Tommy Wilhelm, the protagonist of Seize the Day, is a character in turmoil. He is burdened by the loss of his job, financial instability, the separation of his wife, and his relationship with his father, among other things. He is a man in search of self who the reader is allowed to watch and follow through the course of a single, significant day in his life, a day that is called his "day of reckoning."
Tommy is a complicated and layered character who wears masks and has to peal away his social armor and mask in order to understand himself, at the end of the book. The book begins, "when it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow. So at least he thought " Concealment is an issue at hand. Significantly, Tommy had been an actor, albeit a failed one, as well as a salesman. He had learned to wear masks, play roles, and "sell" himself. However, on the day that the narrative takes place, Tommy must rid himself of all of this and find out who he really is.
Tommy, it is evident, plays many roles. He plays the role of Adler's son, a role that is difficult for him to escape. He cares too much how his father sees him. And, he often becomes the "failure" that he believes his father sees in him. He has been an actor, a hospital orderly, a ditch-digger, a seller of toys, a seller of self, and a public relations man for a hotel in Cuba. He has, therefore, been many characters and never his true self. Beneath his masks, as the reader is privileged to discover through interior monologues, he is truly an introvert trapped in the body of a man who has been forced to be extroverted, he is also sensitive and almost, at times feminine. This femininity is poked at and criticized, however, by his father when he accuses him of having had a relationship with a man from his office.
The novel portrays Tommy as a man who is drowning. The imagery that surrounds him is the imagery of water and he is constantly "descending" and "sinking" into hellish depths. However, the author must bring into question the character of Tommy because although he constantly blames others, such as his father, his wife, or Dr. Tamkin, for his strife and place in life. He must learn to take credit for his own mistakes. He is character in flux, a character that wavers between victimization and a temptation to martyrdom and a self-acceptance, and he wavers too between childishness and maturity. Nevertheless, it is this very fluctuation that will help him on his way to seeking truth because, as Dr. Tamkin says, the path to victory is not a straight line.
The most difficult challenge in coming to an understanding of Dr. Adler, Tommy's father is that one must realize, first, that we view Dr. Adler through Tommy's eyes. It is difficult to trust a character's view that is constantly in flux. For instance, his son often vilifies Adler, however, we must bring the villainy into question to truly comprehend the character of Adler.
It is quite possible to see Adler as the critic Daniel Fuchs sees him, for instance. Fuchs claims that Adler is the villain of the novel. He is a man whose thoughts and actions are reduced to money and to "law and order," even to "hoarding." He refuses to help his son time and again and he seems cruel and unsympathetic. However, this may be, again, only because the reader is viewing him through Tommy's perspective. For example when Adler tells his son: "you make too much of your problems they ought not to be turned into a career," Tommy reads the following: "Wilky, don't start this crime. I have a right to be spared." Furthermore, it is Tommy who often vilifies what his father tells him and, at times, seems even to misunderstand.
It maybe simply that perhaps Adler does not want to have his son remain a "child" forever. Even Tommy claims that he is often times a "kid," when dealing with his father. Perhaps Adler simply thinks that it is time for him to solve his own problems. Adler had provided, as is evidenced in the novel, assistance in the past, while Margaret, Tommy's wife, was in college. It may be that the villainy of Adler is simply caused by a clash of character between him and his son. Adler believes in the protestant work ethic, whereas his son grew up and lives in a different America than that which was once so familiar to Adler. It is a post-war, post-depression, cold war, technological world. Adler believes in power and "success" and in rationalism. He is the "self-made man." In fact, Bellow has given Adler the name of a psychiatrist whose teachings were based on ideas of "power." Tommy, on the other hand, is, deep down, is a naturalist and an idealist.
This is not to say that Adler is not, at times, cruel, it is simply to say that his villainy and seeming tyrannical behavior is to be brought into question considering point of view.
We must question our picture of Dr. Tamkin, like many of the characters of the novel. He claims to be many things, but what is true is difficult to surmise. He claims that he is a psychiatrist, a healer, a poet, a stock market specialist, that he has tended to the Egyptian royal family and that he is, among other things, a master inventor. He is also an advocator of Reichian philosophy: he believes in juxtaposition. However, there are many truths within his lies. Perhaps also, one might come to understand his "lies" as simply stories or parables. For a man who believes in the power of juxtaposition and the force of opposites working together, a man who believes in flux and in alternative ways of looking at the world, it makes perfect sense for the reader to find truth within his lies. The paradox, itself, is a work of juxtaposition.
In many ways then, one might say that Dr. Tamkin is much like Bellow himself. That is to say that he is an "inventor," a teller of tales and truths, and, therefore, an authorial figure. Significantly, he also takes on the role of a surrogate father for Wilhelm, giving him advice and leading him to an eventual recognition of self.
Dr. Tamkin, whether a liar or not, is an attractive figure. This is not to say that he, along with the psychology and Romanticism he preaches, is not often the subject of Bellow's parodying force. However, it is important to disregard Tamkin, for he always practices what he preaches even if his methods are seemingly "unsound."