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 ‘‘striving stops’’; then he becomes vaguely aware of ‘‘Truth, love, peace, bounty, usefulness, [and] harmony.’’ Thus, from childhood, he can turn away from ‘‘all my persuaders, just on the obstinacy of these lines, never entirely clear.’’ This explanation is a bit vague, but it seems that Augie believes in his inner voice and its connection to larger, indefinable currents. When he can step away from the whirl of his life, when he listens to his own mind, he believes in what he hears. It is not clear whether or not Augie has succeeded in his quest for self-realization by the end of the novel. In the final paragraph, he looks back on his adventures and reflects, ‘‘I may well be a flop in this endeavor.’’ But failing to follow his axial lines does not mean he was wrong to seek them.
The Primacy of Love
The Adventures of Augie March centers on Augie’s ‘‘various jobs’’ and his many romances. But underlying these two important themes is Augie’s guiding belief in love. If what Einhorn describes as the ‘‘opposition’’ in Augie drives him to experiment with many occupations and relationships, his desire to feel and give love is a complementary force. This includes more than romantic love, but brotherly and filial love as well. Though his mother is weak-willed and blind, his brother Georgie is mentally challenged, and his brother Simon is hollowed out by his drive for wealth, Augie deeply loves them all. Each time he encounters Simon, Augie reflects on how much he loves him and how the sight of Simon eclipses whatever other emotion Augie had been feeling toward him. Augie’s desire for familial love keeps him from being hurt by Einhorn’s refusal to see him as a son despite their close relationship. It also drives Augie to refuse the Renlings’s offer of adoption and accompanying wealth. Furthermore, it helps maintain emotional distance from Basteshaw, who hates his own father, something the fatherless Augie cannot abide. With women, Augie is sensual but never unloving. He may not plan to marry Sophie but he is gentle with her because he recognizes that she deserves love. In his relationship with Thea, his response to her behavior in Mexico was to ask, ‘‘What was wrong with the enjoyment of love, and what did there have to be an eagle for?’’ Augie is disappointed that, for Thea, simple love is not enough. But he accepts that ‘‘I could not find myself in love without it should have some peculiarity.’’ He needs this flexibility with Stella as well as it becomes clear she has no intention of giving up her career for his dream of a ‘‘private green place’’ where unloved children could be loved, but, as Augie reflects, ‘‘I understood that I would mostly do as she wanted because it was I who loved her most.’’ Augie’s love is perhaps passive, but it is also forgiving. When he becomes the counselor for the men aboard a ship headed into war, he reminds his comrades that ‘‘nobody is perfect,’’ and he ‘‘advocated love, especially.’’
The American Dream
Several versions of the American Dream coexist within The Adventures of Augie March. It is arguably the Great American Novel of immigrant America and offers numerous tales of new Americans (or their children) seeking their success in their new country. There is Einhorn, with his pretense to dynasty and his curious collection of pamphlets and other kinds of self-help information. Einhorn is interested in creating a kind of old-world fiefdom and ultimately appears to be a symbol of a pre-modern kind of power, in this case over a neighborhood. There is Simon and his ruthless and ultimately empty pursuit of spiteful power and wealth. For Simon, achieving the American Dream means climbing socially into the wealthy classes. His intellect is directed only at the acquisition of money and power, especially power over the wealthy, as Augie observes when they visit Simon’s club. Other immigrants also dream of American success: Padilla, with his studies and his book-stealing business; Grandma, with her plans for the March boys; Sophie Geratis, with her demand for honest pay. And of course, there is Augie’s final pastoral dream of a school for unwanted children. It is worth noting that a book that seems to celebrate the energy and amorality of urban life climaxes with a vision of a little country school at which orphans and foster children can find shelter. And Augie’s own American Dream also contrasts with the fierce individualism exhibited by so many of the book’s characters, including Augie himself. But this dream is not realized, and Augie concludes that it is ‘‘only one of those bubble-headed dreams of people who haven’t yet realized what they’re like nor what they’re intended for.’’ In fact, none of the main characters seem to have realized their version of the American Dream, but the stronger among them still have hope.
Source Credits: Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010