Beauty tells the story of a young girl whose given name is Honour, the youngest daughter of a wealthy shipping merchant named Roderick Huston, who lives in a large city by the sea. Her sisters are named Grace and Hope. Honour, upon hearing her father explain the meaning of her name at five years of age, decides that she would rather be called ‘‘Beauty.’’ The nickname sticks, though Beauty describes herself as uglier and more awkward-looking than her stunning— though totally different—sisters.
Beauty was only two when her mother died during the birth of a fourth daughter, Mercy, who also died shortly after. As Beauty grows up, she becomes attracted to books and intellectual pursuits, and her father’s wealth allows her access to a huge library. She secretly dreams of attending a university when she gets older, though such a thing is unheard of for a woman.
When Beauty is twelve, her oldest sister Grace becomes engaged to . . . Read More
Augie March lives quite a life [in The Adventures of Augie March]. Up from the depths of poverty to the heights of success, back down, back up, and all in most peculiar fashion. Jobs, journeys, jolts—and women, women, women. Crime and college, labor unions and athletic clubs, Chicago and Mexico, slums and society, thievery and high honor: these form the panorama for Augie. And that’s the book. It’s a chronicle of an age and a case history of assorted human beings, most of whom are engaged, in one way or another, in using their fellow–men and helping or hurting their families and friends. A good many of these people are psychopathic; at best they have interesting eccentricities, and at worst they are criminals. And they are colorful, sometimes, and boring at other times. Augie himself never quite arrives anywhere and unless he is tormenting himself, he never is quite happy.
Saul Bellow has some fine things in this book. The characterization is complete to the point of . . . Read More
Why do so many literary critics prize The Adventures of Augie March so highly? It is a novel in which a young man comes of age in Chicago yet cannot settle down to one career or commit to one relationship. It is a novel in which, after several hundred pages, the hero, Augie March, suddenly goes to Mexico to train an eagle to hunt lizards. Eagles in Mexico? Such a plot twist is a rather odd way to show that Augie is susceptible to the desires of others, and perhaps Saul Bellow could have made his point without such an abrupt change of setting and action. Yet perhaps a story that at its heart is a celebration of the energy and diversity of America should be a little wild itself. It is not a perfect novel: it rambles and at times bogs down in philosophical dialogue; most of the female characters are not fully realized. And then there is that trip to Mexico. Yet Augie, the ‘‘man of no commitments,’’ as Robert Penn Warren calls him, still speaks to us. He is unmistakably American . . . Read More
The Great Depression
Much of the action of the novel takes place during the Great Depression, widely considered the most serious economic downturn in United States history. The Great Depression began in the autumn of 1929, when the largely unregulated stock market plunged and American industry came almost to a standstill. By the early 1930s, between a quarter and a third of Americans were unemployed. During the Depression, which affected people throughout the world, radical political movements enjoyed rising success. In Germany, for example, millions sought relief in the programs and nationalistic rhetoric of the National Socialist, or Nazi, Party. Significantly, Germany’s second most popular party in the early 1930s was the Communist Party, as many lost faith in capitalism’s ability to deliver prosperity. In the same way, in the United States socialist and Communist beliefs enjoyed new popularity, although they were never embraced as widely as in Europe . . . Read More
The Coming-of-Age Novel
The Coming-of-Age Novel, also known as a Bildungsroman, tells the story of a young person discovering their true self and the nature of the world as they come into adulthood. Other examples include Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. The Adventures of Augie March is arguably a good example of this genre, because it begins with Augie as a young adolescent and follows him for some twenty years, well into adulthood. In the course of the novel, Augie learns about the nature of work, love, and identity, and comes to his own conclusions on each of these themes.
