Seize the Day
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Predicament of Modern Man
Seize the day is a reflection of the times in which it was written. The novel was written in a post-war world. WWII created several factors that serve as a backdrop to Wilhelm's isolation in the novel, an isolation that represents the feeling of many during the time period.
First and foremost, war creates dissolution and in many cases dislocation because of forced immigration. During the war many people, Jews especially, were escaping the Germans and, thus, fleeing, when they could. Also, American troop and other members of the alliance were disillusioned to see that such horrors could exist. Finally, and in opposition to the above, the war had a positive effect of creating an economic boom. There was also a surge in technological interest in America. The reasons for this serge are two-fold: America was rich and America was involved in a post-WWII cold war with the Soviet Union, since the countries competed technologically. It is in this world that a man like Tommy Wilhelm is lost.
Tommy is an idealist surrounded by the pressures of the outside world. He is isolated and, thus, is forced to turn inward. The urban landscape is the symbol that furthers his isolation, for he is always "alone in a crowd." Bellow wants the reader to understand this isolation and thus has almost the entire novel take place within Wilhelm's head. We experience the back and forth of uncertainty, the wavering of watery thoughts, the sadness and frustration of being that person that is "alone in the crowd."
This isolation and inner struggle is the predicament of modernity. Bellow would not be the only modern master to touch up the subject. For instance, T.S. Eliot had written The Wasteland in which he discusses many of the same subjects as Bellow, albeit in a very different fashion and style. Eliot discusses the "unreal city" which can be compared to the city that Wilhelm feels so uncomfortable within. Eliot also claims that there are many "dead" within the crowds. This symbolic death points to the fact that the modern man seems only to be going through the motions of things. Wilhelm, for instance, at the beginning of the novel, is like a character seemingly dead, both in appearance and in the way he claims he will simply go about the actions of his day. Other similarities between The Wasteland and Seize the Day include the images of "drowning" and "water." Both writers used these images to illustrate a person drowning in life.
Seize the Day is not a regular day in the life of the modern man because it is a "day of reckoning," a day in which someone that is truly dead will give the protagonist a jolt of life. Unlike many modern masterpieces, Bellow has chosen a positive ending for his novel. He has also allowed his protagonist connections with the modern world. In Times Square, for example, Wilhelm had felt connected to the "larger body" of humanity. Furthermore, Bellow complicates the predicament of modernity by adding a very human and positive element. Bellow seems to be saying that the predicament of modern man goes far beyond the typical pessimism, cynicism, and isolation because it has the potential of reaching understanding and love.
The Internal Life of a Human Being
The critic Julius R. Raper, in an essay entitled "Running Contrary Ways," wrote that Saul Bellow's writing marked the end of a tradition of "close-mouthed straight-forwardness," a substituted it with "a confessional literature that feels no shame in being introspective and self indulgent." Bellow is not afraid to have his character talk about feeling and emotions. The way in which he achieves this shift from the sparse Hemingway style that had prevailed to his own is that he takes the reader "inside" the head and emotions of the characters. This shift in style was often called a shift from the "Gentile" literature that dominated to a more hyphenated American style. However, it is important to remember that although Bellow does address the subject of the Jewish-American, he had considered himself "American" writer, not a "Jewish" writer or a "Jewish-American" writer, perhaps because the immigrant experience is so much a part of America itself.
Moreover, the fact that Bellows moves the action inward helps achieve a stylistic feat. However, style is not its only achievement. This internal world becomes complicated and points to the complicated state of the human being. The device helps to outline the role of psychology in the novel, for instance and also helps to pose characters in concordance or dissonance with each other. For example, Wilhelm does not understand the inner life of his father and his thoughts, but he is attracted to the way in which the eccentric Dr. Tamkin thinks.
In short, the internal life of the protagonist allows Bellow to illustrate a world of wavering emotion that would not have been possible otherwise. Being inside the protagonist places the reader in the same position. It gives the reader an understanding of the problems Wilhelm faces, what makes him angry, what makes him frustrated, sad, and lonely. Therefore, throughout the book, the reader has accompanied Wilhelm in his frustrations and in his burdened feelings. In the end, we are also released and reborn in much the same way as Tommy. The reason is both because of literary catharsis and also because the reader has been following Tommy and has no other choice but to join him.
Throughout the entire novel, the idea of psychology is present as both an illuminating force and one that is to be mocked. Bellow presents this motif through both the characters' names, because they are all the names of famous psychologists, and through the character of Dr. Tamkin, the self-professed psychologist. Furthermore, one of the biggest struggles in the novel is a Freudian one: the Oedipal hatred Tommy holds for his father. However, the character that personifies Bellow's commentary on psychology is Dr. Tamkin.
Dr. Tamkin is both a character that, like the motif of psychology itself, serves as the perfect subject of parody and capable of illumination and truth. He talks about the conflict between the true soul and the pretender soul that is burdened by the forces and demands of the outside world. Bellow does seriously address the issues of the internal world of the human being. However, because Bellow makes fun of Tamkin constantly, it is important to remember that the field of psychology is a part of that problematic "external" world.
Naturalism (the animal)
Almost every chapter in the novel has an animalistic reference. Tommy calls both himself and his father an ass, a bear, and other names. Tommy was also once called "Velvel," by his grandfather (Velvel means wolf). This motif serves many purposes. It may serve to illustrate man's animalist natural tendencies and the internal instincts of a person. It may serve also to show the struggle between naturalism and the mechanical world, a topic that is satirized in Tamkin's poem. And, it may be taken one reference at a time. For example, the fact that Tommy had been called "wolf" can point to his loneliness and his need to "howl."
The City (The Urban Landscape)
The city serves to create the background of crowds and technology in Tommy's world. It serves to illustrate his disjunction with the outside/external world, the world that surrounds him. The city is mentioned at many points throughout the novel: Tommy is constantly claiming his hatred toward it. He would much rather live in the country, as he is unaccustomed to it. However, there are moments when he finds himself at one with the crowds of the city. Thus, this urban landscape can both serve as the dark backdrop of Tommy's life, the very symbol of what he is trying to escape, or it can be a force that allows him to feel solidarity with his fellow man.
Water is one of the most important symbols in the book. It is present in every chapter and serves different purposes at different points in the novel. Water because it can be both an unstable element as well as a dangerous one, is used by Bellow to show that his protagonist is seemingly drowning. Water is also unstable and, thus, all of the water imagery points to the fact that nothing is certain and that Wilhelm lives in this world of uncertainty. The "water" is present from the beginning when Tommy seems to be descending into an underwater world that suffocates him. However, in the end, the water turns into a beautiful symbol of rebirth. The tears Tommy cries are tears that, ironically, bring him out of his drowning state.
Clothes are pointed to throughout the novel in the descriptions of characters. It appears as a symbol from the beginning when Tommy is discussing clothing with Rubin, the newspaperman at the hotel, they talk about the clothes they are wearing. This is important because it points to the significance of appearances in the novel. Tommy is constantly putting on "layers," trying out roles and is constantly trying to conceal his true self.
Olive is the woman that Tommy loves. She is the woman he wants to marry but cannot because his wife will not grant him a divorce. His thoughts are constantly drifting toward he and his need for her is shown to the reader by the end of the novel. She signifies love, therefore. The importance of her name is what makes her a "symbol." The name Olive can refer to the symbolic Olive tree that signifies peace. Moreover, this would mean that it is "love," in the end is what brings "peace."
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