Augie tells us a lot about the people he meets, but he's less interested in the stories they would tell than presenting them as players in his own life. He's not so distant that he doesn't make judgments, but Augie doesn't come across as emotionally invested in their joys and sorrows. He's not unemotional, by any means. He cries. He laughs. He grieves when people he loves die. His emotional responses, however, tend to be self-centered because the world does revolve around him, after all.
This self-centeredness gets him into trouble with others. The obvious example is Augie's doomed love affair with Thea, which we discuss in the Character Roles section. Augie loves Thea, but he never bothers to make her concerns and goals his own simply because they're hers. He doesn't even think to do so. Um, narcissistic much? Another example is Augie's response to damaging Simon's car:
This was just where the error was; it was that I had to feel bad about the back shell of the car and those crustacean eyes that were dragging by the wires, and it wasn't just the accident as my failure to care as I should that he minded. (12.75)
If something doesn't affect Augie, he usually doesn't care about it. There are exceptions, though. When Augie learns from Einhorn that Simon had spent a night in jail, we read, "I suffered to myself for Simon. It was crazy, how. It crushed me to hear and picture" (10.78). But even these moments turn a tad self-centered. With Simon having been arrested, Augie says, "I sat before [Einhorn] stripped; I knew of nowhere to turn and had no force to leave" (10.85). His thoughts are back to himself.
This disposition of his affects the tone of his narrative—or, we could say, Bellow based the tone of his novel on the personality of his narrator. Augie shares details with us about the people he knows—he talks about them more than he talks about himself. Nevertheless, it's their place in his life that interests him. When, for example, Augie goes to Mexico, he goes around and tells his fiends what he'll be doing, but he doesn't ask them what they'll be doing or how his departure with affect their lives. Those matters are mostly off his radar.
Augie's narrative tone is also humorous and casual. He describes off-the-wall antics as if they were merely a little curious. After hearing about Simon's run-in with the law, Augie gets a job at a luxury club for dogs. He picks them up and brings them to the business. The chief, Guillaume, has sadistic fun with the hypodermic needle, yelling "Thees jag-off is goin' to get it!" Augie casually says the man "used the hypo more than I thought he should" (10.105). Understatement! And why does Augie leave the job? "Only the work fatigued me, and I stunk of dog," he informs us (1.105). Not the hyper use of the hypo, in other words.
The Adventures of Augie March is usually classified as a picaresque novel—a style of prose marked by satire, humor, and what we might call an over-the-top realism. The genre typically features a low class drifter, often a rogue, whose episodic adventures shine a light on the corrupt society in which he lives.
Augie fits the "picaro" character mold pretty well. He's not overly concerned with right and wrong. He can't keep a job. His adventures take him into the worlds of both the rich and the poor. We wouldn't entirely call him an amoral rogue, however. For all his faults and failings, Augie has a moral compass and a set of principles. He loves and honors his family. He refuses to lose his hope. He'll sacrifice his reputation and his future to help a friend in need. He's the kind of guy we could see ourselves kicking back with over a nice tall glass of clamato juice.
Bellow uses the picaresque genre style, but with more nuance and depth than the rules of the genre call for. Augie is in many ways a good man, even if he can be a rascal at times. He doesn't avoid punishment and trouble, but accepts them as part of life and as sometimes deserved. When Thea breaks up with him, he admits to a friend that he didn't love her as he should have.
Augie moves from adventure to adventure not usually because of crimes, as is often the case with the picaresque hero, but because he's not satisfied and wants something greater. The satire of the novel is therefore not as biting or cynical as it would otherwise be. Augie's adventures point out the contradictions inherent to the American Dream, but Augie himself is a believer in that dream, and he wants us to believe in it as well.
You aren't led astray by the title, The Adventures of Augie March. The titular character and narrator of the novel has oh so many adventures. He doesn't outwit dragons or follow his spirit guide into another dimension, but his experiences are just as outlandish as those. Really, who takes a road trip from Chicago to Mexico in order to train an eagle to hunt like a falcon? Well, that would be our Augie, following the ambitions of a beautiful woman he hardly knows. Not extraordinary enough for you? How about being lost at sea with a homicidal maniac who believes he has created new life? How about running into Trotsky in Mexico? Would you believe he meets a police officer who remembers every alleged criminal he's ever seen? Or that Augie works for a time for a luxury dog caretaker who's overly fond of the hypodermic needle? Believe it, Scully. These adventures are for realz.
