Adventures of Augie March: Chapters 16-19
Augie and Thea settle in Acatla, Mexico, in a house owned by the Fenchels. The name of the house is “Casa Descuitada,” or “Carefree House.” Augie gets to know the expatriate community in Acatla, a group of eccentrics who gather at a bar called Hilario’s.
Although Augie still finds the entire business a bit “goofy,” he admires Thea’s single-mindedness about training the eagle to hunt. At first they give him small lizards to kill, then take him to the mountains to kill larger ones in the wild. But Caligula does not have a killer instinct, it seems. The first time a lizard fights back, he leaps away in hurt astonishment. Thea is enraged.
Augie and Thea rent an old warhorse named Bizcocho to use on their eagle-hunting excursions. Augie rides Bizcocho with Caligula on his arm, and the houseboy, Jacinto, flushes the lizards out from the rocks. When the lizards are in the open, Augie takes off the eagle’s hood and lets him loose. But again, Caligula proves cowardly when the iguanas fight back. “We wasted our time with him, Augie…. He’s no good. He’s chicken!” cries Thea, devastated. Augie reflects to himself, “It was hard to take this from wild nature, that there should be humanity mixed with it.”
While Thea mopes and neglects her failed pupil, Caligula, Augie amuses himself by reading classics left behind in the house, among them More’s Utopia and Machiavelli’s Discourses and The Prince. At Hilario’s, he chats with two expat writers, Iggy Blaikie and Wiley Moulton, and meets a beautiful aspiring actress called Stella, who is there with her magazine-editor boyfriend, Oliver.
They decide to give Caligula one more try at the hunt, but Bizcocho falls down a steep slope and is injured.
They have to shoot Bizcocho. Augie is hurt, too, and takes some time to recover. Meanwhile, they ship the eagle away to a zoo. Thea finds a new passion: catching poisonous snakes. Augie cannot share her enthusiasm for this pursuit, and begins gambling each night. He is lucky at poker, and for the first time, he has money of his own. The two drift apart. When Thea’s divorce comes through, Augie asks her to marry him, but she says no.
One day several large cars drive into town, bearing a heavily guarded Leon Trotsky in exile from Russia. To Augie’s astonishment, one of the guards is his old friend Sylvester, the former owner of Sylvester’s Star Theater. Sylvester informs him that Frazer has become one of Trotsky’s secretaries.
Thea proposes going to Chilpanzingo, a town farther south, and things get a little better between them. Then, Oliver holds a big housewarming party. During the party, Stella approaches Augie and asks him to help her. Oliver is in trouble with the U.S. government and they are about to arrest him. He plans to go on the run with Stella this very night, but she doesn’t want to go. Stella has come to Augie because she feels they both are in the same situation, he with Thea and she with Oliver: “you and I are the kind of people other people are always trying to fit into their schemes. Suppose we didn’t play along, then what?”
Stricken by the truth in Stella’s assessment of him, Augie agrees to take her to Cuernavaca, a few hours away, so she can escape Oliver and the police. He does so in defiance of Thea, who tries to stop him, but then gives up: “By a little flattery anyone can get what he wants from you, Augie…. Where does that put me? I came after you. I flattered you. But I can’t outflatter everyone in the world.”
Augie gets lost on the way to Cuernavaca, and the car’s battery dies. Stuck in the middle of nowhere for the night, Augie and Stella fall into each other’s arms and make love. Augie gets her to Cuernavaca the next morning and finds a car for her. She promises to wire him money later to pay him back.
Back in Acatla, Thea tells Augie that his rescue mission has been totally unnecessary, as Oliver was arrested soon after they fled the party. He lies that nothing happened with Stella, but she realizes the truth. They argue, and Augie snaps that he is fed up with being told what to do, and that her ideas about the eagle and the snakes are fantastic. “You’re not special,” she says bitterly, “You’re like everybody else. You get tired easily. I don’t want to see you anymore.”
Thea goes to Chilpanzingo without Augie. After a few days of reflecting on things, Augie decides that he must go after her, but then he learns that her ex-lover Talavera has gone to Chilpanzingo as well. He rushes to Chilpanzingo and finds her alone. He pleads to be taken back, but Thea is done with him.
Analysis of Chapters 16–19
The theme of these chapters is succinctly stated in the epigraph to Chapter 16, a quotation from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: “And strange it is / That nature must compel us to lament / Our most persisted deeds.” The powerful, animalistic love that brought Augie to Mexico could not last, and, in the words of Kayo Obermark, he came to feel “bitterness in his chosen thing.”
Augie comes to question much about himself through his relationship with Thea. In comparison with her, he feels himself cowardly and false. Whereas before he’d always thought that he was a goodhearted, affectionate, “sincere follower of love,” he now wonders whether Thea is right, that he is vain, unreliable, and lacking conscience; easily manipulated by people like Stella: “It didn’t take her very long to see what you were like, that you’d be afraid to fall beneath her expectations, not be the man she wanted you to be, that you’d play her game. You play everyone’s.”
Augie decides that his biggest fault is in not being able to stay with his purest feelings. After reading about the ideal worlds described by Karl Marx and Thomas More, he wonders: “What was the matter that pureness of feeling couldn’t be kept up? I see I met those writers in the big book of utopias at a particular time. In those utopias, set up by hopes and art, how could you overlook the part of nature or be sure you could keep the feelings up?” Feeble humans, it seems to Augie, simply can’t 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.”