Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.


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.