The Picaresque Novel
The Adventures of Augie March is also arguably a picaresque novel. Picaresque novels usually consist of the adventures of a rambling trickster from a low social class. They are comic novels, in which the hero often has many romances and narrow escapes from situations of his or her own . . . Read More
Perhaps the central theme of The Adventures of Augie March is its protagonist’s lifelong struggle to discover who he truly is and what his place in the world should be. This epic search for a path through life is what launches Augie into his ‘‘various jobs,’’ including smuggler, thief, teacher, and shoe salesman. But his quest for realization is not as simple as finding his preferred occupation. Instead, Augie must deal with a string of would-be mentors whose advice is only sometimes geared to actually helping him. Grandma Lausch, Einhorn, Simon, Mrs. Renling, Basteshaw, and Mintouchian all dish out pages of wisdom to Augie, but he learns to perceive which words are meant for him and which are intended to advance their own interests. On the other hand, Augie believes that he will be fully realized when he is able to discern and follow what he calls ‘‘the axial lines of life.’’ He can feel these lines only when . . . Read More
Caligula is the young eagle trained to hunt lizards by Augie and Thea Fenchel. When he turns out to be ‘‘chicken,’’ Augie’s sympathy for him contributes to the tension between Augie and Thea. Uncle Charlie Charlotte Magnus’s uncle, Uncle Charlie helps set up Simon in the coal business. However, he takes less of a liking to Augie, who is more interested in romance and adventure than making money and obtaining power.
Anna Coblin serves as a surrogate mother to Augie in his youth. He lives briefly with the Coblins and works for Anna’s brother, Five Properties. A kindly and emotional woman, Anna is devastated when her son runs away to enlist in the Marine Corps. The Commissioner The patriarch of the Einhorn family. He passes away before the stock market crash wipes away much of the family’s wealth. Like his son, he is a womanizer. Dingbat Einhorn’s younger, less intelligent half brother. . . . Read More
Augie returns to Chicago, stopping to see his brother Georgie along the way. He is impressed that Georgie has learned the craft of shoemaking. He then drops in on Mama, finding her in a nicer apartment at her institution. She tells him to go see Simon, and Augie is thrilled to hear that Simon often talks to Mama about him. When Augie meets Simon he realizes that no matter what Simon does or becomes, ‘‘I loved him again. I couldn’t help it.’’ Simon is rich but unhappy and treats people around him with thinly disguised contempt. Augie then visits Einhorn, Mimi, Padilla, and Clem Tambow, all of whom offer advice as to what he should do next with his life. Clem tells Augie he needs to pick up an exciting specialty like Egyptology, but Augie feels it’s exactly the need for specialization that he doesn’t like about the modern world. Augie then lands a job as a research assistant to an eccentric millionaire named Robey. Robey claims to be writing a book on human happiness, . . . Read More
Augie and Thea settle in the town of Acatla, in a house owned by her family. Augie begins to wonder just why he is in Mexico. Thea has said earning money was the goal, but training an eagle to catch lizards seems to be a strange way of doing it. He also finds himself feeling sympathy for the lizards brought in by Jacinto, the young son of the housekeeper. Thea is somewhat annoyed at this display of compassion and becomes enraged when Caligula is bitten by a lizard and seems to lose all interest in hunting. Augie is struck that, ‘‘while she was unpleasantly stirred against Caligula I felt a little condemned with him.’’ Thea declares Caligula to be ‘‘chicken’’ and abandons the eagle for a new pastime: developing photographs.
Eventually, Thea agrees to give Caligula another chance. She and Augie ride into the mountains where iguanas live, but Augie’s burro loses its footing and falls down the mountain, kicking Augie in the head. Thea shoots the injured burro . . . Read More
Simon and Charlotte marry, and Simon hatches a plan for Augie to marry Lucy Magnus, Charlotte’s cousin. The Magnuses, however, are not enthusiastic about Augie, largely because of his seeming lack of ambition and direction. He continues to work hard as Simon’s assistant at the coal yard, and business for the ruthless Simon rapidly improves. Mimi Villars tells Augie she is pregnant by Frazer, and Augie drives her to get an illegal and dangerous abortion. She bleeds badly afterward and Augie fears for her health. At the abortionist’s, Augie runs into Kelly Weintraub, a cousin of the Magnuses who had lived in Augie’s old neighborhood. Kelly spreads the rumor that Mimi is Augie’s girlfriend, and the Magnuses break off his relationship with Lucy. Augie returns to reading his books and takes a job with the Works Progress Administration, one of the New Deal programs. He walks through the slums of Chicago, working on a housing survey. Through Mimi he meets a man named Grammick who . . . Read More