In some ways, The Adventures of Augie March is seen as a dispelling of the traditional idea of an American hero. He is "the American chasing after self-exploration." He is given a background common of protagonists in inspirational American stories; "he comes from a poor family; he does not know the identity of his father; he refuses to be trapped by fine clothing, social position, or wealth," and he has plenty of "heroic qualities" such as his intelligence, compassion, and clear observation. However, despite these advantages, Augie does not truly live out the life of a hero. He has no commitments of his own, and merely goes along with plans and schemes developed by others. He never truly decides what he wants to do with himself, and "manages a deep enthusiasm just twice in the novel: he falls in love twice...The first experience fails completely; and the second, as the novels ends, is failing." Everyone around Augie finds a greater measure of success than he because they commit themselves to some pursuit or goal, even if it is not the most noble. Ultimately, though Augie has every chance to succeed in the world, he never does so because he refuses to engage in that world, and instead keeps chasing the vague "better fate" he has convinced himself he deserves. Through this Bellow makes his case that a sharp mind and pure ideals are of no value if they are not coupled with active pursuit and a clear understanding of one's relationship with others.
Widely heralded as a classic of American literature, the novel was named one of the 100 best novels in the English-language by TIME magazine (best in the history of TIME, 1923 to 2005) and by Modern Library (number 81 of the editorial board's 20th-century hundred).
As a novel "centering on the quest for identity," it has been compared to novels as diverse as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, and The Catcher in the Rye.