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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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 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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Seize the Day!