Adventures of Augie March: Essay Q&A
1. Describe the different mentors Augie has throughout the novel. What influence do they have on Augie? What does each mentor attempt to teach him?
“There is something adoptionable about me,” Augie remarks of himself. Throughout his life, people attempt to take him under their wings and recruit him to their way of thinking. Augie’s first important mentor is Grandma Lausch. The widow of a powerful businessman in Odessa (a city in the Ukraine), Grandma represents to Augie the wisdom of the East. A “Machiavelli of small street and neighborhood,” she knows how to work the system. She coaches Augie on how to lie in order to get free service at the medical dispensary, and advises bribery (“A couple of dollar bills in a napkin”) as a persuasion technique. Her advice is not to love too much: “The more you love people the more they’ll mix you up.”
The second important mentor for Augie is William Einhorn. He is the first great man Augie knows, and, like Grandma, a Machiavellian figure with his small schemes and swindles. Einhorn is a father figure who lectures Augie when he gets involved in a crime, and brings him to a brothel to lose his virginity. Crippled in his arms and legs, Einhorn does not let his disability stop him from working hard. He is an example to Augie that one should never give up.
After Einhorn, Augie comes under the influence of Mr. and Mrs. Renling. They wish to remake him into a gentleman, and introduce him to a higher sphere of society. Mrs. Renling has a democratic outlook and tells Augie that with his looks and personality, he can aspire to become “perfect” if he gets the right clothes and has an education.
Augie’s brother Simon becomes his next mentor after Augie leaves the Renlings. Simon would like to remake Augie in his image. He says of himself, “I want money, and I mean want. And I can handle it.” He works hard to achieve money, power, and status. He thinks that Augie should want the same things he does.
Thea becomes an influence over Augie, taking him to Mexico with her and recruiting him for her plan to train an eagle to hunt. She remakes Augie into a sportsman and adventurer, hoping he will enjoy hunting dangerous snakes and other animals in the wilderness of Mexico. Augie falls in love with her and admires her singleness of purpose, but ultimately he finds her too “fantastic”—too full of eccentric ideas.
Robey and Basteshaw are two of the crazier people who attempt to recruit Augie and influence him. Robey is a miserly millionaire who wants to write a philosophical tract on the origins of human happiness; Basteshaw a mad genius of a biophysicist who claims to have discovered the origins of life and wants Augie to be his research assistant. Finally, Augie comes under the influence of Mintouchian, an Armenian lawyer and international businessman. Mintouchian helps Augie come to a more realistic view of human nature. He teaches Augie that each person has his or her own dominant idea, which becomes his or her fate. His dominant idea is secrets. In the words of his wife, who is aware of his secret love affairs, Mintouchian himself is a great man, but all too human.
Each person who mentors Augie has an influence on him, but ultimately, Augie resists doing what others expect of him, and leads his life in his own way.
2. Explain how Augie’s older brother Simon serves as a foil for Augie.
Throughout the novel, Simon serves as a foil for Augie, illustrating an alternate fate. From the beginning, the two boys are quite different. Augie is loving and tenderhearted, and, like his mother, easily led along. Simon is harder, more self-assured, and less prone to direction. Augie will go along with Grandma’s scheming in order to get free glasses for his mother; Simon is “too disdainful to lie.”
When the two boys begin working, Simon has a savvy that Augie lacks. For instance, in their job at the newspaper stand, Simon is able to figure out, unlike Augie, that sometimes shortchanging customers is necessary to get the till to balance. Augie wonders at Simon’s ability to pick up social skills—he knows the etiquette of the upper-class set. His glittering charm dazzles the Magnuses, while Augie sits by quietly, not making much of an impression.
Simon, too, has a sense of direction that Augie does not. Augie doesn’t know what he wants from life; he’s “circling.” Simon, however, knows where he is going, and has the savvy to get there. He is all the time “making toward the mark he secretly aimed at.” Augie confesses: “I didn’t know at the time which mark or exactly understand why there needed to be a mark; it was over my head.” Simon is a more Machiavellian figure than Augie. He makes decisions based on practicality rather than sentiment and scruples, as when he decides to send Grandma Lausch to a home, while the softhearted Augie can’t stand the idea. Simon acts aggressively when he sees fit, as at the coal yard when a drunken dealer causes a scene; Augie does not have those instincts. For the most part, he tries to get along with people, not dominate or outwit them. He is motivated primarily by a need to love and be loved.
Simon’s chosen fate is to marry rich and work hard to become rich himself. He tells Augie: “I have to make money. I’m not one of those guys that give up what they want as soon as they realize they want it. I want money, and I mean want; and I can handle it.” He means what he says, and with his and Charlotte’s business sense, Simon makes a fortune for himself. Augie, however, twice turns down opportunities for riches. Riches and power make Simon ever more controlling and irascible. Anna Coblin notes, “Money makes you meshuggah [crazy].”At the end of the tale, Simon—although fabulously wealthy—seems unhappy with his fate, while Augie is more hopeful.
3. Bellow uses allusions to mythical and historical figures throughout the novel. Explain the effect of these allusions. What was Bellow saying about the capacity for nobility in ordinary life?
