Saul Bellow's Seize the Day
Seize the Day (1956) is the shortest of Saul Bellow’s novels. It has been called ‘a small gray masterpiece.’ Unlike the sprawling and discursive Augie March, his earlier novel, it is compact and radiates from its very beginning extreme tension and extraordinary emotional resonance. In the words of Joseph Epstein,
While Augie is aware of the forces of the contemporary world which lay in wait to kill off the self and is, at that book’s end, pledged to do combat with them, the hero of Seize the Day has almost been brought to his knees by these same forces.
Thus, the novel is an affirmation of human life. As John Clayton rightly observes, it is
An affirmation of the possibility that the ‘salesman’ need not go to his ‘death,’ need not live a life given to him by others and follow a masochistic strategy to preserve his childish self.
The protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm, as we first meet him, is down on his luck, out a job and desperate at his own narrowing prospects. He is living in an old hotel on New York’s West Side, is in his forties and aging fast, and can look back on a life of waste and foolish decisions. He has failed as an actor, failed as a husband, failed as a father and as a son – he is a failure, in fact, at everything he has ever attempted. “Oh, God,” he prays early in the novel,
Let me out of my troubles. Let me out of my thoughts, and let me do something better with myself. For all the time I have wasted I am very sorry. Let me out of this clutch and into a different life. For I am all balled up. Have mercy.
Wilhelm is paralyzed by his remembrance of things past and by his anxieties for the future. As a result he is helpless in the here-and-now. His life is a case history of failure. He had left college to go to Hollywood, against the evidence of an unsuccessful screen test and against the wishes of his parents. After seven wasted years there, he had felt that it was too late to enter the profession, and had become the salesman of playground equipment. Within an income in the 32% tax bracket, the promise of promotion to an executive position, and a mistress, Wilhelm seemed to have arrived. But when the President of the Corporation filled with the executive position with a young relative Wilhelm is quite in his indignation. Now he is living in New York’s Hotel Gloriana, whose guests are primarily the retired and superfluous, and he is going through the motions of finding another position.
The events of the day shown in the novel make it clear that he is only temporizing. Faced with bitter demands faced with his former wife for the support of his family, he tries to borrow from his father and nervously watches his savings disappear in the commodities market.
Dr.Adler, Wilhelm’s father, is a selfish and vain old man of so who leaves a dull and circumspect life who live in the Hotel Gloriana. While he goes to his friends of Wilhelm’s success as a salesman, he refuses to become involve in his failures. When Wilhelm asks for help, his father responds only with gratuitous advice. Accustomed to deference and flattery from generations of his hotel, Dr. Adler is angry and resentful when Tommy’s pathetic pleas for help expose the father’s selfishness. Dr. Tamkin, who claims to be a psychologist, invests Wilhelm’s last small savings of 700 dollars in the commodities market. Although Wilhelm recognizes that Tamkin is a charlatan, he needs in for Tamkin is the only other human being who has any real interest in Wilhelm’s problems, even if his motive is exploitation. The grotesque nature of Wilhelm himself and of his relationship with others arises as much of his sensitiveness and perceptiveness as from failures and his instability. Beneath his bizarre actions and mannerisms there is a basic integrity which is constantly at odds with the dishonesty around him.
Wilhelm’s failures in the movies may be due to his unwillingness to yield himself completely to the make belief world of Hollywood. He refuses to enter medicine because he has a horror of suffering and of the business of profiling by it. His sympathy for his family has kept him from evading the demands of his wife. Several times during the course of the day his sensitivity betrays him. As William J. Handy observes,
It is a final irony of the novel that the one person who clings to the reality of what it means to be human is, in the eyes of his world, a misfit.
Yet we feel that it is precisely in his possession of a sense of humanity that Tommy Wilhelm does not emerge as a defeated man, a pathetic victim of forces beyond his control.
Although Wilhelm has many psychological problems, his deepest problem is philosophical: the mystery of his own relationship to himself, to others, and to the universe. The problems of social success and failure in Seize the Day are the surface reflections of a deeper concern with ultimate question.
Wilhelm’s greatest desire is for the achievement and recognition of his individuality. His decision to go Hollywood was an attempt to find and assert his individuality. So was his change of name, from Wilhelm Adler to Tommy Wilhelm. The name change was a gesture of defiance against a world which permits too little freedom.
Wilhelm’s whole life has been a series of unsuccessful choices but while these choices have been unsuccessful in a practical sense, they have permitted Wilhelm to achieve and retain some measure of identity. However, now, with his money disappearing and the demands of his wife and his creditors growing more insistent, he is faced with the impending surrender of his identity and his destiny. This trap of circumstances has its parallel in internal conflicts. Psychologically Wilhelm is trapped between past and future, between the remembrance of failure and the premonition of disaster. His response is evasion both the past and the future.
On the philosophical level, Seize the Day is perhaps most meaningful if we read it as a novel of absurd. Wilhelm is modern man, caught in the classical dilemma of the absurd: the irreconcilable conflict between the human need for unity or rational order in life and the ultimate incomprehensibility of the universe around and within him. In the phrase of Camus, Wilhelm’s life is “the constant confrontation between man and his own obscurity.”
Grotesque and shabby failure, he is, Wilhelm is nevertheless heroic sense he has not forsaken his quest for reality. In his relentless self-examination Wilhelm still retains elements of heroism; he is Camus’ philosophical rebel, although the flame of courage is flickering.