Augie March begins the story of his "adventures" with these famous lines: "I am an American, Chicago born-Chicago, that somber city-and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, 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..." (3). Next, he dives into a description of his family life: "Mama", or Rebecca, is a "simple-minded" woman with three sons who has been abandoned by the father of her children; "Georgie", the youngest, is the "idiot" brother; Simon, the eldest, is honest, and intelligent; and Grandma Lausch, who is not really their grandmother, but rather a boarder in the household, takes it upon herself to school Simon and Augie in the ways of worldly success.
Grandma Lausch, the first of the major Machiavellian influences in Augie's life, teaches Augie to lie to the free dispensary in order to receive a pair of eyeglasses; additionally, she advises the boy to read novels by Tolstoy. Her basic tenets include: "Nobody asks you to love the whole world, only to be honest"; and "Respect is better than love" (9).
At twelve, Augie finds a summer job passing out theater handbills, and befriends Sylvester, the son of the theater-owner. The following summer, Grandma Lausch sends Simon to work in a resort hotel as a bellhop. Augie moves to the North Side to help with the Coblins' newspaper, and lives with the family while working on the morning route. Anna Coblin, Mama's cousin, an immense, mournful woman whose own son, Howard, has run away to the Marine Corps, dreams of marrying her daughter, Freidl, to Augie. She tells Augie to consider himself a member of her household. One day, however, when Anna becomes furious with Augie for blowing on her son's saxophone, he thinks to himself that he would rather not become a part of the Coblins family: "My mind was already dwelling on a good enough fate" (28).
Anna's brother Five Properties, an up-and-coming "big-footed contender for wealth", wishes to marry. Grandma Lausch arranges for Kreindl, a neighbor, to find him a good match, hoping that if she is successful she will secure some money for herself. Five Properties, however, rejects the pale, thin girl Kreindl manages to ferret out for him: "He had in mind a bouncing, black-haired, large-lipped, party-going peach" (25).
When Simon becomes high school valedictorian and Augie skips a grade in school, the March brothers become known as a clever pair. Simon then returns home from his summer job as a bellhop a changed man; Augie senses this from the broken tooth that his brother refuses to explain. The flaw changes the overall look of Simon's face, as well as the quality of his laugh. In Chicago, Simon lands a job with the Federal News Company and begins working concessions near the trains. He also begins referring to Grandma Lausch as a "stranger", rebelling against her through quiet repudiation. Augie also begins working concessions for Simon's boss, but fails to stay on top of the change and is fired.
After Augie loses his job, he and Jimmy Klein find work together as Santa's helpers at Deever's department store during the holiday rush. They skim money off of the inventory, but the Deevers eventually discover the thievery and inform both of their families. Jimmy Klein's father beats him, and Augie suffers a scolding. Jimmy Klein's cousin Clem Tambow, along with Jimmy and Augie, begin discussing various ways to burn down the Deevers' store. The talk is, however, all in jest; life goes on, and Jimmy's older sister Eleanor, a large, big-hearted girl, begins calling Augie her "lover". Augie, on the other hand, has fallen in love with Hilda Novinson, the daughter of a tailor.
By this time, Augie has begun to notice a general unease in the town: it is "a bad winter for everyone-not just for the notables but for people oblivious of anything except their own ups and downs and busy with the limited traffic of their hearts and minds" (50). Mama, for example, appears "dizzy" with "the buzzing of some omen" (50). Grandma Lausch then delivers her "stroke": something needs to be done about Georgie. She advises that Augie's younger brother be put into an institution before he creates trouble for the family. The suggestion throws everyone into a state of confusion, but Grandma Lausch is ultimately successful. Augie is angered, feeling that Grandma Lausch "made it something it didn't necessarily have to be, a test of strength, tactless" (56). As Georgie stands ready to leave the house, dressed like a traveler, Grandma Lausch refuses to say good-bye, and Mama exhibits "the trembling anger of weak people" (57). Augie drives Mama and Georgie to the dormitory, where they all weep their good-byes. Augie later explains: "After that we had a diminished family life, as though it were care of Georgie that had been the main basis of household union and now everything was disturbed" (58). Simon begins to show open disrespect, and the house grows "dinkier, darker, smaller" (58). In May, Grandma Lausch's dog Winnie dies, and they bury her in a shoebox in the yard.
