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ANALYSIS
The Victim (1947)
Saul Bellow
(1915-2005)
"What Mr. Bellow attempts is to compress into an arena the size of two human souls the agony of mind
which has ravaged millions of Jews in our century. The Victim rates as a subtle and thoughtful contribution
to the literature of 20th century anti-Semitism."
Richard Match
New York Herald Tribune
(23 November 1947) 10
"The Victim...is hard to match in recent fiction, for brilliance, skill, and originality.... The Victim is
solidly built of fine, important ideas; it also generates fine and important, if uncomfortable, emotions."
Diana Trilling
Nation
(3 January 1948) 24-25
"The Victim depended much on intensification of effect, by limitations on time, by rigid economy in
structure of scene, by the unsaid and the withheld, by a muting of action, by a scrupulously reserved style.
The novel proved that the author had a masterful control of the method, not merely fictional good manners,
the meticulous good breeding which we ordinarily damn by the praise `intelligent'."
Robert Penn Warren
New Republic
(2 November 1953) 22
"In Bellow's second novel, The Victim, 1947, the focus of disorder is anti-Semitism; the quest is for
self-knowledge rather than freedom. Anti-Semitism no doubt belongs to the pathology of culture. The
disease, however, happens also to define a classic symptom of the human condition: the endless terrors of
self-justification, darkness seeking light and light relapsing into darkness, a nightmare of ambiguities.
Bellow sees the symptoms clearly, and treats the disease with a grotesque humor, for what indeed could be
`funnier' than the monstrous mummery of guilt?
Defense and accusation, action and consequence make up the crazy, relentless dialogue of the novel.
The narrative spins giddily around two characters, Asa Leventhal and Kirby Allbee, antagonists who turn
out to be alter egos in the same bitter farce. Leventhal is a Jew, a burly, impassive, solitary man sprung
from a background of tragedy--his mother dies insane in an asylum--failure, and erratic luck. He has, like
Joseph, the gift of a dour, quarrelsome sensitivity, a measure of violence and self-pity, tenderness and
strength--his natural tendency is to feel persecuted, a man bearing the world's weight, one who wrests a
modest triumph against great odds.
Allbee is the anti-Semite, a suffering and insufferable creep, endowed, at times, with an insane lucidity
of perception. He appears from nowhere, down-and-out, to accuse Leventhal of having contrived his ruin
in revenge for an anti-Semitic remark Allbee once made at a party. He blames Leventhal for all his ills,
from the death of his wife to his inability to find employment, haunts Leventhal in parks and restaurants,
and moves into his apartment where he finally attempts suicide. The two men are locked in a death
struggle for the impossible meaning of innocence, for their own and each other's soul. On trial here are not
only Jew and Gentile, but Man. It is a trial that can have no witnesses. Leventhal's wife, Mary, is away
visiting her mother, his brother Max deserts his own family to work in a Texas shipyard, and his Jewish
city friends come and go, bringing with them the irritations of easy counsel. Actually, most of the
characters in the book are caught, like the two principal figures, in a conspiracy of parallel and ironic
actions.
The first and most obvious irony of the novel is that Allbee, the Gentile, poses as the aggrieved party,
the `victim.' So long as Leventhal insists on his innocence--and it is with great subtlety that the
ambiguous nature of his guilt is gradually unfolded--so long he remains wide of self-knowledge. But it is
as Allbee says, `Know thyself! Everybody knows but nobody wants to admit.' Only when Leventhal stops
feeling wronged by this mad and repulsive intruder, only when he begins to see in Allbee as example of
misery and desperation greater than his own, does he begin to admit. He, at least, had been able to `get
away with it,' to beat life's rap. Should he be forced then to become his brother's keeper? And how much
may a man give of himself in a universe of `hot stars and cold hearts?' The answer to prevarication is this:
`Why pick on me? I didn't set this up any more than you did.' Admittedly, there was a wrong, a general
wrong. Allbee, on the other hand, came along and said, `You!'
But ironies beget ironies. Leventhal cannot easily rise to the spiritual exigencies of the situation
because, as a Jew, he has been turned against himself: he has, that is, unconsciously surrendered to the anti-
Semitic view of Jews. That he has an exacerbated sense of his Jewish destiny is evident not only in his
inflamed conversations with Allbee but also in his talks with friends, Harkavy and Schlossberg, about
Disraeli. Outrage against immemorial wrongs blends into the perverse need to be wronged; the rebel-
victim seeks vindication in the same attitudes that perpetuate his agony. This is as true of Leventhal as it is
of his unholy double, Allbee. But malice turned against the self can also turn outward. The paranoiac
tendencies of Leventhal threaten to aggravate the domestic troubles of Max, who is married to a devout
Italian Catholic; the errors of his partial judgments--the guilt, for instance, he feels at the death of his
young nephew--penetrate into the lives of people he loves. Leventhal withers into the truth slowly: the old
Christian truth--another irony still--that the power of love exceeds the requirements of justice.
Racial prejudice carries only part of the novel's meaning; its practical correlative is status. Raised in the
school of hard knocks, Leventhal naturally feels resentful. Yet he shares the idea of success--that
American compulsion to flash and excel--imposed by a society to which he must remain, in some ways, an
outsider. Nor is success in American what it used to be. As Allbee puts it, `The day of succeeding by your
own efforts is past. Now it's all blind movement, vast movement, and the individual is shuttled back and
forth.' As personal effort comes to mean less in the contemporary world, group opinion comes to mean
more and the confrontation of the victim with his oppressor becomes farce or phantasmagory.