Is the human condition something of a joke? This is what Augie ponders at the end of his story. He finds it laughable that people weighed down by the burdens of existence (like him) will still rise up with hope. He's never been able to give his dreams discernable shape, let alone live them, and yet he keeps on living and laughing, moving from adventure to adventure, place to place, people to people. Maybe the joke is on him. Maybe the joke is on the natural forces that would have him despair. Either way, he isn't giving up, and he isn't going to stop laughing at life's ironies. He'll still speak of America as a place of opportunity and greatness, even if he isn't in the country, and even if he's far removed from satisfying his desires, hopes, and dreams.
Chicago, the Northeast U.S., Mexico, Europe
"I'm an American, Chicago born," says Augie, introducing himself to the reader. Most of his story takes place in "that somber city," as he calls it (1.1). It's a place of dirty alleys, seedy poolrooms, illegal abortion clinics, gangster shootings, and poor apartment flats. Augie describes his home after his brother George has been taken to a home:
The house was also changed for us; dinkier, darker, smaller; once shining and venerated things losing their attraction and richness and importance. Tin showed, cracks, black spots where enamel was hit off, threadbarer, design scuffled out of the center of the rug, all the glamour, lacquer, massiveness, florescence wiped out. (4.53)
Einhorn expresses a similar though more cynical perspective of the city:
This city is one place where a person who goes out for a peaceful walk is liable to come home with a shiner or bloody nose, and he's almost as likely to get it from a cop's nightstick as from a couple of squareheads who haven't got the few dimes to chase pussy on the high rides in Riverview and so hang around the alley and plot to jump someone. (5.42)
For Einhorn, however, the roughness of Chicago has its advantage. While other great cities, with their public art and other marvels, incline you to think human savagery is a thing of the past, the residents of Chicago should have no such illusions (5.43).
Einhorn owns and runs a poolroom, so he gets to see a fair share of disreputable folks. Augie too sees the dark side of a "cold, wet, blackened Chicago day" (8.7), but he's not so put down by the roughness of the place. You might say he has illusions—Einhorn would—but maintaining hope after life's hard knocks is Augie's thing. He's got that music in his mind saying everything is going to be alright.
Augie occasionally gets out of the city. He takes a trip with Mrs. Renling across Lake Michigan to Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, and stays at the very nice Merritt Hotel. Here he can spy on pretty women at the beach and eat fancy food on Mrs. Renling's dime. Luxury could have become Augie's permanent digs if he had accepted Mrs. Renling's offer to adopt him, but Augie doesn't need snazzy dining rooms or inherited wealth to be content and hopeful for the future. It's no surprise that Einhorn is shocked at Augie's refusal.
Mexico is a very different world. Augie and Thea stay at a house on the edge of the mountains. It has two patios, allowing them a nice view and a place to train the bird. Lizards and snakes are all around. In the mountains, the odor is "snaky," and they seem "in the age of snakes among the hot poisons of green and livid gardenias" (16.60).
Here Augie is closer to nature, but he's not particularly moved by it. He's in Mexico because he wants to be with Thea. When they split, he goes back to Chicago.
Interestingly, the final setting of the novel isn't Chicago or another location in America. Augie, now married, lives and works in Paris. Frazer, an old pal, lives here now as well. To Frazer, Paris represents the hope that "Man could be free without the help of gods, clear of mind, civilized, pleasant, and all of that" (26.55). To Augie, it's mostly just another locale, not terribly more or less important in his life than other spots. For a moment, though, inspired by Frazer, Augie does wonder if Paris could be the place for him. We don't find out.
And strange it is
That nature must compel us to lament
Our most persisted deeds.
Antony and Cleopatra
The one epigraph in The Adventures of Augie March doesn't appear until well into the second half of the novel, at the start of Chapter 16. It's a line from Shakespeare's play, Antony and Cleopatra. The character Agrippa speaks these words when Octavius Caesar, he, and the other opponents of Antony see the bloodied sword of Antony and hear of the man's suicide. They've persisted long and hard to bring an end to Antony, but Caesar is nonetheless touched by the scene. Sometimes we feel bad about the things we were most determined to do. In Augie's case, he's dropped everything to follow Thea to Mexico, but he isn't really fully on board with her plans and this adventure will only result in grief. Thea doesn't kill herself, but when they part in regret, Augie is dead to her, and eventually she is dead to him as well.
The Adventures of Augie March takes some time to get used to. Augie is a verbose narrator who loves very long sentences and literary allusions. He's kind of a show-off, basically the original hipster. He's very well read in literature, history, and philosophy—he drops famous and obscure names like they're pronouns. You'll need the ol' Google to keep up with him.
