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The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Saul Bellow's 1953 novel ''The Adventures of Augie March'' is a picaresque story of the coming-of-age of a young man before and during the Great Depression. With its loose, episodic structure, the novel questions the assumptions of most American success stories.

Bellow's Masterpiece

Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March is considered one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, but can be challenging for a first-time reader. When we read a novel, we expect a clear plot that builds to a resolution but we don't get that in this novel.

The novel is a picaresque, which means it is composed of loosely connected episodes instead of one clear plot. It tells the story of the varied and often aimless pursuits of a young man, Augie, growing up in the decades before and during the Great Depression, the great economic cataclysm of the 1930s. With its loose structure and main character who is seemingly lacking in any ambition, but succeeds anyway, the novel seems to question the assumptions of the typical American success story. Now let's dig right in and look at the plot.

Childhood

While the plot is a bit tricky to follow, the novel opens in Chicago in the early twentieth century. Augie is born into poverty and raised by his half-blind mother and her boarder whom he calls 'Grandma', along with his two brothers, Simon and the mentally disabled George. As a teenager, Augie becomes a bit of a hoodlum, hanging around with some neighborhood kids who steal. An attraction to the criminal life will be a recurrent element in Augie's life.

Teenage Years

As a teenager, he gets a more legitimate job working for a wealthy paralyzed man named Einhorn. But the stock market crash of 1929, which leads to the Great Depression, also wipes out much of Einhorn's wealth and he's forced to let Augie go. After this, Augie starts to drift between the petty thief, Joe Gorman, and the wealthy Renling family, who want to adopt him. He also gets caught in a love triangle with the two Fenchel sisters: he loves Esther but the other sister, Thea, is in love with him.

After coming back to Chicago and reconnecting with his brothers, Augie gets involved in a scheme to steal and sell textbooks to college students. His brother, Simon, has decided to marry into a wealthy family, and it looks like Augie is going to follow his brother, until he outrages the family by helping his friend obtain an illegal abortion. Augie then becomes a union organizer and starts an affair with a woman named Sophie, who's engaged but wants to have some fun before she gets married.

Love

At this point, Thea comes back into the story. She gets Augie to accompany her to Mexico to get an eagle and train it to steal lizard eggs. Unsurprisingly, this plan doesn't go well and then Augie gets seriously injured when he's tossed off a horse. While recovering, he dumps Thea for a married woman named Stella. He then goes to meet Leon Trotsky, the famous Russian revolutionary who was exiled to Mexico.

He heads back to Chicago and drifts some more, including a brief reunion with Sophie. Then World War II breaks out and Augie enlists. After being shipped out for basic training, he reunites with Stella and they get married before he ships out. After serving in the war, Augie ends up in Paris with Stella, plotting his next move.

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