Many allusions to mythological, classical, and other historical figures may be found throughout the novel. For instance, Grandma is likened to a Caesar, a Pharaoh, and an Eastern lama; Mama to one of the victims of a lustful Zeus; Einhorn and Augie are compared to Socrates and his pupil Alcibiades; Thea is compared to Danaë and Helen of Troy. Bellow’s intention in including these mythological and historical references was to show the capacity for nobility in the ordinary person and in the ordinary life. Augie is well aware of this potential, and longs for greatness of some kind in his own life. In invoking one of the most important figures of the French Revoluion as well as one of the great military geniuses of all time, he asks, “What did Danton lose his head for, or why was there a Napoleon, if it wasn’t to make a nobility of us all?” He asks this when discussing Grandma Lausch’s secret hope that Simon and Augie grow to be great men. At college, Augie meets a mathematical genius from the slums of Mexico; in America, one’s origins do not determine one’s fate.
Clem teases Augie that he has a “nobility syndrome” and uses multiple historical allusions to do so: “I know what you want. O paidea! O King David! O Plutarch and Seneca! O chivalry, O Abbot Suger! O Strozzi Palace, O Weimar!...” Augie ultimately realizes, however, that he cannot become, like Frazer, a geniunely great man. It may not be his destiny to “breathe the pointy, star-furnished air at its highest difficulty.” But, he reasons, the world is for all of us. Paris, the “City of Man,” is the city for all men, not only the greatest of them. And the great things in the world are free for everyone: “The Ganges is there with its demons and lords; but you have a right also, and merely, to wash your feet and do your personal laundry in it.”
4. Kayo Obermark notes that everyone “has bitterness in his chosen thing.” Explain what he means by this, giving examples from the novel.
Kayo makes this remark while discussing Mimi’s desire for an abortion. At first, he comments that she has hard luck, but then corrects himself. It’s not bad luck, he notes, but her own choices that have led Mimi to suffer. “Everyone has bitterness in his chosen thing,” he says. “That’s what Christ was for, that even God had to have bitterness in his chosen thing if he was really going to be man’s God, a god who was human.”
The point is that no matter how happy people may be, at first, with their choices, they will eventually grow to regret them. As Augie puts it, people simply cannot stay with their pureness of feeling. They cannot handle the intensity of “too many happy days in a row.” He concludes: “It might be in the end that the chosen thing itself is bitterness, because to arrive at the chosen thing needs courage, because it’s intense, and intensity is what the feeble humanity of us can’t take for long.” This sad truth about human nature explains why Augie and Thea’s love could not last. Utopias always end in bitter disappointment.
For instance, Simon expressed a single-minded desire to become rich. Now he is tremendously rich and, by worldly standards, a great success. However, he is hated, and hates, the society of men at his exclusive social club, and the lack of romantic love in his marriage has driven him to find a young mistress who uses him for his money. By the end of the novel, Simon shows bitterness in his chosen life.
The novel, however, ends on a positive note of laughter and optimism. Despite all the bitterness and let-downs one may experience, Augie points out, there is inside all of us an indomitable spirit, a “laughing creature, forever rising up.” Like Jacqueline, he “will still refuse to lead a disappointed life.”
5. What does it mean that “a man’s character is his fate”? Describe how this quotation from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus applies to Augie’s life. What is Augie’s character? What is his fate?
In Greek mythology, the Fates are personified as three women who weave, measure, and finally cut the threads of a person’s life. However, in the conception of Heraclitus, Fate is not something mysterious and unpredictable, dictated from afar by heavenly forces, but instead lies within each person, embedded in his or her character.
In the opening paragraph of the novel, Augie expresses this idea through the metaphor of knocks on the doors of opportunity. The different doors of fate may seem to have opened for him as if by random, but then, the knocks were certainly his own.
So, then, what is Augie’s character? Augie is an antihero, with many flaws. At times he is overly sentimental and softhearted. He is flighty; or, as Grandma puts it, “too easy to tickle. Promise you a joke, a laugh, a piece of candy, or a lick of ice-cream, and you’ll leave everything and run. In short, you’re a fool.” Augie is vain and susceptible to flattery, subject to the manipulations of others who would recruit him for their schemes. Among many other things, Augie is recruited to steal books, smuggle immigrants, organize unions, help manage a coal yard, guard Leon Trotsky in Mexico, and train an eagle. He seems to go along with anything. However, there is a stubborn aspect of Augie that others tend to overlook. As Einhorn notes: “You’ve got opposition in you. You don’t slide through everything. You just make it seem so.”
Augie’s opposition keeps him from ever being completely won over by any one point of view or way of life. Instead, he is a vagabond, a pícaro, an explorer, drifting from situation to situation, learning from different mentors and having a variety of love affairs, while refusing to specialize in any one area. His constant trying on of different jobs and identities recalls Walt Whitman’s famous lines from Song of Myself: “Do I contradict myself? … I am large; I contain multitudes.”
Augie hopes for greatness, and others around him seem to expect if of him, too, but he finds himself unable to live up to his high standards. As he laments to Mintouchian, “what if what I am by nature isn’t good enough? I suppose I better, anyway, give in and be it. I will never force the hand of fate to create a better Augie March, nor change the time to an age of gold.”
Reflecting on his vagabond life at the end of his tale, Augie decides that fate has made him a “Columbus of those near-at-hand,” whose purpose in life is to discover the terra incognita spreading all around him. “I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor,” he muses. “Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.”