None of Augie's narration has a singular plotline, but the beginning of the book is particularly challenging. Here he spends many more pages introducing people and describing circumstances than he does narrative something happening. Don't worry, though. The stories picks up soon enough. You just need to remember that his adventures aren't part of a larger plot or arc. They're more like stand-alone episodes, kind of like real life.
Augie may tire quickly of individual women and individual jobs, but he never tires of long and observant descriptions. This is clear right off the bat in the first paragraph of the novel:
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles. (1.1)
This is the opening paragraph of the novel, and it gives us a good feel for the style of the book. Augie will begin to make a point—in the case, that he's from Chicago—and then he'll interrupt himself with a tangential remark or two.
The flow of the text doesn't drag, however, as Bellow knows exactly when and where to pause or to switch the tempo. His sentences are long, often complex, but broken into manageable snippets. You'll count ten pauses in that first sentence. This gives Augie's descriptions, observations, and anecdotes a rapid, remarkable, and recognizable rhythm. Bellow's prose is like a drummer capturing the flight of a bird.
America is the final word and image of the novel. It is, as is often the case, an image of hope and opportunity, but Bellow adds a layer of irony:
That's the animal ridens in me, the laughing creature, forever rising up. What's so laughable, that a Jacqueline, for instance, as hard used as that by rough forces, will still refuse to live a disappointed life? Or is the laugh at nature—including eternity—that it thinks it can win over us and the power of hope? Nah, nah! I think. It never will. But that probably is the joke, on one of the other, and laughing is an enigma that includes both. Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains, which didn't prove there was no America. (26.180)
Augie doesn't have much cause for hope—not for what he's really after. Augie wants the American Dream, but he's forever uncertain about what this dream really means for him. And so he can't live the dream. This is why he calls himself a failure, but it's also why he compares himself to Columbus. His failure doesn't prove there is no American dream—even for him.
We might say that Bellow is being ironic about the irony of the American Dream. The irony of the dream is straightforward enough: despite the dream's promise, success in America doesn't come to those with opportunity and ingenuity.
The American Dream is supposed to be something achievable if you've got the mind for it, the will to see it through, and the opportunities to get started. But for many people, maybe most people, these wouldn't be enough. For them, the American Dream is the dream of Tantalus—forever teasing what is forever out of reach. The hope of moving from rags to riches is an absurd hope.
Bellow could have ended it there, but he twists the irony around. Augie, who in one sense wants to live without illusions, refuses to give up hope even though his hope might be absurd. America still has promise, even when he's most down. After wrecking all chance to marry Lucy Magnus, Augie is angry, but his anger passes when he looks at the "snow-polished and purified blue" of the winter sky:
The days have not changed, though the times have…the sailors who first saw America, that sweet light, where the belly of the ocean had brought them, didn't see more beautiful color than this. (12.471)
Seemingly down on his luck, Augie will rise again. He'll "turn his eyes at last again to the weather" (12.480), remember he's looking at America, and keep on truckin'. Is he living an illusion? It's possible, but it's also possible his image of America might one day correspond to the real thing. If he's not an optimistic chap, he's a hopeful one.
Augie is an American and in many ways thinks like an American. In one way, however, he has more of an old European spirit. He's often praising superior people in the language of aristocracy.
He connects Grandma Lausch with "the highest and the best," "with the courts of Europe, the Congress of Vienna, the splendor of family" (3.11). Einhorn he associates with nobility as well, forgiving his bad habits because "for people of some nobility allowances have always been made." If British aristocrats are entitled to piss on the hind wheels of carriages, says Augie, he won't hold Einhorn's quirks against him (5.9). Einhorn likes that Augie will testify to his "true noble and regal greatness" (13.82).
Mrs. Renling, who wants to adopt Augie, compares an educated man with a business to a lord, a real prince (9.4). Augie's friend Mimi Villars shares this view, if more sternly. She values intelligence in men, which she describes (according to Augie) as breathing the difficult air of effort and nobility (11.34).
Augie uses this language as well. He depicts Simon's plan to marry into a wealthy family as his endeavor to make himself a prince in their presence (11.55). When Charlotte, Simon's wife, speaks with frankness, Augie detects "a kind of nobility" (12.13). Later, when Augie is living with Thea in Mexico, he feels "like a king" (14.8).
For Augie, and a few others in his life, terms of nobility are terms of greatness, if not always goodness. Augie wants to be princely himself, but he never figures out what that means for him in the concrete.
