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Saul Bellow’s Urban Fiction

Author ZhangTian
Tutor QiaoGuoQiang
School Central China Normal University
Course English Language and Literature
Keywords Saul Bellow urban fiction urban signs Jewishness
CLC I712.074
Type PhD thesis
Year 2012
Downloads 350
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This dissertation explores the fiction by Jewish American writer Saul Bellow, the Nobel Prize winner for Literature in1976. From the perspective of the urban phenomenon, Bellow’s changing attitudes towards city in different periods will be highlighted. Based on the chronological analysis and close reading of the texts, this dissertation tries to make a sound connection between Bellow’s urban understanding of historical context and Jewish tradition. Accordingly, Bellow’s urban fiction can be divided into three periods:the first period is from the beginning of1940s to the end of1950s; the second from1960s to1970s; the third from1980s to2000.This paper is composed of three chapters besides Introduction and Conclusion.The Introduction gives a brief outline of Saul Bellow’s prominent role in America literature, his life experiences, and his literary career should not be excluded. Secondly, a detailed literature review on Saul Bellow at home and abroad is carried out, followed by the significance and approaches of this research.Chapter One "Urban Myth——the Seeking for ’the Promised Land’" focuses on Bellow fiction published during1940s and1950s. From the historical context labeled by existentialism, conservatism and liberalism, Bellow’s writing style and his feelings towards city are brought to discussion. The protagonists in his early writings are mainly common Jewish immigrants, with passion for freedom and enthusiasm for a different life, while stepping out their beloved streets and setting out to be Americanized. In his first novel Dangling Man, Bellow metaphorically indicates the historical burden of Jews undertaken and their dangling situation in modern city. The Adventures of Augie March helps to transfer a mind of prudence and caution into that of optimism and aggression. Bellow puts Augie in a broader setting. Augie constantly shifts his location among many cities, such as Chicago, Paris, Rome, Mexico, and so on, without a fixed settlement. However, bearing in mind a hope for a wonderland, he searches for it in the vast region. This searching for the Utopia exactly embodies Bellow’s optimistic viewpoint about city life in his early writing. Whereas, Henderson the Rain King makes a comparison between city and wilderness.Chapter Two "Urban Nightmare—Society under Seige" seeks to explore Bellow’s writing during the period from1980s to2000. A pessimistic and critical outlook is conveyed in Bellow’s understanding of cities, represented by Chicago. Robbery, cheating, speculation, beauty, money and lust are constructing a corrupted panorama of industrial cities. The protagonists of this period are Jewish intellectuals:Herzog, Sammler, Humboldt and Cetrine. Herzog, as a prominent History professor, criticizes the city life while playing his role in spiritual and cultural construction of the city. In Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Bellow subtly makes a juxtaposition of what Sammler sees with what Sammler fancies about the modern city. Through the description of crazy and insane behavior of the city dwellers, urban shortcomings are revealed. Humboldt’s Gift displays city intellectuals’dual spiritual worlds and their confusion in displacement. Bellow seeks to criticize the American city from different perspectives of city culture, including the corruption of bureaucracy, vices in public transportation, change in urban landscape, competition between the pursuit of art and the pursuit of money. Hence, Bellow deepens the discussion of puzzlement in urban minds.Chapter Three "Re-acceptance of city—Representation of the Multi-facet City" makes an exploration of Bellow’s writing from1980s to2000. The feature of his literary writing of this period is that it focuses on the multiple facets of the city. This multi-facet city is international and global. The themes of this period are centered round human life, friendship, death and family. WhatBellow tries to display is a larger community, a multi-facet city with various nationalities living within, such as the German, the Polish, the Italian, the Greek, the Irishman and the Jews. The connection between death and history is a prominent feature for Bellow’s writing in his third period. Bellow does not take a stance of radical criticism or absolute denial of the issues of the Black and Communism, but instead, he treats the racial issue in a more sensible and reasonable way. Should the term "protest novel" be labeled to Bellow, then he turns out to be more tolerate for the commonplace around him in his later works.The Conclusion emphasizes Bellow’s literary role and his unique writing style.With a review of his six decades of writing experiences, Bellow’s fiction has some characteristics as follows:First, there is a wider range of characters in Bellow’s fiction. These varied characters range from the staff, the shrewd businessmen, to the pedantic and confusing intellectuals. Although the heroes in Bellow’s works give priority to the intellectuals, the complexity of the identity of other characters offers the urban fiction of Saul Bellow a more three-dimensional, staggered, and complex network. All the protagonists strive to seek the ultimate value of life, or try to find stability of destination in the restless world.The second feature is that the setting of the novels continues to expand, showing a special sketch like this:home-street-city-intercity-internationality. Joseph in Bellow’s first novel Dangling Man just wanders about around his room and within the nearest three blocks away from home. The transition of Augie in The Adventures ofAugie March from the initial reluctance to leave home to his spontaneous tendency of hanging out to make a fortune is never hard to be found. The settings in his later work of Herzog and The Dean’s December have always surpassed the single city constraint, but rather replaced by different cities with diverse cultural coexistence.The enhancement of urban consciousness is nevertheless the third characteristic for Bellow’s urban fiction. Bellow has a rather innocent and naive understanding of the city in his earlier writing. He uses the city generally as the setting. While in his later period, through the detailed depiction of the urban landscapes, the city is no longer a simple setting. The city has started to become a text, a character, and even the history. In addition, this kind of urban consciousness is also reflected in the manipulation of the city personality. If the characters of the early works are still viewed as one-dimensional, then in the later years, Saul Bellow attaches great importance to personality retention which is most ardently demonstrated by Benn, the defender of his "plant visionary", and Ravelstein, the gay professor.In summary, Bellow’s Jewish characterized depiction of the city is a result of urbanization, a display of the contradictions of Jewish survival status. It also embodies the theme of excavating the past for those contemporary writers represented by Bellow who are trapped in spiritual predicament, especially "Jewishness" bearing witness to the diversity and pluralism in the period of postmodernism. Thus Saul Bellow strives to reveal the fact that the city is embedded in the mechanism of Jewish culture and in the parallel development of cultural pluralism of the United States. It has been playing an inestimable role of the Jewish culture construction from the post-modern perspective.

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