Seize the Day
is a literary novel by Saul Bellow. Published in 1956, it received a nomination for the 1957 National Book Award for Fiction. The book spans one day, following a jaded man as he searches for his purpose in life. Critics praise the book for its depiction of humanity. Bellow was a bestselling writer known for his short plays and novels. He won various awards, including the 1975 Pulitzer Prize and the International Literary Prize. During WWII, he served in the Merchant Marines, and he later worked for Newsday
as a war correspondent.
The protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm, is an unhappy forty-something-year-old man living in New York City with his father, Dr. Adler. They live in the Hotel Gloriana on the Upper West Side. Tommy’s neighbors are elderly and frail, and he doesn’t have many friends. He doesn’t have any romantic prospects and he often feels alone. Approaching fifty, Tommy never imagined his life turning out this way.
As the novel opens, Tommy plans to take breakfast with his father on the twenty-third floor. On the way, he stops, staring into a newspaper stand and contemplating his life. A failed actor, he subsequently made bad investments in the stock market. More than anything, Tommy wants God to give him another chance to prove himself.
Before Tommy faces Dr. Adler at breakfast, he retrieves his mail—overdue bills and debt letters. Tommy doesn’t have any money, and so he hides the letters before Dr. Adler sees them. By the time Tommy reaches the restaurant, he is tired and miserable. There is no chance to sit down before Dr. Adler criticizes his clothes and his appearance. Tommy despairs because his father is cruel and unfeeling, but there is no point in arguing with him.
Another man, Mr. Perls, joins them for breakfast. Dr. Adler introduces his son as an ex-salesman for a prestigious furniture company. This impresses Mr. Perls, even if it makes Tommy cringe. He hates it when his father talks about him, because the conversation always circles back to Tommy’s poor career choices. He knows he should not have left the cushy sales job—he doesn’t need Dr. Adler’s constant reminders.
Eventually, Mr. Perls leaves the table. Dr. Adler complains because Tommy is not looking after himself. He doesn’t wash properly and he is lazy. He sends all his money to his ex-wife, Margaret, who is bleeding him dry. Dr. Adler advises him to stop sending her child support and return to the marital home instead. Margaret’s influence, Dr. Adler says, is good for him.
Tommy cannot stand Margaret and he does not plan to go home. He admits that he cheated on her because he doesn’t love her anymore. Ashamed of Tommy, Dr. Adler tells him to leave the table. He will not give Tommy any financial help because only no-good men cheat on their wives. Dr. Adler acts as though he is perfect all the time, and Tommy hates him for it.
In the meantime, Dr. Tamkin arrives. Tamkin holds a power of attorney over Tommy’s dwindling savings. If Tommy’s latest land investment falls through, there won’t be any money left for Tamkin to manage. Tamkin takes everything in his stride because he is an eternal optimist and he enjoys studying Tommy’s pessimistic personality.
Tamkin finally tells Tommy to stop worrying because it’s no good for the soul. He drags Tommy down to the brokerage office to see how the investments are going. Some prices are down, but others hold steady. Tamkin explains that he recently invested some money in a hedge of rye, and this should offset some unexpected losses. Tommy wonders why he gives Tamkin so much power over his finances because his investments never turn out well.
Buoyed by a morning at the brokerage office, Tamkin takes Tommy for lunch. They talk about Margaret, Dr. Adler, and Olive, Tommy’s mistress. Tommy loves Olive but he cannot divorce Margaret. After distracting Tommy with life and love advice, Tamkin leaves Tommy with the expensive lunch bill before excusing himself temporarily.
An hour or so passes, and Tamkin never returns. Tommy gives up waiting and heads back to the brokerage office. Here, everything falls apart. The rye price dropped, and now there is nothing left. Tommy is officially bankrupt. Tamkin disappeared without a trace because he had always planned to waste Tommy’s money.
Broken and penniless, Tommy returns to the hotel. He begs his father to cover this month’s rent bill, but Dr. Adler refuses. He says that it is time Tommy went home to Margaret or got a proper job. Tommy calls Margaret, but all she cares about is maintenance money. She does not want him home unless he returns to the sales job.
Tommy cannot stand the thought of working in sales again, and so he hangs up the phone. He recognizes that he is alone in the world. No one cares what happens to him. He wanders the streets, finding himself caught up in a funeral procession. When he realizes the deceased is barely older than him, he sees his own life passing him by. Now, he must seize the day.