Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, January 22, 2007

Saul Bellow: SEIZE THE DAY

Tommy Wilhelm has a problem. Actually, he has a lot of problems. He’s fiftyish, unemployed, running out of money, separated from his wife and boys, living in the same hotel as his elderly father, and can’t seem to get his life together. Where to begin sorting things out? Let’s focus on his relationship with his father. That seems to be the starting point for many of his current problems.

From Tommy’s perspective, he isn’t receiving either the amount or the quality of love he expects from a father:

He (Dr. Adler) behaved toward his son as he had formerly done toward his patients, and it was a great grief to Wilhelm; it was almost too much to bear. Couldn’t he see – couldn’t he feel? Had he lost his family sense?

That’s a good question. And the way each reader answers that question will skew the whole story in one direction or another – either in Tommy’s favor as a son, or in Dr. Adler’s as a father. Another way of putting the question: is Tommy a bad son, or is Dr. Adler a bad father? Maybe neither one is to blame? Maybe. But consider Tommy’s own perspective, stated in his own words:

He (Dr. Adler) was thirty-two when I was born, and now he’s going on eighty. Furthermore, it’s time I stopped feeling like a kid toward him, a small son.

If Tommy feels like a kid toward his own father, a “small son” as he puts it, then who can change those feelings except Tommy himself? Why doesn’t he act more like a grown man? That’s what his father would like to know.

Tommy is still immature and there are clues that he’s likely never to mature. The problem goes way back, from the time he first set out on his own:

When he (Tommy) was best aware of the risks and knew a hundred reasons against going and had made himself sick with fear, he left home. This was typical of Wilhelm. After much thought and hesitation and debate he invariably took the course he had rejected innumerable times. Ten such decisions made up the history of his life.

Tommy made some bad decisions early in life, and he’s reaping the consequences. Now he’s turning to his father for help. This is a tough decision for any parent facing similar circumstances: at what point do you cut the cord and tell your children that they’re on their own from now on? At 18? 25? 50? Never? Tommy can’t understand why his father won’t help him out, even though he’s a grown man:

…his father might have offered to pick up his hotel tab. Why didn’t he? What a selfish old man he was! He saw his son’s hardships; he could so easily help him. How little it would mean to him, and how much to Wilhelm!

But Dr. Adler’s attitude is different: “You’re neither a widower nor a bachelor. You have brought me all your confusions. What do you expect me to do with them? Is the old doctor too tough with Tommy? Does he even love his son? There are certainly things about Tommy that he doesn’t care for:

The doctor couldn’t bear Wilkie’s dirty habits. Only once – and never again, he swore – had he visited his room. Wilhelm, in pajamas and stockings had sat on his bed, drinking gin from a coffee mug and rooting for the Dodgers on television…Wilhelm lived in worse filth than a savage.

Even though they’re father and son, they inhabit different worlds. They have different world views. Dr. Adler doesn’t think money is what Tommy really needs. He needs sound advice. And he needs to get his act together. This is the advice Dr. Adler gives his son:

I was not self-indulgent, not lazy. My old man sold dry goods in Williamsburg. We were nothing, do you understand? I knew I couldn’t afford to waste my chances…I didn’t run around with fifty women, either. I was not a Hollywood star. I didn’t have time to go to Cuba for a vacation. I stayed at home and took care of my children…Have I made my view clear?

We have two stark world views before us, and Bellow is a master at making things clear.

-- RDP


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