The Adventures of Augie March Summary and Analysis
by Saul Bellow
Augie continues to hope for Thea's forgiveness, but is finally forced to abandon his efforts. He seeks out Sylvester, who asks Frazer to find Augie a place to stay. Augie takes up residence with Paslavitch, a weepy, Chopin-playing Yugoslavian with whom Augie becomes good friends. One day, Frazer proposes that Augie act as Trotsky's nephew and help them with a plan to smuggle him into the United States. Augie agrees, but secretly prays not to be swept up again in "one of those great currents." The question turns out to be moot, as Trotsky vetoes the idea. Augie, recognizing that he can no longer hold his own in Mexico, purchases a bus ticket back to Chicago. On the way back, Augie visits Georgie at the institution down-state. He finds that Georgie has been trained in shoemaking, and the two spend a quiet, happy day together. When Augie reaches Chicago he goes to see Mama, who tells him to visit Simon, who has become rich.
Augie also goes to visit his old mentor, Einhorn, who complains to Augie that Mimi Villars is ruining his son, Arthur. Augie discovers that little of his former affection for Einhorn remains, particularly since the old man was the one who advised him to treat Simon harshly. Augie also meets with Clem Tambow, and confides in him the strange dream he had of a house with three grand pianos. Augie then persuades Arthur to give him a reference for a job as a millionaire's research assistant. The eccentric, miserly millionaire, Robey, intends to write a book on human happiness, but eventually Augie realizes that the lonely man just wants someone who will listen to him.
Augie begins to teach at a school, where he runs into Kayo Obermark, who is teaching Latin and algebra. Kayo is married with a child now, and invites Augie over to his house for a meal. There, Augie ends up selling his car to Kayo's wife's brother, who then tries to cheat him at a card game. In the end, Augie wins at cards, but when the car's malfunction (it has bent rods) is revealed, Kayo becomes angry with Augie for not having disclosed the problem earlier. Augie also resumes his relationship with Sophie Geratis, who is now married.
When Augie sits down for a serious talk with Clem, he tells him about the "axial lines of life, with respect to which you must be straight or else your existence is merely clownery, hiding tragedy...When striving stops, there they are as a gift. I was lying on the couch here before and they suddenly went quivering right straight through me. Truth, love, peace, bounty, usefulness, harmony!" Augie then reveals his dream for the future: he wants to have a home, a wife, and a family, and live with Mama and Georgie. He also wants a start a school, a kind of academy. Clem remarks that he wants to be "king". Augie, his vision now clear, is considering marrying Sophie when the war breaks out. Suddenly, all he can think about is joining the effort. Unfortunately, a hernia (a residual effect of the accident in Mexico) forces him to get an operation, from which he makes a slow recovery. Simon introduces Augie to Renee, his lover. Augie doesn't trust Renee, but sees how intensely Simon loves her. At the same time, Simon also makes it clear that he will never leave Charlotte, and that he feels strongly about his wife, as well. Nevertheless, he sees Renee every day. One day, Renee tries to kill herself, but Simon thinks that she is bluffing. From Augie's point of view, it looks like a second marriage. Eventually, Renee claims that she is pregnant and tries to sue Simon for support. Charlotte steps in with evidence against her husband's lover, and several scathing confrontations ensue.
As Augie finally prepares to go to war, Clem advises: "Don't push your luck. Don't take a risk with the clap. Don't tell your secrets to anybody to satisfy their curiosity. Don't get married without a six-month engagement." Simon himself gets turned down for service because of a bad ear.
In New York, Augie visits Stella, thinking: "What use was war without also love?" He kisses her on the cheek, and they both flush with the electricity of their connection. Augie tells Stella that he wants to be a teacher and have a family, and she tells him that she thinks he'll make a great father. He also tells her that she'd make a great film star, and hugs her around the legs in a show of affection, saying that he loves her. He returns to his training, but after a week returns to find her weeping and upset, worried sick that he will never come back. She tells him that she is in love with him, and he asks her to marry him, ignoring Clem's advice: "[his] advice was good for people who were merely shopping, not for someone who had lived all his life with one great object." They whisper to each other about their lives, and Augie learns that she is a "mystic". They decide to marry when he graduates from the training program at Sheepshead.
The reader hopes that Augie will learn something from his failed relationship with Thea and begin conducting himself with more logic and foresight, but these hopes are readily dashed. Augie prays not to get swept up in pretending to be Trotsky's nephew, but doesn't actively say no to the request, either. Although it might be that Augie simply wants to meet Trotsky, he takes no agency in the matter, either in the affirmative or the negative.
