Seize the Day is a novella by Saul Bellow published in 1958 in a collection that also included three short stories and a play. The novella is the entry that captured the attention and respect of critics and scholars and had since gone on to become recognized as one of the essential texts in the canon of one of the essential writers of fiction of the 20th century.
Although slimmer in volume than Bellow’s other recognized masterpieces—The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, Henderson the Rain King and Humboldt’s Gift—the subject and theme of Seize the Day qualify it as companion pieces to such major literary works as Death of a Salesman and The Great Gatsby. In its constricted construction of a single day in the life of perpetual loser Tommy Wilhelm in which he makes one final grand bid for the American Dream and proceeds to lose everything he had left, the novel betrays its word count to prove that big ideas about the character of this country don’t have to be expressed in an attempt at The Great American Novel.
Tommy’s failure to realize the American Dream is presented through non-linear progression in time that reveals the endless litany of bad decisions made in his past as Tommy reflects upon the sorry state those bad decision have marooned him in the present. The central element of Tommy’s lack of wisdom is the rejection of a demanding father in favor of a platitudinous father-figure whose qualifications as a con artist masquerading as a psychologist stands in direct contrast to the respected retired doctor he has cast aside. In addition to these bad decisions, he dropped out of college to pursue a career in acting adopting a more Gentile name and he abandoned his wife and kids for another woman. Just when it seems things could not get worse, he learns that his big gamble in the commodities market is about to come up snake eyes.
In 1986, a film adaptation of Seize the Day was released starring Robin Williams as Tommy Wilhelm.