In Augie's world, frailty is no excuse for failure. His one-time boss and friend Einhorn is crippled with paralysis and needs someone to help him with menial daily tasks like getting dressed. Nevertheless, Einhorn fancies himself a capable businessman and an accomplished lover. When disaster strikes, Einhorn says:
I was a cripple before and am now. Prosperity didn't make me walk, and if anybody knew what a person is liable to have happen to him, it's William Einhorn. You can believe that.
Grandma Lausch has her frailty as well—hers from old age—but she fights standing up. Upon hearing the news of her passing, Augie recalls that "for all her frailty, she was a hard fighter" (10.10).
Augie learns from both of these people that he can't make excuses for himself because of his limitations. If he does wrong, he should admit it. If he does poorly, he should take the blame. His weaknesses should be his strengths. And his strengths…well, they should also be his strengths.
We already discussed how nobility is a sign of greatness in Augie March, but what about the opposite side of the spectrum? No need to fear, dirt is here. In this novel, dirt and dirtiness are images of poverty, criminality, and general disreputableness.
When Grandma Lausch accuses Augie of criminal behavior, she says to him:
You're in the streets and alleys with Klein, that hoodlum, learning to steal and every kind of dirt. (4.26).
Dirtiness later becomes a problem for Augie when he's trying to make it as a salesman. People don't trust him because of his dirty and torn clothes. They assume he's lost his grip on prosperity (9.35). Later, when he's trying to hitch a ride home, mud on him makes him look unsavory and unsafe (9.79).
Augie himself doesn't see dirtiness in this way. He knows his own worth, and when he compliments Mimi, he says "she could have lived in the desert wilderness for the sake of it, and have eaten locusts" (11.36). Uh…thanks?
Augie's life doesn't have much of an order to it. That makes reading about his adventures grueling work at times. It also makes it funny that Augie is so impressed with Einhorn, for whom order is of the utmost importance.
"Let's keep things in order now—that's the main thing," the older man says while he and Augie go through the Commissioner's papers. Einhorn likes keeping files and stacks.
Keeping order is a way that Einhorn exercises control—or at least the appearance of it:
To Einhorn, the enjoyment of a woman not his wife was such an organizing act. And Lollie must have been important to him, for he kept track of her to the last. (7.63)
Augie doesn't pick up Einhorn's example. "Though I had been Einhorn's office clerk I hadn't learned much of neatness," he tells us (8.4). We're given to wonder whether Augie would have been more of a success if order and structure were more important to him.
Augie March narrates The Adventures of Augie March. For the most part, he tells his tales in roughly a chronological order, although he'll jump around and tie in insights he learned at some other time. He's a longwinded chap, never hesitant to work into his narrative a bit of history, judgment, philosophical musing, or a very detailed physical description. Oh, and he loves a good reference. Here he is describing how Einhorn took the Crash in 1929:
The Crash was Einhorn's Cyrus and the bank failures his pyre, the poolroom his exile from Lydia and the hoodlums Cambyses, whose menace he managed, somehow, to get around. (7.1)
Sure, why not romanticize his boss by comparing him to the ancient king of Lydia, Croesus? We've all done that, right? Well, maybe not. Let's just say this is Augie's way of sounding hip the way we would with a Game of Thrones or Mad Men reference.
Like The History of Tom Jones, another picaresque novel, The Adventures of Augie March follows the basic plot structure of a comedy. Most of the events fall into a stage of darkness or twilight—a stage of unknowing and uncertainty. The story concludes with a moment of recognition, where the sun comes out and the darkness ends. Sort of. Let's look at how Augie March is divided into these two stages.
No overarching villain appears in the pages of this novel. Sure, Augie meets people who mean him ill, but they're here one minute and gone the next. Augie is really his own worst enemy. The cause of his uncertainty is himself—his limitations and his decisions. Throughout the whole book, Augie seeks autonomy and self-possession, but he's too vague on the details of what he wants and who he wants to be. Consequently, he can't make decisions that put him on a permanent path.
At least he has the fortune of living on the happier, humorous side of existential angst. Augie has something of Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophy in him. He doesn't want to be defined by other people's projects and runs whenever someone tries to put him into their long-term plans. He wants the freedom to be himself, but he doesn't know who he is or what he really wants out of life. Hm, we wonder how that's going to work out for him.