When Augie finally returns to Chicago, he stops to visit Georgie and then Mama, the figures who represent "love" in his life. From there, he goes to reconcile with Simon. However, when Augie visits Einhorn, he notices the unhappiness in the house, its general state of decline, and the pervasive bitterness centering on Arthur's career struggles. When Augie considers the possibility that it may be best to let his affection for Einhorn go, he fails to show commitment to the man who, in better times, provided him with advice and fatherly support. Augie further disappoints the reader when he sells his car with the "bent rods" to Kayo Obermark's brother-in-law without being forthright about its bent rods. Even though Kayo's brother-in-law is portrayed as intolerable, Augie's dishonesty in this interaction casts him in a negative light.
At this point, a general sense of disappointment and decline pervades the narrative. Although rich, Simon is unsatisfied, and fills his need for attention with a mistress named Renee. He attempts to balance his "respect" for his wife, Charlotte, with his passionate "love" for Renee, but the situation proves highly unstable, given Renee's desire to share in Simon's great wealth.
The bent rods on Augie's car echo his speech to Clem Tambow about the "axial lines" of life. In this passage, Augie describes the straight lines that dictate the course of an individual life, and his desire to follow them; in other words, he aspires to live honestly. In these axial lines he can, as he professes to Clem, discern his fate. Oddly enough, Augie longs to "teach" - and indeed, he does teach in a school - but the narrative fails to mention what it is that he actually teaches, leaving the reader to wonder what Augie may have "learned" throughout the course of his adventures. Otherwise, Augie's vision centers on love, with Augie himself holding the central position; Clem likens his ideal position in life to that of a "king". This moment recalls Augie's assertion that he felt like a "king" with Thea Fenchel in Chicago, where they lived together in a hotel. During that time, they lived richly, although Augie didn't fully understand his lover's economic status. It seems that Augie thought that he was going to marry a rich girl just as his brother had done. That false belief might have been Augie's supreme ideal; over time, however, the illusion crumbled into a shape that he couldn't commit to. Along with his dreams of finding a wife, having a child, living with his mother and Georgie and starting a school, he professes a vision of "building" a community based on "love" - a kind of personal utopia. This vision, however, in keeping with Augie's character, washes away with the coming of the war; Augie, once again, gets distracted.
Padilla and Clem both offer counter-perspectives to Augie's argument. Padilla tells Augie that he is "too ambitious. You want too much, and therefore if you miss out you blame yourself too hard. But this is all a dream. The big investigation today is into how bad a guy can be, not how good he can be. You don't keep up with the times. You're going against history. Or at least you should admit how bad things are, which you don't do either." Padilla encourages Augie to be more realistic, to stop living in a fantasy world, and to learn more about the Machiavellian methods he openly rejects - or, as Padilla couches it - learn "how bad a guy can be." Clem, speaking from the perspective of a psychologist, insists: "The whole mystery of life is in the specific data," indicating the necessity of carefully studying the material world. Augie, however, refuses to listen to either of them. He understands the truth about himself: "In the world of today your individual man has to be willing to illustrate a more and more narrow and restricted point of existence. And I'm not a specialist." He discovers the root of his failure to find a long-term profession: he is wholly unable to narrow his point of view. Augie craves knowledge, experiences, and love, and demonstrates a kind of supreme "opposition" to the values endorsed during his era. The question is, then, how can Augie survive in a world that resists the acceptance of such a "pure" element?
Augie ultimately recognizes "how impossible it is to live without something infinitely mighty and great." Instead of dwelling on the loss of Thea, he moves on to a new vision - the one that he shares with Clem. He does so, however, aware of the fact that he is merely playing at the role of the visionary: "The reason why I didn't see things as they were was that I didn't want to; because I couldn't love them as they were." What can be viewed as a lack of honesty can also be viewed as a refusal. Augie works at continuing to see the beauty in things so that he will not sink into bitterness.
As Augie prepares to go to war, he decides to visit Stella, and makes a decision to love her. He seems intent on transforming the former "accident" of having rescued and slept with Stella in Mexico into real "love". The reunion feels genuine; they truly seem to fall in love with each other, and Augie falls to the ground and hugs her legs, recalling Georgie's show of affection to Grandma Lausch. The allusion is an ominous one, implying that Stella will go on to somehow betray Augie, but for the moment, the reader hopes that the special fate that Augie has set for himself will prove fortuitous.
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- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
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