Augie first begins to describe his life with the announcement that he is Chicago-born, followed by a detailed look at his family. By beginning with his "origins", he assumes the task of describing his personal evolution, as well as the identity of "Augie March". Coupled with the notion that "a man's character is his fate", the question of personal identity becomes inexorably linked to the idea of destiny - an endpoint which lies in direct opposition to one's "origins". Bellow, via Augie, reveals how concepts such as "identity", "origins", and "fate" are fundamentally unstable. Augie experiences extremely high and remarkably low points, experiments with various professions, and accumulates knowledge, but all the while, he remains "Augie". The book ultimately examines whether or not Augie "matures" into someone who deserves that "good enough" fate.
Throughout the novel, Augie encounters Machiavellian-style individuals who strategically exercise their energy, wit, and influence, and look to the material world for an understanding of their own. From early childhood, Augie lives under the aegis of Grandma Lausch, and as he grows older his brother Simon becomes a Machiavellian figure in his own right. Additionally, the characters of Einhorn, Mrs. Renling, Joe Gorman, Thea Fenchel, Mintouchian, and Basteshaw all seek to influence Augie in some way. Augie subsequently proves to be highly susceptible to human influences.
At the same time, however, because - as Einhorn points out - Augie is naturally driven by "opposition", Augie rejects each of these Machiavellian influences and clings instead to the idea of love, hoping to reach what he feels sure will be a special fate. In other words, there is something "pure" about Augie as a character. It may be his spirit of idealism (which borders on escapism), or it may be his transcendental faith in love, which finds so little encouragement in his world, but in the end the question is whether or not this kind of purity can survive in the face of the Machiavellian forces that permeate the novel.
Augie's story is riddled with chance circumstances that play a hand in dictating the course of fate. Augie, as a consequence of his natural passivity, frequently succumbs to these "accidents". Mimi Villars, in contrast, refuses to be dominated by accidents (as she dramatically illustrates with her abortion). Augie's willful "opposition" to Machiavellian influences, however, has little hope of success in the face of the greater strength of societal forces; hence, Augie allows himself to be swept up by environmental currents in the hopes that these accidents will set him on the path to a better fate.
Love vs. Respect
Grandma Lausch teaches Augie and Simon that respect should take precedence over love. Simon takes this advice to heart, since he himself has suffered from the pursuit of love. Ultimately, Simon chooses Charlotte Magnus, a woman he comes to admire for the quality of her mind. Augie, on the other hand, chooses love, and repeatedly claims that he is going along with everything - including Simon's Machiavellian intentions - out of a desire to find true love. He views Mama and Georgie as symbols of perfect love, and places the transformative power of love at the center of his own accidental birth. He also expresses to his friend, Clem Tambow, his dream of opening a foster-academy with his birth and adoptive families - a dream that is, ultimately, about the desire for enduring love.
In the end, the question of whether it is Simon or Augie who has chosen the better path to happiness remains unclear. Both men fail to attain true happiness, as they continue to long for things that are missing. This indicates that perhaps a balance between love and respect is preferable to a focus on one or the other.
Bitterness in the "Chosen Thing"
Kayo Obermark's statement to Augie about Mimi Villars' abortion - that there is always bitterness in one's chosen thing - is recalled later in the novel after Augie's break-up with Thea. The line resonates throughout the remainder of the novel, as the fates of the various characters are revealed. Augie muses that bitterness lies in the courage required to make a choice and stick by it. Simon may regret not marrying for love, just as Augie may regret cheating on Thea, but Augie's experiences with regret, bitterness, free choice, and living with the chosen thing offer him inescapable, elemental truths about life and the human state.
From the moment the readers realize that the narrative is in the first-person, they are warned of the possible suppressions that may inevitably obscure the reality of the events taking place. Augie then underscores this sense of dishonesty by revealing to readers that he has been taught to be a liar. Though the readers become increasingly intimate with Augie's good-natured, energetic, and emotional voice, they inevitably recognize moments of obvious suppression - moments where the narrator is clearly not being forthright about the true nature of events.
When he is only a child, Grandma Lausch teaches Augie that the only thing the world ever really expects of a person is that he or she be honest. People, however, take advantage of this to get ahead - especially, it seems, Machiavellians. At the same time, however, Machiavellians are arguably honest about their ambitions. Augie may appear to be a forthright character, but he fails to honestly convey his feelings. He also falls into various disreputable occupations: skimming money from a department store, participating in a robbery, heading east with Joe Gorman, and eventually becoming a full-fledged book thief. In the end, he manages black market deals abroad.
By sprinkling his prose with allusions to literature, myth, and history, Augie allies the figures in his life with great men and women from the past, who hover above them like halos. In other words, the novel essentially mythologizes Augie's American experience. On the one hand, this reveals that myths and stories are only made extraordinary in the hand of the right storyteller. On the other hand, the creative aspect of mythologizing the characters also suggests the ease with which an individual can leap from the "ordinary" to the "extraordinary". However, many of the characters in the novel (Einhorn and Simon spring to mind) are prevented from achieving extraordinary things because of circumstances.
The mythologized nature of Bellow's prose also highlights the American Dream itself: the American Dream often strikes those who attempt (and fail) to achieve it as a myth. Augie's efforts mythologize the nobility of this endeavor because despite his past failures, he continues to believe that a bright future lies ahead of him.
When Augie comically names his eagle Caligula, drawing attention to its regal status, he also draws a strange parallel between grandeur and madness. The eagle symbolizes the power of America, but has a cruelty that is fundamentally rooted in its weakness - thus condemning it to take the moniker of the evil Roman Emperor Caligula.
The eagle, which has been adopted by both Augie and Thea, becomes a symbol of Thea's Machiavellian attempt to shape Augie into a sportsman figure. However, both the eagle and Augie ultimately prove cowardly on the hunting range. The question becomes one of nature versus nurture - is the human will powerful enough to shape nature into a new form?
The Adventures of Augie March Questions and Answers
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