Originally published in 1957, Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day is considered one of the twentieth century’s finest works of fiction. It chronicles a single day in the life of one Tommy Wilhelm, a failed middle-aged actor, living on a precipice. Out of work, nearly broke, and estranged from his wife and children, he is haunted by all of the setbacks in his life and is searching for salvation in the form of an easy financial win that will solve all of his problems. On the advice of a mysterious psychologist, Dr. Tamkin, he has invested the last of his savings in the commodities market. Dr. Tamkin’s advice extends beyond investing and he provides advice to Wilhelm on how he should shed the burdens of his failed past and live in the here-and-now, in other words, to “Seize the Day.”
Tamkin’s council and Wilhelm’s inability to shed his burdens only serve to heighten Wilhelm’s sense of failure. Wherever he seeks sympathy, whether it be his estranged wife who continues to make financial demands on him while refusing to divorce him or his father, a comfortably retired doctor, finds nothing but reminders of his failures.
Born Wilhelm Adler, he changes his name to Tommy Wilhelm to further his acting career. His career never takes off and so he fails in his attempt to actually become Tommy Wilhelm, a failure he is constantly reminded of by his father who insists on addressing him as “Wilky,” his childhood name.
Seize the Day is a distinctly American story. Whereas British fiction from Daniel Defoe on up through today’s Ian McEwan is preoccupied by social and economic class distinctions, American society prides itself on being free from class. No matter what station we are born into, we believe that through hard work, perseverance, and strength of character we can succeed. If we do not succeed, it is obviously due to some flaw in our character. American fiction has always explored the chasm that exists between that Great American Ideal (and mythology) and the stark reality that the Universe has no concept of fairness. American literary characters, unlike their British counterparts, are therefore imbued with a greater sense of anomie. While British heroes and heroines may struggle to overcome the rigid class distinctions in their society, and usually fail, there is at least the idea that there is a sense of order in the Universe, no matter how harsh it may be. American literary figures, from Dreiser’s Clyde Griffiths to Fitzgerald’s James Gatz to Salinger’s Holden Caulfield to Miller’s Willy Loman, fight not against society but against nothingness.
Years after writing Seize the Day, Bellow said in interviews that never liked Tommy Wilhelm very much. Indeed, Wilhelm is not particularly likable and the reader is likely to feel as much sympathy for him as the other characters in the novella. “Stop whining, be a man, get a job!” we want to say to him. And yet, the story is compelling and unconsciously reaches those hidden parts of our psyche that fear the stark nothingness, and leads us to the novella’s surprisingly cathartic conclusion.
For more in this series, see “The Art of the Novella.”
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