Review: Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 40

3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable.

Poor Tommy Wilhelm.  Lost, jobless, loveless, and completely devoid of pride or any self-confidence.  This is Tommy’s day of reckoning.  When the novella begins, Tommy (what kind of man in his mid-forties still calls himself Tommy, by the way?) is going to meet his father for breakfast, as he does every day, in the hotel Gloriana, where they both stay.  Unlike on other days, though, Tommy is fearful of this meeting – the reader knows from the start that there is something wrong, or soon will be.  The rest of the novella takes us through one day in Tommy’s life, but with many instances of flashbacks and memories, wherein his many problems, missteps, and miscalculations are revealed and his downfall is explained.  Tommy trusts the wrong people (Dr. Tamkin), loves the wrong people (his father, his wife), and is made impotent and helpless in front of the only people he truly cares about (his kids).  Seize the Day is a snapshot of life, exposing the burdens of modern man in a world where wealth and power have come to mean everything. 

3 – Characters well-developed.

There are three primary characters in Seize the Day: Tommy Wilhelm, our protagonist; his father, Dr. Adler; and the con-artist, Dr. Tamkin.  Some minor characters, such as the blind speculator and Tommy’s wife, also appear and contribute to the rising and falling action, up to and including Tommy’s final breakdown.  Tommy is a much more layered character than one would assume, more complex than even himself realizes (though the narrator does admit that Tommy is “not less capable than the next fellow” when it comes to “concealing his trouble.”).  So, Tommy wears masks, as we all do, both to make himself feel better about his situation, and also to hide from others the dire nature of his circumstances.  He is essentially drowning under the weight of his mistakes and life choices, including walking away from his job and divorcing his wife.  The story is about his day of reckoning and the realization he must come to – the childishness he must leave behind.  Dr. Adler, Tommy’s father, comes across as cruel and unsympathetic because he refuses to help Tommy when he is in need; but the reader must keep in mind that we are seeing Tommy’s point of view, and the impression one gets is that Dr. Adler has perhaps been burdened with Tommy’s troubles in the past.  Still, Dr. Adler is much less a sympathetic personality in general.  He is a doctor and scientist, with a somewhat cold, technological mindset – he believes in man creating his own success and determining his own fate, and he is disappointed that his children have not amounted to anything.  Adler is perhaps the temperamental counterpoint to Tommy, who acts much more on passion and emotion than on logic or reason.  Finally, Dr. Tamkin – where to begin?  Tamkin is a sort of new-age confidence man.  He claims to be everything from a psychiatrist to a poet, not to mention a stock broker, world traveler, inventor, and a hypnotist/healer.  Who is he, really?  We never find out, except that he is largely a liar who drops snippets of truth into his long-winded sermons.  He is a proponent of Romantic ideals and, while he seems rather absurd at times, still he practices what he preaches, which makes him a bizarre but still laudable character in many ways.

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

What  draws me to Bellow’s prose is that it very much reflects the themes of his story – modern Americanism.  It is, in general, simple, clean, and straightforward.  There are moments, however, of passionate romantic appeals, of poetry and narrative interjection which make the reader pause and reflect on what is being said or what is happening at that moment.  One does not necessarily want to look too deeply into Dr. Adler, for instance, because he seems to be a cold, self-centered jerk who just doesn’t care for his kids very much; but Bellow’s narrator often forces the reader’s hand, subtly, to hint at Adler’s own fears and pains, which hint at the reasons for his detachment, without over presenting them explicitly.  In this text, the narrator and the protagonist have a very close relationship – while it is technically an omniscient third-person narrator who has access to the minds and emotions of all the characters, he remains closest to Tommy.  This creates an interesting phenomena with Point of View – something rather innovative, really.  While it is clear that the Point of View is primarily that of Tommy, since this is Tommy’s story, it actually fluctuates throughout, as does the tense (past and present).  These shifts in Point of View and Tense raise a lot of questions about the narrator – who is it, really?  Who does the narrator sympathize with, if anyone?  After all, though he seems to identify with Tommy, there is quite a bit of prodding and ridicule for Tommy’s character going on, too.  It’s a fascinating approach to narration, which allows for much irony and (particularly in line with Dr. Tamkin’s personality) quite a bit of paradox. 

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

For such a short, seemingly straightforward novella, there is really quite a bit going on, here.  At the forefront is the novella’s primary theme, which is that of the “predicament of modern man.”  What is clear about the story is that it is one about isolation, which would be fitting as this novella falls into the “post-World War II” category of American literature, which was very much concerned with isolation and identity crises.  The characters of Seize the Day are very much disillusioned, dislocated, and in search of meaning, all of which is indicative of the sentiments of the general population during this time period.  In addition to Bellow’s concern with the external factors impacting modern man (his predicament in “place” and “time”), is his concern with paradoxical emotions and the internal man – his psyche and state of being.  Bellow accomplishes this examination both in the narrative style (which becomes more complicated as the characters become more introspective) and also thematically.  Psychology, conscience, and the human condition are very much being explored.  Other interesting things to look for include this idea of City Life, which Tommy repeatedly proclaims his hatred for (the noise, the crowds) but which also, eventually, highlights the idea Tommy forms (via Dr. Tamkin) of a universal body – something not entirely dissimilar to Emerson’s Oversoul.  Also, though a Modernist novel, Bellow plays with the idea of Naturalism and animal instinct/nature.  There are many examples of characters being described as certain animals, but the most interesting is perhaps Tommy as a Wolf, which would parallel the isolation theme (“lone wolf”) established on a larger scale.

Suggested Reading for:

Age Level: High School+

Interest: Modernism, Novella, Jewish-American Novel, American Lit, City life, Naturalism, Isolation, Post-World War II / Cold War Lit. 

Notable Quotes:

“How they love money. They adore money! Holy money! Beautiful money! It was getting so that people were feeble-minded about everything except money.”

“If love is love, it’s free.”

“After much thought and hesitation and debate he invariably took the course he had rejected innumerable times.  Ten such decisions made up the history of his life.  He had decided that it would be a bad mistake to go to Hollywood, and then he went.  He had made up his mind not to marry his wife, but ran off and got married.  He had resolved not to invest money with Tamkin, and then had given him a check.”

“There’s really very little that a man can change at will.”

“In the old days a man was put in prison for debt, but there were subtler things now.  They made it a shame not to have money and set everybody to work.”

“He could be both sane and crazy.  In these days nobody can tell for sure which is which.”

“Even a liar might be trustworthy in some ways.”

“Whatever you are, it always turns out to be the wrong kind.”

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