The novel is narrated by the main character, Augie March, who tells the tale of his life. “I am an American, Chicago born,” he announces in the famous first line of the book, “and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way.” In Chapter 1, Augie tells about his childhood world and the characters who populate it. He lives with his mother, a seamstress; his two brothers, Simon and Georgie; “Grandma” Lausch, an elderly Russian widow who boards with the family and has become the boys’ surrogate grandmother; and Grandma’s overfed dog, Winnie. Augie’s father, who drove a laundry truck, abandoned the family long ago, and Augie doesn’t remember him. His mother is “simple-minded” and takes the direction of the masterful and shrewd Grandma Lausch, who arranges the Charities and discounts for the family, reads lessons to the boys, and helps them get jobs. Simon, Augie’s older brother, is blond, handsome, and self-assured. His younger brother Georgie is mentally handicapped.
Grandma Lausch is Augie’s first mentor. A “Machiavelli of small street and neighborhood,” she coaches him on how to lie so that his mother can get free glasses from the dispensary. Her advice on life, though somewhat hypocritical given her tendency toward scheming, is wise and profound: “Nobody asks you to love the whole world, only to be honest, ehrlich. Don’t have a loud mouth. The more you love people the more they’ll mix you up. A child loves, a person respects. Respect is better than love.”
Augie also describes others in their urban Chicago neighborhood. The Kreindls, a Hungarian family, live in the basement apartment of the Marches’ house. Mr. Kreindl plays cards with Grandma Lausch and has his son Kotzie, who works in the drugstore, write free prescriptions for her. Mr. Anticol, a junk dealer who lost his faith after witnessing a massacre of Jews in his hometown in Europe, espouses his atheist views to Grandma. The Marches are one of a few Jewish families in a mostly Polish Catholic neighborhood, and the boys are sometimes singled out for harassment or beatings.
After the boys turn twelve, Grandma Lausch finds summer jobs for them. Augie’s first job is handing out flyers for Sylvester’s Star Theater. The next summer, Simon is sent to work at a resort hotel and Augie moves in with the Coblins, relatives of his mother, to help with their newspaper route. Anna Coblin, a large, emotional, redheaded woman, embraces Augie and wants him to marry her daughter Freidl. Anna’s husband, Hyman Coblin, is generous with Augie. Augie also meets Five Properties, Anna’s immense and long-armed brother, who drives a dairy truck and loves to brag that he owns five properties, hoping that his wealth will win him an American wife.
Grandma is a strict overlord, making sure the boys brush their teeth, wash their hair, bring home their report cards, and dress properly. Simon does well and is valedictorian; Augie skips a grade in school. Augie, however, lacks his brother’s focus, and his marks in school are poorer. Grandma scolds: “It isn’t that you don’t have a brain, you’re just as smart as anybody else…. Only you’re 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.”
Simon, too, becomes more rebellious after working in the fancy resort for the summer. He gambles and spends some of the tips he is supposed to bring home to the family. Soon, the boys have secrets from their mother and Grandma.
Distributing flyers and newspapers are just two of the jobs Grandma Lausch finds for Augie, who explains that the phrase “various jobs” is the key to his entire life. Augie and Simon work in a Woolworth’s drugstore, unpacking goods. Then Simon gets a job at a newsstand in a bustling downtown train station. There he sees rich men and celebrities, bringing news of them back to their humble home. Augie begins working at the newsstand as well, but is fired for being shortchanged by his customers. Simon scolds, “You couldn’t get that money out of someone else’s change, could you? …you dumbhead!” Unlike his savvy older brother, Augie never thought of cheating others to save himself.
Augie then finds odd jobs with his friend Jimmy Klein, selling trinkets for Jimmy’s uncle Tambow. Grandma looks down on the Kleins, but Augie enjoys spending time with them. Jimmy’s older sister Eleanor is especially kind to Augie and calls him “lover” and “heartbreaker.”
Grandma Lausch is trying to make something of Augie; she wants him to be a mensch—Yiddish for “an upright man; a decent human being.” However, he doesn’t follow her direction well. Augie and Jimmy steal money while working for a Christmas display at the neighborhood department store. They are caught and shamed. Augie takes his punishment meekly. He does not have the true sense of being a criminal.