Augie March begins the narration of his adventures by declaring his place of origin: Chicago. Next, he discusses the nature of a knock on a door, and how it can echo the character of the owner of the fist. Augie then quotes the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who declared that a man's character is his fate. This opening immediately casts Augie's fate - as well as his character - as key issues. Augie then enigmatically refers to the "suppression" he faces in his endeavor to tell the story of his life. An inevitable quality of first-person narratives, this tendency towards suppression pushes the storyteller to skip over details, revelations, worries and, oftentimes, disappointments. At the same time, this suppression calls into question the very nature of fiction-writing: what is conveyed to the readers are often selective, carefully-chosen moments pulled out of a vast plain of facts.
Augie's honesty, a major theme in the novel, is immediately called into question when he reveals himself to be a liar, having been schooled by Grandma Lausch. She teaches him that people will only ask that he be honest, but it is up to the individual whether or not to respect this expectation. Augie, in contrast to his elder brother Simon, doesn't seem to mind lying. Simon is upstanding and honest to a fault, and unfailingly follows the social codes of the most proper English schoolboy. Augie's questionable honesty enables the narrative to become more spacious, and allows room for rich layers of history, myth, and symbolic allusions to embellish the events. Augie's own childhood home seems to have been marked by the visit of an unseen Greek divinity who impregnated their mother before departing into the heavens - though in reality the father appears to have been a working-class man who couldn't resist the allure of indulgence.
Grandma Lausch is a tyrannical figure who dominates the family, though she is not even a blood relation. The first major influence in Augie's life, Grandma Lausch is described as "one of those Machiavellis of small street and neighborhood" (4). The boys can't imagine that she will ever die. She teaches both Augie and Simon that respect is better than love (a key theme in the story) even as Georgie wraps his arms around her legs, loving her with a pure, whole-hearted tenderness. Sweet and mindless, Georgie represents love, while the cold, calculating Grandma Lausch represents respect. Grandma Lausch, however, is intent on drumming into the older boys her belief that love is weakness. She points to their mother as the "prime example" of someone whose affections have been dangerously taken advantage of. When Augie is betrayed by a friend of his, Grandma Lausch once again reiterates her point.
Grandma Lausch's streetwise opportunism kick-starts the stream of "Machiavellians" who appear in Augie's life and seek to influence him. The book offers a rich and detailed canvas of characters, places, and objects, all exquisitely painted by the narrator's unique voice. Augie says that "all the influences were lined up waiting for me" (43), suggesting the multitude of humans who sought to shape his life.
When Augie admits that he has "a weak sense of consequences" (43), he seems to be hinting at his failure to dictate his own fate because of his inability to accurately deduce the consequences of his present actions. Ultimately, however, Augie fails in his endeavor to control his fate because of his natural passivity: through most of the book, he allows various influences to exercise far greater influence over him than they ought to. In other words, his own inaction leads to a diminished ability to discern the possible consequences of events. He responds to human influence, but fails to sustain any relationships that require commitment.
In their youth, both Simon and Augie are hailed as clever boys, talented and promising. It is little wonder, then, that Grandma Lausch wishes to have a hand in their upbringing. Having started life with this sense of promise, Augie is thrown when Anna Coblin presses against him the possibility of a hard-and-fast fate: marriage to her daughter and inclusion in her family. This is the first fate that Augie firmly rejects: he decides that he wants something better, or at least something "good enough". This vague desire is enough to propel him into the future, but perhaps not enough to inspire him to set out on an actual path.
The issue of honesty is underscored by Simon's successful manipulation of change at the concessions stand. He is covert about his thievery - and highly effective. Augie, on the other hand, joins his friend Jimmy in skimming money off of the inventory, basing their actions on the erroneous assumption that, since it is a busy season, the Deevers will never check their records. Simon succeeds because he approaches the situation with intelligence, while Augie's endeavor fails because he approaches the con with a cavalier, naive sense of invulnerability and lack of foresight.
Augie's childhood comes to a dramatic conclusion when Grandma Lausch announces that Georgie must be put into a home before he causes any trouble. The fact that Simon tacitly agrees with her hints at the possibility that he will eventually grow up to be like Grandma Lausch. Simon's missing tooth indicates a newfound flaw in his character, and he seems to take Grandma Lausch's Machiavellian teachings more seriously. Simon, with his strong code of ethics and profound ambition, appears certain to be the member of the family who successfully ousts Grandma Lausch from her seat of power.
Augie and Mama both cling to "love" as they take Georgie to the institution, and though Grandma Lausch ultimately succeeds in sending Georgie away, she loses her power over the family. Simon accelerates her demise, and "love" goes missing from the house. The family weakens, and the implication is that, though respect may be better than love, a lack of both is even more profoundly damaging.
The death of Grandma Lausch's dog Winnie only reinforces the fact that, with Georgie's departure, a chapter in the family's life has come to an end, along with Augie's childhood.