Study Guide

Seize the Day

By Saul Bellow

Seize the Day Introduction

Carpe Diem! Seize the Day! People have been motivating themselves to get up off the couch with this phrase since 68 BC. You see it printed on pillows, questionably tattooed on people's bodies, and in sentimental tributes to Robin Williams (R.I.P.). So what business does Saul Bellow have using it for the title of one of his novels?

Well, in case you didn't know, Saul Bellow is pretty much the Meryl Streep of modern literature. And when you're the Meryl Streep of modern literature, you title your books however you darn well please.

Check this out: In 1954, Bellow won the National Book Award for his third novel, The Adventures of Augie March. In 1965, he won it again for his sixth novel, Herzog. In 1970, he won it again for his seventh novel, Mr. Sammler's Planet, and in 1976, his eighth novel, Humboldt's Gift, snagged him the granddaddy of all literary awards: the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Oh yeah, and he earned the Nobel Prize for Literature that same year.

Not gonna lie, Bellow kind of beats out 'ol Meryl in the Highly Coveted Awards Department.

So where does Seize the Day fit in?

Seize the Day first appeared in 1956, after The Adventures of Augie March had cemented Bellow's presence as a major American writer—the major American writer, according to some. In its first edition, it appeared as the title story in a collection that included three other short stories and a one-act play. Robert Baker, one of its early reviewers, claimed that with "Seize the Day," Bellow had finally proven "his attainment of full artistic maturity." That's not too shabby for a short day's work.

Whoops, sorry Saul—we don't mean to imply that Seize the Day took just one day to write; it's just that very little time passes in the novel itself. From the very first moments when our pitiful protagonist steps into an elevator and heads down to the lobby of his hotel, to the very last moments when (spoiler alert) he dissolves into tears at a stranger's funeral, less than a day goes by.

Seize the Day is a lot like Genie's lamp in Aladdin: Bellow has crammed an awful lot into a story capped at around 120 pages. Some critics have called the narrative a novella; others have called it a novel, or "a novel in miniature." Whatever way you want to slice it, Seize the Day is fun-sized, brimming with detail, and packs a wicked emotional punch. So seize your day and get ready to curl up with this awesome—dare we say, magical—story.

What is Seize the Day About and Why Should I Care?

Picture this: it's Friday night and you're feeling bored and lonely. Sorry guys, this is no Rebecca Black video. You're thinking it might be good to get out for a bit—maybe see a movie, hit up the club, or go chill at that new overpriced but super hip coffee shop downtown. You scroll through your Facebook and Twitter feeds to see if anyone you know is up to anything fun; you text your best buddies and pals; but someway, somehow, none of your your friends are around.

Seize the Day is set in the 1950s (the same decade it was published)—millennia before social media taught us to feel that our friends are never more than a click of a button away. But even so, the novel has a lot to say about that peculiar feeling of isolation that comes from being alone in a crowd. What happens when none of the people you know can be there for you when you need them? We know—it's a scary thought.

The novel's pitiful protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm, hasn't lived in New York City for years, since he was a kid. Now he's back, and his life is crumbling around him. His wife refuses to give him a divorce even though they've been separated for years. He can't marry his mistress (because of his vengeful wife), and he's lost his job. His elderly father has money to spare, but he won't share because he despises his son's failures and never-ending stream of mistakes. Oh, and did we mention that Tommy just gave the last of his savings away to a con man posing as a friend?

There's no doubt about it: Tommy's life is a sad state of affairs, and he's desperate for human connection. His money troubles are bad, but the thing that he craves even more than a loan is a bit of compassion and sympathy. You'd think that in a city with nearly eight million people living in it, someone might be willing to pity Wilhelm's troubles and woes, but unfortunately for him, he's on his own. People surround him at every corner and turn, but no one has time for his problems.

On the one hand, Seize the Day is about a guy in his forties who's finally being forced to come to terms with the train wreck he's made of his life. Maybe you won't identify with all (or any) of Wilhelm's mid-life crisis frustrations and fears, but the novel gets at something much deeper, too.

Beyond Wilhelm's financial and family troubles, Seize the Day shows us how strange and sad it can be to feel totally isolated in a sea of fellow human beings. If you've ever sat waiting for a text that would save you from the boredom and loneliness of an evening spent sitting alone, Saul Bellow is talking to you.

Seize the Day Resources

Websites

Saul Bellow's Biography in Encyclopedia Britannica Online
Short, sweet, and to the point—much like Seize the Day!

Movie or TV Productions

Seize the Day (1986)
Robin Williams stars as Wilhelm and Jerry Stiller plays Dr. Tamkin in this made-for-TV adaptation of the novel.

Articles and Interviews

A New York Times Review of Seize the Day (1956)
In this short review, Alfred Kazin states memorably that the novel is about "the transparency of human weakness."

The New York Times Obituary for Saul Bellow (April 1995)
To quote one of the funeral-goers who watches Wilhelm sob his heart out in Seize the Day: "Oh my, oh my! To be mourned like that." (7.104)

An Obituary for Saul Bellow in The Guardian (April 1995)
In which James Wood writes that Seize the Day "is perhaps the most Russian novella ever written in America."

An Interview with Saul Bellow in The Paris Review (1966)
Realism, anti-intellectualism, and human nature: Saul Bellow has thoughtful things to say about them all!

An Interview with Saul Bellow in AGNI (1997)
In conversation with Sven Birkerts, Saul Bellow discusses the writing life, American fiction, and mass media in America today.

An Interview with Janis Bellow, Saul Bellow's Widow (2010)
Five years after Saul Bellow's death, Janis Bellow chats about life with the Nobel Laureate.

Video

5-Minute Documentary on Saul Bellow's Chicago Childhood
Saul Bellow describes his life as a young immigrant boy in Chicago in the 1920s.

Saul Bellow Reads at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland (1986)
After reading from Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow fields questions from the crowd.

Audio

A Brief Obituary for Saul Bellow on NPR (April 2005)
Featuring a brief history of his writing life, and some choice quotes from the man himself.

Saul Bellow's Nobel Lecture
An excerpt of the lecture Saul Bellow delivered after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976.

Images

Saul Bellow as a Young Man
The man knew how to rock the plaid.

Saul Bellow in His Later Years
Less plaid, more laugh lines.

The Viking Edition of Seize the Day
The first edition of the book.

The Masterworks Series Edition of Seize the Day
For those who like to judge the plots of books by their covers.

The Penguin Classics Edition of Seize the Day
For those who like their symbolism more abstract.

Movie Poster for the Film Adaptation of Seize the Day
Robin Williams: lookin' sharp, and keepin' it cool.

Robin Williams as Tommy Wilhelm
Help us out here, Shmoopers: are those mushrooms on his tie, or shrimp?