Augie is becoming a man and has his first crush, on a girl named Hilda Novinson. He follows her around, lovesick, but never says a word to her. He gets a job delivering flowers for a man called Bluegren, a friend of gangsters. Many gangsters die that winter.
Georgie, too, is getting older, and Grandma Lausch decides that he must be sent away to live in an institution. Nobody is around to watch him all the time, and he could get into trouble. Augie and Mama protest, but Simon agrees with Grandma. It is decided, and Georgie is brought to the institution. Without Georgie there to care for, the family seems to fall apart. Grandma is disappointed in Simon and Augie, whom she may have hoped would grow to be famous men for all her effort. Instead, they are growing deeper-voiced, hairy, and rude. The house seems smaller and darker, poorer and smelly. At the end of the chapter, Grandma’s dog Winnie dies.
Analysis of Chapters 1–4
Augie’s declaration of himself as “an American, Chicago born,” indicates that the story of his life is to be a quintessentially American one, befitting of a book often described as “the Great American Novel.” Augie stands for the American Everyman, someone who comes up from humble beginnings to reinvent himself, to shape his own extraordinary destiny. He notes that he lives his life “free-style” and will make his record in his own way. The narrative indeed seems to be written in a free style, jazz-like at times, rambling along its way with colorful descriptions of the wide variety of characters who appear and disappear from Augie’s world.
Bellow strings together adjectives, throwing them into surprising compounds and combinations, riffing on like a jazz musician as he paints his portraits of people and places. Mr. Anticol is “ruddy…gloomy…gravel-voiced and gruff…a studious, shaggy, meaty old man.” The dispensary where Augie goes to get his mother’s glasses is “like the dream of a multitude of dentists’ chairs, hundreds of them in a space as enormous as an armory, and green bowls with designs of glass grapes, drills lifted zigzag as insects’ legs.” Bellow’s use of imagery to describe the setting and characters of his novel creates a rich portrait of life in Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s.
Incidentally, some aspects of the Jewish immigrant experience are brought into view in these chapters, but Augie’s Jewish identity is not of central importance to the novel. Bellow disliked being referred to as a “Jewish author,” preferring to be called an American author.
Throughout his life, Augie is mentored by others. Grandma Lausch is the first of these important mentors. To him, she is like an Eastern lama. Her advice to him, that he shouldn’t “love the whole world,” is quite apt. One of Augie’s problems is that he is too loving and tenderhearted, like his mother. His character contrasts sharply with that of his brother, Simon, who is harder 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.” He serves as a foil for Augie.
The Adventures of Augie March may be described as a picaresque novel. Pícaro means “rogue” or “rascal” in Spanish, and the picaresque novel, which originates in Spanish literature, depicts the episodic misadventures of a roguish antihero trying to make it in a tough world. The style of a picaresque novel is realistic, but with a satirical humor, and is peppered with references to sex and petty crime. Augie’s rascally pícaro nature is developed in these opening chapters. He is not a bad character, but easily led along on all kinds of schemes. Augie’s moral instruction at the hands of flawed characters like Grandma Lausch and Anna Coblin add to the humor of the story.
Satire being a key element of the picaresque novel, the depictions of many of the characters are satirical. For instance, Anna Coblin is comically melodramatic, and Five Properties a ridiculous boor. Augie also pokes fun at himself for his innocence and foolishness.
Another word which describes this novel is Bildungsroman; that is, a novel that depicts the moral and psychological growth of the hero from childhood into adulthood. Augie resembles a hero from Dickensian novels, such as Pip in Great Expectations, in that he comes from a humble background, jostled by hard knocks, to mingle with high society, as will be seen in later chapters. “Various jobs,” Augie tells us in Chapter 3, is the key, or “Rosetta stone” to his life. Americans define themselves by their work, and Augie is a sort of vagabond, trying on different identities as he goes along. So far, Augie has been a handbill-distributor, a paperboy, a Woolworth’s stocker, a newsstand clerk, and a trinket-seller. He will hold many more jobs throughout the novel. Augie’s sentimental education continues in Chapter 4 as he is caught stealing and experiences puppy love, rites of passage in the life of many young adults.
Georgie’s committal to the institution is the defining moment that marks Augie’s passage from childhood to adulthood. With the departure of Georgie from the family, the house seems darker, smaller, and more run-down. Augie’s childhood has come to an end.