32 pages 1 hour read

Jerzy Kosiński

Being There

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1970

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Summary and Study Guide


Polish-born author Jerzy Kosiński (1933-1991) wrote Being There, published in 1970. The novella satirizes mid-20th-century politics and culture, focusing on the twin pillars of bureaucracy and the media as vehicles for the deterioration of modern thought.

Kosiński grew up in Soviet-controlled Poland and came to the United States in 1957. In 1958, he was awarded a Ford Foundation fellowship. He studied at the New School and Columbia University in New York, where he received a master's degree in history and political science. Throughout the 1960s he published literary criticism and nonfiction. His first novel, The Painted Bird, won Le Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (Best Foreign Book Prize), and his second novel won the 1969 National Book Award in Fiction. In 1970 he received an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his achievements in creative writing. Being There gained wide acclaim for its incisive commentary on modern culture and has become a classic of 20-century literature. Kosiński wrote in English and his novels have been translated into over thirty languages. In 1979, Being There was adapted into an award-winning film starring Peter Sellers. This guide uses the 1970 edition by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. for citations and page references.

Plot Summary

The novella’s protagonist is Chance, a young man who has grown up as a gardener in the home of a wealthy old man in Washington, DC. Chance does not know his family background and never learned to read or write.

The narrator describes his mind as “damaged.” He has his limited cognitive ability. When Chance was young, the Old Man told him that he was only allowed in the garden and in his room and could not wander throughout the house. He threatened to send Chance to a “home for the insane” if he disobeyed (8). Chance’s life consists of gardening and watching TV In his room; he has never left the grounds of the house.

Early in the novella, the Old Man becomes ill and passes away. Since Chance is not a blood relative and lacks official documentation, the lawyers insist that he vacate the premises. Chance takes his suitcase, packed with the Old Man’s surprisingly stylish clothes, and walks out into the world for the first time.

Instead of being afraid, Chance is inquisitive. He has seen everything in the outside world on television, and even though he had never left his house, the world he encounters is familiar. He has not gone far when a black limousine backs into him, pinning one of his legs against a parked car. The chauffeur and passenger jump out to see if Chance has been badly injured. The passenger, a wealthy woman who goes by the nickname EE, insists he come to her home so a doctor can examine his leg.

The woman introduces herself as Elizabeth Eve Rand, the wife of the influential financier Benjamin Rand. Her husband is much older than she and has been ill. She asks Chance his name and mistakes his response of “Chance, the gardener” for “Chauncey Gardiner” (31). Chance has little experience communicating with others and does not always understand what is being said to him. He mimics appropriate social behaviors that he has seen on TV, and EE believes that he is very cultured and intelligent.

When they arrive at the house, Chance makes a favorable impression on Mr. Rand. When Rand learns that Chance does not have any connections or urgent business, he invites him to stay at their home. Rand does not have children and believes that Chance will be a good companion for his wife. Despite Chance's limited abilities, he takes great care with his appearance, and EE finds him attractive. Rand asks Chance about his work, and Chance gives him a straightforward description of his role as a gardener. Since Chance is wearing an expensive suit and seems to have a thoughtful air, Rand assumes that he’s a businessman and that his description of gardening is a metaphor. He praises Chance’s insightfulness and invites him to meet the members of the board of the First American Financial Corporation, over which he presides. By this point, Chance has stopped listening; he replies appropriately based on his knowledge of businessmen’s interactions on TV.

The next day, Rand tells Chance that the President of the United States is dropping by before he addresses the Financial Institute in a nationally televised speech. The President lands in Central Park by helicopter, and Chance watches on TV. In the meantime, the Secret Service has come to the house and searches it ahead of the President’s arrival. When the President arrives, he is cordial. He and Rand talk about the economy, and he startles Chance when he asks his opinion about the “bad season” on Wall Street (54). Chance latches onto the word "season" and describes the yearly changes that take place in a garden. His response impresses the President, who interprets the story as another metaphor. In his televised address, the President mentions Chance’s remarks, and the New York Times contacts Chance for further commentary on the economy. Chance refuses to speak to them, and they assume that Chance is a future board member of the First American Financial Corporation. Chance is interviewed on This Evening, a popular news program, and his simple, straightforward manner is taken as intellectual certainty. He becomes a celebrity and is sought after as a political pundit.

EE tries to seduce Chance, but he does not experience sexual desire. She interprets his lack of arousal as restraint and a marker of his superior moral character. In reality, Chance is impotent and has no knowledge of sexual intercourse because he has never seen it on TV.

Chance accompanies EE to a reception of the United Nation’s Hospitality Committee, of which she is the chairwoman. At the dinner, he befriends the Soviet Ambassador Vladimir Skrapinov. Owing to Chance’s seemingly knowing replies, Skrapinov assumes that he speaks Russian and is well-versed in Russian literature. Chance shocks journalists when he tells him that he does not read newspapers but only watches TV.

After the United Nations gala, EE takes Chance to another illustrious gathering at a friend’s house. A publisher asks Chance to write a book with his press. When Chance confesses that he cannot read or write, the publisher takes his comments metaphorically, assuming that Chance writes poorly and does not have time to read. Nevertheless, he pursues Chance as a potential author. Chance has a sexual encounter with a man at the party. He tells the man that he would prefer to watch him, and the man interprets this as sexual voyeurism. Chance has a similar encounter with EE at home; she tells him that it was more satisfying to pleasure herself with him watching than any other sexual encounter she has had.

Both Ambassador Skrapinov and the President search for background information on Chance but cannot find any. Each concludes that Chance is a high-level operative with a secret identity and that his lack of documentation is proof of his importance rather than his obscurity.

The novella ends with a prominent politician—likely the President—deciding whom to choose as his running mate. His colleagues suggest Chance because he is popular and his lack of a background will preclude scandals arising from his past. At a party, Chance runs from the crowd and finds peace in a garden.

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By Jerzy Kosiński

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