Study Guide

Augie March in The Adventures of Augie March

By Saul Bellow

Augie March

Augie can be a difficult character to define because he doesn't directly tell us a lot about himself. One of the most important aspects of the story is how he's unsure of his own values, plans, and what he wants out of life. Augie narrates his story, but he's arguably a little in the dark about the main character—himself.

All the influences were lined up waiting for me. I was born, and there they were to form me, which is why I tell you more of them than of myself. (4.1)

If we're going to understand Augie, we'll have to look at what other people say about him and measure their words against what Augie himself says about his actions and his thoughts. As he says himself, he is sometimes "under and influence and not the carrier of it" (12.40). He's not always entirely himself (12.38).

The Flawed Adventurer

Saul Bellow formed Augie in the mold of the picaresque hero—a low class rascal who jumps from job to job, evading consequences and responsibility (We're looking at you, Lindsay Lohan). Augie is a better version of the archetype. He flies from job to job, disinclined to settle into anything permanent. He'll engage in minor criminal enterprises when he feels he must, but these plays don't carry him far or stay with him as a habit—he's just "experimenting."

In his youth, he has "a very weak sense of consequence," but he matures with age (4.2). Somewhat. Grandma Lausch pegs him early on in his life: "you're too easy to tickle," the boarder tells him. "Promise you a joke, a laugh, a piece of candy, or a lick of ice-cream, and you'll leave everything and run" (3.8). This makes Augie easy to manipulate.

Stella, who becomes his wife, notes that he (and she) "fit into other people's schemes" (18.52) and people are always trying to get them to play along. Ironically, this is precisely what she does to him in the moment of this conversation, but Augie's too much a fool to see it. Thea, another lover, tells him he plays everyone's games (18.154). "Guys like you make life easy for some women," his friend Mimi says to him (21.128). Is it just us, or is this starting to sound like a Taylor Swift song?

Augie jumps from place to place, relationship to relationship, and job to job for a couple of reasons. First, he wants distinctiveness and doesn't like other people trying to make him into something else.

Second, he doesn't know what or who he wants to be, so he's constantly trying out new things. One moment he's thinking of marrying someone, "when all of a sudden—wham! the war broke out … and then there was nothing but war that you could think about" (22.66). He'll be in the middle of a relationship that he really wants to fix, but wreck all chance of restoration by helping a beautiful woman he hardly knows out of a jam.

Third, he likes to mix it up. He probably takes well to Einhorn because the poolroom owner pays him for "unspecified work of a mixed character." Augie reflects:

I accepted it as such; the mixed character of it was one of the things I liked. (5.10)

There's a fourth reason for Augie's refusal to settle, come to think of it. He lives by a principle—a slogan he picks up from his friend Manny Padilla:

Easy or not at all (21.127).

Augie puts it this way:

I always believed that for what I wanted there wasn't much hope if you had to be a specialist, like a doctor or other expert…Specialization means difficulty, or what's there to be a specialist about? (21.127)

For Augie March, life is all about getting to the top without ever having to climb. We'll see how that turns out for him.

An Observer and a Listener

People feel comfortable around Augie. On board the ship, while travelling to war, many of the crew seek out Augie like they would a therapist or bartender:

Before long the word got around that I was a listener to hard-luck stories, personal histories, gripes, and that I gave advice, and by and by I had a daily clientele, almost like a fortuneteller. By golly, I could have taken fees! (25.34)

Who knows, he could have been the next Miss Cleo!

A Sucker for Love

So what makes Augie a likable guy? He's friendly and easy-going, and he's reasonably dedicated to love. When Einhorn wants him to treat his brother Simon poorly after he broke a promise, Augie remains loyal to his blood. He doesn't take advantage of the wrong. He forgives and moves on. Augie is not one to hold grudges. And we all know what happens when people hold grudges.

Augie also has enough sense to see when he's failed at love. After he's returned to Chicago following the disastrous trip to Mexico with Thea, Augie admits to Padilla that he did wrong: "I didn't love her as I ought to have. You see, I missed out. I should have been more pure and stayed with it. There was something wrong with me."