This is the situation of Leventhal and Allbee, both of whom assent to the rule of money, though they
have both known failure, because they have known it. In this climate of unacknowledged opinion, the final
crime is not the murder of a fellow man but the contrivance of his ruin. And indeed the symbolic equation
of death and money is everywhere implied--in Harkavy's indictment of life insurance, in Allbee's feeling
that his poverty and lost status are due to some kind of Hebraic retribution, something like the terrible
darkness brought down by Moses on the Egyptians. As the old aristocracy of America, which could
claim--like Allbee--descent from Governor Winthrop, breaks up and loses its economic grip on the
country, wild accusations of class murder become as integral a part of the social process as the
redistribution of wealth or power.
In the brilliant conception of this novel, reversal follows close on reversal. The final irony is the
identification of the two antagonists with one another. For Leventhal not only submits to the spell of
Allbee; he stands up for him in public and saves his life in private. His very fury when Allbee carries on a
sordid affair with a woman in Leventhal's own apartment is the fury of a man who recognizes what he
might have done in the absence of his wife. The identification, the marriage of opposites, is managed by
Bellow with great tact. It is rendered physically in the weird sensation of a moment: Leventhal looking at
Allbee's back in the zoo and experiencing the other's presence as one experiences one's own. It is
suggested in the aftermath of dreams. Wakingup from one of these dreams with a great sense of release,
Leventhal thinks: `Admittedly, like others, he had been in the wrong.... Everybody committed errors and
offences. But it was supremely plain to him that everything, everything without exception, took place as if
within a single soul or person.' By coming to terms with his guilt, our hero discovers his identity, and
discovering it he must relinquish it again to the common soul of human kind. Is this not love?
The ending of the novel is suspended as the ending of Crime and Punishment, say, must be. After
seeing through Allbee a vision of `horror, evil, all that he had kept himself from,' Leventhal goes back to a
better life, a wiser and sadder man perhaps, certainly more affable and reconciled--which is exactly how
Allbee turns out to be when they both meet in a theatre many years after. The defeat of Dangling Man
gives way to the quiet stalemate of The Victim; the most affirmative note in the book is sounded by a minor
character, old Schlossberg: `If a human life is a great thing tome, it is a great thing. Do you know better?
I'm entitled to as much as you. And why be measly? Do you have to be? Is somebody holding you by the
neck? Have dignity, you understand me? Choose dignity. Nobody knows enough to turn it down."
Technically, too, the novel marks an advance over its predecessor. The grim comedy of humiliation, the
terrible mockery of guilt, the absurdity of evil, the senselessness of sudden dread, the drabness of the
spirit's sleep come alive in scene after scene, and the style acquires a certain concreteness of detail absent
from the earlier novel. There is no doubt, however, that the novel tends to shuffle and drag, and that the
ludicrous, nightmarish encounters with Allbee are so often repeated in the same key that they lose much of
their intensity. Furthermore, Allbee as a figure tends to waver uneasily between a fictional character and
thematic symbol. The details of his unprepossessing physique as of his wretched mental life are convincing
enough, but the uncanny relevance of all his speeches forces upon him a different and symbolic presence,
that of Mephisto perhaps, or the Darker Double. Even here, it seems, the energy of Bellow's mind
overreaches his growing dramatic powers, and his creations remain somewhat in the shadowy realm
between the `ideal' figures of Kafka and `real' characters of Dostoevsky.
This peculiar quality of Bellow's earlier work once again reminds us of the assumptions of romance as a
form of fiction, albeit a kind of romance so ironic and intellectual as to bear greater resemblance to the
European allegories of our time than to those fabulous evocations dear to the American imagination."
Ihab Hassan
Radical Innocence: The Contemporary American Novel
(Harper/Colophon 1961) 299-303
"Asa Leventhal is called upon to make a nice adjustment in his guilt, to pit what he owes to another
against what he owes to himself. Asa, the Jew in what is at its first level a novel about anti-Semitism, is
confronted suddenly by an anti-Semite who accuses him of malice and an obscure crime which he may or
may not have committed. Having every reason to deny his culpability--not only is the crime ambiguous,
but his putative victim is himself a victimizer and he is as well his own betrayer--Asa is gradually
displaced from his isolated rectitude.
Kirby Allbee penetrates his solitude, his apartment, the domestic secrets of his marriage, invades his
bed, the intimate habits of his cleanliness, finally the last stronghold of his being, to the point where Asa
must admit his implication in the fate of Allbee, of all men, all-being, no alibis permitted. To do less is to
deny compassion and it is to be less than human. But on the other hand, compassion brought to a certain
extreme is more than human. Pitched to a certain extreme, compassion is death. When Albee, turning on
the gas in Asa's apartment, would have Asa share his grief to the point of sharing his suicide, he
compromises the moral injunction for which he stands.
The components of the problem are the same, still the individual and the community, and there is still
the basic conflict between the self that demands preservation and the society that demands self-sacrifice.
The terms are, however, deeper than alienation and accommodation, and they are less abstract. In each
succeeding novel these public terms have become more personal. Asa Leventhal, a middle-aged fat man
and not an intellectual, is involved in a situation the intensity of which commands his complete
participation and constant practical decision. That makes the difference in The Victim of validating the
conflict, and it as well eliminates the possibility of the romantically ironic gesture of surrender. The plot of
Dangling Man provided a pretext for intellectual play, but it was not sufficient to test the play in action.
Asa's situation (which is, it happens, precisely that of Velchaninov in Dostoevski's The Eternal
Husband) forces him to moral realizations which mean life and death.... Velchaninov becomes the victim
of a man whom many years ago he had wronged. The parallels between The Victim and The Eternal