Spoiler alert: Augie doesn't have any moment of self-discovery or self-transcendence. At the end of the day, he's the same old flighty Augie March he always has been. His recognition comes not when he sees himself as he really is, but when he sees and can laugh at the persistency of his hope that he will one day know himself and find something better than reality. He'll figure it out some day, just not today. What's the hurry anyways?
As we noted in the plot overview, The Adventures of Augie March doesn't have a plot in the traditional sense. Events happen, usually in chronological order, but the only tie binding them is Augie himself. This makes a classic plot analysis difficult, but we'll work with what we have.
Augie's initial situation is the situation of his whole life—he wants to define himself, but he doesn't know the words to use. In his childhood, this is understandable. He's only a kid, after all, living in poverty and in a broken home. When basic sustenance and other life necessities are a constant concern, you don't have much time or energy to use finding yourself.
Augie begins his "story" by telling us about the earliest influences on him, particularly his older brother Simon and their boarder, Grandma Lausch. These initial anecdotes and descriptions set the tone for the novel—Augie will tell us more about others than he will about himself. Directly speaking, that is. His words and actions speak all on their own.
In this section, we're including everything from the time Augie enters adulthood until the moment he runs off to Mexico with Thea. His adventures during this time include continual searches for steady employment, never satisfied; a variety of spicy love affairs; his employment and friendship with Einhorn; his courting of Lucy Magnus; and his dangerous work as a union organizer. Fun times!
During these stages of his life, Augie knows that he wants something great for himself, but he just doesn't know what. He knows one thing: it's definitely not about wealth. He refuses an offer by a rich family to adopt him and he forsakes a potential marriage with an heiress by accompanying a good friend while she gets an illegal abortion, which seems like a bit of an overreaction—it's not like it was his pregnancy or anything.
Augie regularly comes close to choosing a course in his life that would permanently define him, but he always refuses because he wouldn't be defined on his terms. The trouble is, he doesn't exactly know what his terms are, so he moves constantly from job to job and lover to lover. These opportunities and ultimate refusals form the central conflict of the tale.
Augie's life doesn't really have a climax. Spoiler alert: he doesn't ever discover who he is or exactly what he wants. But he doesn't give up, and in the end that's what really matters.
The closest thing to a turning point his life has is his trip to Mexico with Thea. It's the first time he's intended to leave Chicago long term, and he goes with Thea with the intent to marry her. Like most of his choices, this one is made on a whim with little to no reflection. He doesn't stop to think what he'll do if this adventure with Thea goes badly. When it does go badly (as everyone told him it would), he's back to where he was, only now with a serious head injury.
Of all of his failures, this one affects Augie the most, both physically and emotionally. We don't ever see him as filled with anger and bitterness as we do when Thea leaves him. If there was a time we expected him to just give up, this was it.
Augie doesn't fall too far after breaking up with Thea. In fact, he meets Stella, who soon becomes his wife. Then he's off to war. His life with Stella isn't the rollercoaster he had with Thea, but it has its sharp turns and sudden drops. Stella hasn't been entirely honest with Augie about her past or her present. We don't know whether they'll eventually split up, but signs (and Augie's whole way of life) point to yes. Marriage might not be "til death do us part" for dear old Augie.
The question we're asking at the end of his story is whether Augie has achieved anything or gained anything. We think so, but it's hardly a resolution to his life's central conflict. It's more of an understanding. Augie sees some serious humor in the fact that his failed adventures haven't taken away his hope. He may not find himself or find a way to suitably define who he is, but he won't let go of that dream. He'll go on believing that there's an answer, whether he finds it or not. He's either commendably optimistic or incredibly dull—jury's still out.
Augie's life is a string of loosely related and unrelated events. He doesn't fundamentally change in the novel, and in a way neither do his circumstances. If anything, Augie grows a little wiser with age. The first act of the novel would be the events of his childhood up to the point at which he flies the coop and starts making his own way in the world.
Once Augie gets into adulthood, he's always in a constant state of transition, either courting a new lover or working a new job. Will Augie find something to which he can give his all? Will he settle down and live the American Dream? Thea Fenchel seems to promise Augie that possibility, but lo and behold, he messes it up. He gives more of his attention to another woman and gets trampled by a horse. This person (not the horse), Stella, becomes his wife, but whether they'll stay together is anyone's guess.
After being marooned on an island for five years (Lost, anyone?), Augie returns to home and becomes a crime-fighting superhero with superhuman strength. Wait, who are we kidding—Augie just marches to the same beat he always has. He suspects he's failure, but he's not all that bummed out about it. Nobody's going to rain on his parade, not even him.