When the Swedish Academy awarded Bellow the 1976 Nobel Prize in literature, their press release noted that his novels, including Augie March, use a picaresque style that dates back to the earliest origins of the European novel. However, according to the Academy, Bellow uses this episodic traditional form to investigate modern concerns: "the outer and inner complications that drive us to act, or prevent us from acting, and that can be called the dilemma of our age." With an intricate plot and allusive style, he explores contrasting themes of alienation and belonging, poverty and wealth, love and loss, with often comic undertones.
Its protagonist may be said to represent the modern Everyman—an individual struggling to make sense of, and succeed in, an alienating world. The novel is also specific to the American literary canon in that it celebrates the capacity of the individual to progress in society by virtue of nothing more than his own "luck and pluck." This idea is stated explicitly in the opening and most famous lines of the novel, in which the narrator defines himself as an American. This was an important act of self-definition for the author and narrator, both immigrants to America. It also establishes the dual meaning of "America" in the novel: that is, the physical and political "America," as well as the more figurative "American" as a state-of-mind:
|“||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, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.||”|
This celebration of the individual determines Bellow's presentation of fate in the novel. Unlike other picaresque novels, such as Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, the plot of Augie March is never pre-determined. Things simply happen to Augie, one after another, with no evident story arc or hint as to where his adventures are leading. This contributes to the sense that Augie, as the Everyman, is lost in a chaotic world, but it also enhances the sense that the Everyman, as an autonomous creation, is in control of his own fate. By turns, Bellow exposes the alienating forces of the American city, while revealing the great opportunities that it offers.