be difficult for readers to bear in mind that he is sixty years old, well past the prime of life. Throughout the story he is overshadowed by his father. As a young man, his struggle to establish an independent identity fails, as his father ruins his chance to become a scholar and is responsible for his being thrown out of school. According to Morris Selbst, seminary did not offer Woody a true calling anyway. In adulthood, Woody has taken financial responsibilities of his family for years, but upon his father’s death he awakens to a new awareness of the limits of life. Noting, at his father’s hospital, the general decrepitude of his mother and his father’s mistress, he muses, “everybody had lived by the body, but the body was giving out.”
Although, in his adult life, Woody is involved in the lives of people as diverse as his ex-wife, his grown sisters, his father’s mistress and his own mistress, he still is alone, spending Sunday morning, the time that he has devoted to his father, alone in his apartment, listening to the mournful sounds of church bells. The root of this solitude can be plainly seen in his youth, when he was divided between his two parents when they separated. While it was easy for his sisters to sympathize with their mother, Woody only partially followed his mother’s path: he converted to Christianity, but also rebelled, stealing bacon from Aunt Rebecca Kovner as a way of asserting his independence. Still, he grew up with too much conscience to follow directly in his father’s larcenous footsteps. In keeping himself free of the restraints that any particular lifestyle would impose, he has also detached, to such a great extent that Helen, the woman whom he thinks of as being like a wife to him, is mentioned just once in the story and forgotten.
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