Saul Bellow

The Adventures of Augie March

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The Adventures of Augie March Summary

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In Saul Bellow’s 1953 novel, The Adventures of Augie March, the eponymous hero chronicles his eventful life from an impoverished childhood in Chicago to his waning wanderlust in Paris. Although the book is a chronological series of episodes lacking any overarching plot, it does cohere around a central theme: determining one’s own fate. In the course of the novel, Augie encounters various colorful characters that try to dominate him. He always resists and flees, however, remarking, “That’s the struggle of humanity, to recruit others to your version of what’s real.” Augie’s “adventures” amount to taking on many jobs and lovers, but always taking off again in search of his own “real.”

During the early twentieth century, young Augie March lives in Chicago with his Jewish family in a poor, Polish Catholic neighborhood. Augie’s father abandoned his wife and three sons, so Augie’s mother supports the family as a seamstress. Simon is Augie’s older, smarter, more handsome brother. Augie’s younger brother, Georgie, is mentally handicapped. Augie’s mother defers in all matters to the opinions of Grandma Lausch, who is not their grandmother, but an elderly Russian who boards with the March Family.

Grandma Lausch, a shrewd “Machiavelli of small street and neighborhood,” mentors Augie in the art of lying in order to fleece businesses and generally serve his own interests. However, she also expects the boys to dress properly and perform well at school. When Augie turns twelve, Grandma begins finding summertime employment for him and Simon, including jobs at newsstands, Woolworths, and fancy hotels. To Grandma’s dismay, Augie and his friend Jimmy Klein experiment with petty crime and get caught.

The March family disperses as the boys grow older. Despite Augie and his mother’s objections, Grandma sends Georgie to an institution. Now in high school, Augie is an unimpressive student. He takes a job assisting a wealthy but disabled real estate tycoon William Einhorn. Although physically limited, Einhorn has vitality enough to run numerous shady business operations and pursue extra-marital affairs. Augie admires Einhorn’s energy and is intrigued by his brother, Dingbat, who manages heavyweight boxers. Then the stock-market crashes, and Einhorn’s fortune vanishes almost overnight.

Meanwhile, Simon moves Grandma to a nursing home because she is developing dementia, and the Depression erodes the March’s already meager savings. While Simon enrolls in college, Augie dabbles once again in criminal activity. Committing robbery makes him feel guilty, however, and during a conversation with Einhorn, Augie realizes his outlaw antics stem from his oppositional nature, not criminal amorality.

Augie moves to Evanston, an affluent Chicago suburb, to work at a sporting goods shop owned by Mr. Renling. Mrs. Renling, of European aristocratic descent, takes on Augie as her protégé. She outfits him with a stylish wardrobe, persuades him to take riding lessons, and overall grooms him for high society. While on a short holiday with Mrs. Renling, Augie meets the heiress Thea Fenchel, who quickly falls in love with him. The Renlings go too far, however, when they propose to adopt Augie and bequeath him all their money. Unwilling to submit to the expectations of others, Augie refuses their offer and moves back to Chicago.

Augie’s mother, now nearly blind, has no income. Desperate to make money, Augie participates in an ill-fated operation to smuggle immigrants south of the Canadian border. The police intervene. After a brief detainment by authorities, Augie train-hops his way back to Chicago.

Everything has gone awry at home. Grandma is dead from pneumonia. Simon sold their mother’s home out from under her and then lost the profit gambling. To fund his mother’s stay at a home for the blind, Augie first works for a dog-grooming service and then joins a racket selling stolen textbooks.

Simon marries coal heiress Charlotte Magnus for her money and the opportunity to be a coal magnate himself. Augie becomes a handyman for a property near the University of Chicago and hobnobs with the students. He develops a close friendship with his neighbor, Mimi Villars, who is in a volatile relationship with a communist professor. Simon encourages a romance between Augie and Charlotte’s cousin, Lucy, but when Augie is spotted helping Mimi obtain an abortion, the Magnus family blacklists him. Augie takes a job as a union organizer.

Thea Fenchel reappears, now married but still smitten with Augie. He succumbs to her charms, and they go to Mexico where Thea gets a divorce and pursues her zany scheme to train an eagle to attack iguanas. Caligula, the eagle, does not cooperate, which enrages Thea. She calls him a “chicken.” Augie, secretly pleased the bird eschews blood sport, senses Thea’s disappointment with him, too. Following increasing tensions between them, their relationship ends when she reunites with an old flame.

After two years in Mexico, Augie returns to Chicago. Once again, he works odd jobs and carries on with former lovers. Simon is now a prosperous, if boorish, businessman who keeps a mistress.  When WWII begins, Augie enlists in the merchant marine. During his first leave in New York City, he visits Stella, an American actress he met in Mexico. Their romance rapidly progresses, and the following week, they decide to marry.

Augie ships out on a naval operation. When his boat is torpedoed, he and a mad scientist, Basteshaw, are the lone survivors in a lifeboat. Despite Basteshaw’s efforts to recruit Augie into his deranged scheme to defect to the Canary Islands and conduct biological experiments, Augie successfully signals a British ship to rescue them.

After Augie and Stella wed, they live in Paris. Augie works for a jaded lawyer Mintouchian trafficking goods on the black market. It’s unclear, as the novel ends, if Augie’s vagabond days are over or, indeed, if he’s successfully realized his fate.

Critics note The Adventures of Augie March is a “picaresque” novel. A 1953 New York Times review of the book observes, it “is a picaresque novel in the exact sense of the term – a novel about the adventures of a rogue held together only by the personality of its hero, with no unifying structure or situation.” The novel received the National Book Award in 1954.