The Adventures of Augie March – Saul Bellow

Book # 516


The Adventures of Augie MarchThe Adventures of Augie March records a dozen or so years of Augie’s life, a life filled with all sorts of events and details. There is Augie’s jobs, crimes, relationships with various women, and even a period spent adrift on the open ocean and another period spent training an eagle to hunt lizards in Mexico. As Augie says, people tend to find him ideal for figuring into their schemes and he has a tendency to say yes. This makes him an absolutely perfect subject for a novel.

These adventures are really entertaining at the plot level alone, but beyond that the novel has a lot to say about human fate, how life and death intertwine, and the ways that life should be lived. Above all else, the book is about Augie’s quest for who he is, and along the way he learns a lot about how humanity works:

“And this is what mere humanity always does. It’s made up of these inventors or artists, millions and millions of them, each in his own way trying to recruit other people to play a supporting role and sustain him in his make-believe. The great chiefs and leaders recruit the greatest number, and that’s what their power is. There’s one image that gets out in front to lead the rest and can impose its claim to being genuine with more force than others, or one voice enlarged to thunder is heard above the others. Then a huge invention, which is the invention maybe of the world itself, and of nature, becomes the actual world… That’s the struggle of humanity, to recruit others to your version of what’s real.” 

Augie grows up in extreme poverty during the Great Depression and sees firsthand the power those with money have over those without in Chicago, leading to this view that those who have power are the ones who actually create the world.

As Augie goes through various experiences, he is constantly longing for something. He wants a life that feels satisfying but he is never quite sure what it is he wants or how to achieve it. He continues to search, and try things, and remain uncommitted. This is frustrating for him, as he feels he’s spent his whole life preparing for life, gathering knowledge and understanding, without ever getting beyond “the walls of his own being.”

Augie’s friend says just what he needs to hear: “You must take a chance on what you are. And you can’t sit still. I know this double poser, that if you make a move you may lose but if you sit still you will decay.” 

As Augie gets older, he realizes the truth of this, that he’s been living all along and that there is no easy answer to the question of fate – his identity and where he ends up are tied together and it won’t be possible to establish one and use it to determine the other. In fact, Augie comes to the conclusion that fate and identity are one and the same. The tough life experiences fate throws at him mold his identity and in turn his identity influences how he responds to experiences; the two are bound together in a lifelong cycle.

Tied up in this quest for his identity and for the answers about what his life should look like are a lot of thoughts about death – its inevitability, the notion that the powerful don’t exactly die like the rest of us because their memories live on, and also what it takes away from life:

“Death is going to take the boundaries away from us, that we should no more be persons. That’s what death is about. When that is what life also wants to be about, how can you feel except rebellious?” 

This quotation is particularly illuminating because in this thought Augie reflects on how he responds to life’s difficulties and struggles. He never has a woe-is-me attitude in the novel, but he certainly has a rebellious one. This is a clue that his impoverished start and confused young adulthood have impacted him more than he is willing to state, giving the reader permission to read between the lines of his philosophical statements. It is also an echo of what Einhorn, a surrogate father to Augie in many ways, said many years previously – that Augie has opposition in him.

I enjoyed the picaresque feel of this modern novel, and Augie March is a worthy and fascinating hero. I definitely recommend this read, as it is chock full of two very different things that aren’t often together – adventure and philosophical musings.


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