62 pages 2 hours read

Saul Bellow

The Adventures of Augie March

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1953

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Adventures of Augie March is a 1953 novel by Saul Bellow. In the novel, Bellow’s third, the eponymous title character chronicles his eventful life from an underprivileged childhood in Chicago to his waning wanderlust in Paris. The novel is critically acclaimed and won the 1954 National Book Award for Fiction. Bellow was a lauded author in his lifetime, winning prestigious awards like the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He was awarded the 1976 Nobel Prize for Literature, in part for The Adventures of Augie March.

This guide refers to the 1996 Penguin Books edition of the novel.

Content Warning: This guide refers to the source text’s depiction of ableist ideas that were prevalent at the time that The Adventures of Augie March was written.

Plot Summary

During the early 20th century, young Augie March lives in Chicago with his Jewish family in a low-income, underprivileged Polish 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, has a developmental disability. Augie’s mother defers in all matters to the opinions of Grandma Lausch, who is not their grandmother but an elderly Russian woman who boards with the March family. Grandma Lausch mentors Augie in the art of lying to serve his own interests. However, she also expects the boys to dress properly and perform well at school. When Augie turns 12, 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 stealing and get caught.

The March family disperses as the boys grow older. Despite Augie and his mother’s objections, Grandma insists on sending Georgie to a psychiatric hospital. Now in high school, Augie is an unimpressive student. He takes a job assisting a man named Einhorn, a wealthy real estate tycoon with a disability who runs numerous shady business operations and pursues extra-marital affairs. Augie admires Einhorn’s energy and is briefly employed by his brother, Dingbat, who manages heavyweight boxers. Then, the stock market crashes, and Einhorn’s fortune vanishes overnight. Meanwhile, Simon moves Grandma to a nursing home because she is developing dementia, and the Great Depression erodes the Marches’ 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 takes on Augie as her protégé. She grooms him for high society. While on a short holiday with her, Augie meets the heiress Thea Fenchel, who quickly falls in love with him though he is more interested in her sister. 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, and after a brief detainment, Augie train-hops his way back to Chicago. Everything has gone awry at home. Grandma is dead, and Simon sold their mother’s home and then lost the profit gambling. 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 near the University of Chicago. He develops a friendship with 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 then works 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 scheme to train an eagle to attack iguanas. Caligula, the eagle, does not cooperate, which enrages Thea. Augie senses Thea’s disappointment with him, too. Following tensions between them, their relationship ends when she reunites with an old flame.

After two years, Augie returns to Chicago. He works odd jobs and carries on with former lovers. Simon is now a prosperous businessman who keeps a mistress. When World War II begins, Augie enlists in the Merchant Marines. During his first leave in New York City, he visits Stella, an American actress he met in Mexico. The following week, they become engaged.

Augie ships out on a naval operation. When his boat is torpedoed, he and an erratic scientist, Basteshaw, are the lone survivors in a lifeboat. Despite Basteshaw’s efforts to recruit Augie into his outlandish 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. As the novel ends, it’s unclear if Augie’s vagabond days are over or if he has successfully taken control of his fate. He lives in Europe with Stella.

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