Saul Bellow Journal

The Victim

The Victim (1947) has received scant critical attention compared with other works, but explores in an intense manner the ability of twentieth-century man to cope with victimization. Behind its nightmare cityscape, some critics of Holocaust literature have read Bellow's psychological treatment of the Holocaust, the Nuremburg tribunals, and the whole phenomenon of anti-semitism. Many others have detected the influence of Bellow's fascination with European literature, and with Dostoevski in particular. In such readings, Asa Leventhal becomes the eternal Jew who must deal with a world not of his making. However, Bellow again poses the question he asked in Dangling Man: To what extent am I my brother's keeper? Asa Leventhal, a Jew who has been scarred in childhood by his mother's madness and screaming fits, failed to form a relationship with his father, and finally lost both parents, enters the post WW II American workplace carrying his personal fears and a keen sense of the prevailing antisemitism with him. During one long hot summer during which his wife is temporarily absent, Asa wrestles with fears about his job security, and the predations into his private life of his seedy, gentile nemesis, Kirby Allbee. Furthermore, he must deal with his resentment concerning absence of his brother, Max, the pleas for help of his sister-in-law, and the death of his tiny nephew, not to mention his own predjudices about the Roman Catholic immigrant family his brother has married into, and his fear that the mad-looking mother-in-law blames him for the child's death. We last see Asa somewhat reconciled to his brother, over his horror of what Allbee represents, and awaiting the birth of his first child. But like Joseph, he has had to learn to conquer the anxieties that paranoia, anger, and self-isolation produce in him and admit his dependency on love and friendship, as well as his moral and social responsibility to others . . .

Both of these early novels represent a certain culmination in American literature of over forty years of modernist ideological debate about the philosophical premises of European existentialism versus traditional Judeo-Christian humanism, and the "wasteland" mentality of the Anglo-American cultural tradition. Both reflect Bellow's profound engagement with such writers as Kierkegaard, Dostoevski, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Hobbes, and Sartre. Both portray the failure of the romantic quest and affirm the necessity for social responsibility. They also repesent the moral exhaustion of a generation of young men who came of age in the 1940s, and the bankruptcy of a metaphysically -derived humanism. As such, they are preoccupied with freedom, goodness, absurdity, death, monastic solitude, and existential anxiety. They portray a malignant, stagnant, and diseased world. Significantly, Asa Leventhal's wife is absent for most of the duration of the narrative, and the world he inhabits for that period, is almost completely devoid of any feminine influence. The one woman who does feature in the background of the text, his brother's wife, Asa believes to be superstitious, ignorant, and possibly mad. Joseph is alienated from his long-suffering wife for most of Dangling Man. The latent paranoia of both texts contributes to their nightmarish atmosphere. In just two novels, Bellow proved to the world that he too could write the modernist alienation formula novel; but, in the very act of mastering it he was already breaking the mold. Looking back at these erarly works many years later, Bellow called Dangling Man his M.A. and The Victim his Ph.D.

back