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The Adventures of Augie March
by Saul Bellow
Often called the Great American Novel, Augie March tells the story of a poor boy growing up in Depression-era Chicago. Augie searches for his place in the world. Although born into poverty, with a mentally disabled younger brother and a "weak-minded" mother, Augie refuses to be shaped by his circumstances. He tries a wild variety of occupations in his quest for his identity.
Winner of the 1954 National Book Award
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS (http://www.us.penguingroup.com/static/rguides/us/adventures_of_augie_march.html)
- "A man's character is his fate," says Augie, but his own character is elusive. As Robert Penn Warren wrote at the time of the novel's publication, "it is hard to give substance to a man who has no commitments." What are Augie's commitments? What defines his character?
- Augie repeatedly invokes mythic and historic figures to describe his mentors. Grandma Lausch is like a pharaoh, a Caesar, a Machiavelli. William Einhorn is Croesus or the Sun King at Versailles. Thea Fenchel evokes Queen Elizabeth and Helen of Troy. Simon is Napoleon. Why are the lives of small-time operators portrayed in such grandiose terms?
- The book's title invites comparison to another quintessentially American novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Each work features a poor boy who leaves his Midwestern home town to undertake a liberating pilgrimage. How are Augie and Huck alike in their outlook and dreams? How is Mark Twain's America different from Bellow's?
- Getting involved with Thea Fenchel and her eagle is a turning point for Augie. After leading a life of escape from others, he is abandoned for the first time. What happens to Augie's sense of reality when Thea leaves him?
- Augie's adventures initially resemble a picaresque novel like Tom Jones, in which a clever, likable rogue, after a series of misadventures, eventually comes to repent the error of his ways. Does Augie ever achieve such a repentance? What prevents him? What does Bellow's subversion of this genre suggest about his view of the human condition?
- Near the end of the novel, Augie makes an important commitment when he marries Stella. Why, after a life unbound by any one job or person, does he make this decision? How does Stella influence him?
- Grandma Lausch shows Augie that "wit and discontent" can go together and teaches him to lie— not because he needs to, but simply for the joy of the contest. How does this gaming spirit, this joy in subversion inform his later temperament and professions?
- What forces interfere with Augie's dream of happiness on the "axial lines of life"? Does Bellow allow the reader to believe in the fulfillment of Augie's wish to become a teacher? Why, among all his professions, is teaching the one that captures his imagination?
- In one sense Augie is obsessed with learning, weaned on the Encyclopedia Americana and compelled to read the books he steals rather than selling them. What drives Augie's intellectual hunger? Is knowledge an end in itself for him, or does he put it to practical use?
- Bellow's prose in Augie March has been described as "a child's wildest ice-cream sundae dream." Nouns and verbs are strung six or eight in a row, coupled with abundant similes and historical allusions. Discuss the impact of Bellow's language in Augie March on character, landscape, and tempo in the novel.