Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man Is a Good Read During The Pandemic
It offers an account of growing instability that mirrors our own loss of structure and sanity
Dangling Man is written in the form of the journal of a 27-year-old man named Joseph in 1940s Chicago. Joseph leaves his job to answer the call of induction to the army. His enlistment is delayed by bureaucratic hurdles, and with his past employer unable to rehire him, he is stuck in a sort of limbo.
The description of this state of being untethered, jobless, and lonely makes this book extremely relevant to readers during the Pandemic.
“In a city where one has lived nearly all his life, it is not likely that he will ever be solitary; and yet, in a very real sense, I am just that. I am alone ten hours a day in a single room.”
In more normal times, we would feel dissociated from the protagonist. His unnecessary and unwarranted skirmishes with his family, friends, and neighbours would fill us with righteous indignation.
In our current situation, however, we have more empathy for his struggles. Yelling at the inconsiderate neighbour who makes a racket is an experience we are all more intimately familiar with, even as we’re subconsciously aware that our increasingly confrontational nature is problematic.
The Struggle to be Productive is Real
The protagonist grapples with the struggle to live a meaningful life without an externally imposed structure. Joseph had undertaken writing essays on philosophers of the enlightenment when he was still employed. Free time would technically make it easier to finish this passion project of his. However, as we have come to realize with the pandemic, this is easier said than done.
We are so used to the structure given to us by the demands of work and student life that we tend to live in autopilot mode.
“I have thought of going to work, but I am unwilling to admit that I do not know how to use my freedom and have to embrace the flunkydom of a job because I have no resources — in a word, no character.”
We blame our jobs and the fast-paced world for the lack of progress we make with our dreams. It’s tough to accept that if we were given complete autonomy to decide our days' structure, we might not have the self-discipline to do much.
Joseph has the option of temporary or part-time work, but his refusal to take up a job seems almost like self-flagellation for not making good use of his freedom.
Tough Situations Change Us For Better Or Worse
“There are times when I am not even aware that there is anything wrong with this existence. But, on the other hand, there are times when I rouse myself in bewilderment and vexation, and then think of myself as a moral casualty of the war. I have changed.”
One of the novels' themes is the inevitable change that arises from being forced outside of your comfort zone. His family and friends warily watch as he changes from an amiable, even-tempered, and hardworking man to an irascible, explosive, and highly unpredictable burden on his wife.
There is solace in knowing that struggling to be good in the face of adversity is universal. An optimistic reader would assume that these changes are short-term and a result of the stresses of waiting to be drafted. However, the one change that is likely to be permanent is a deeper capacity to suffer and more empathy for those who do.
The Class Divide Is Glaringly Evident
One of the many fallacies sold to us in 2020 was that we were all in this together. Reading about the second world war world makes you realize that the entitlement and greed of the rich are a constant in our world. And simply more sickening in the context of a struggling world.
“You have to take into account what people are accustomed to,” said Amos; “their standard of living. The government overlooks that. Why even charities don’t give the same amounts to any two families. It would cause too much hardship.”
“Yes, that’s what I meant,” said Dolly. “You couldn’t call it hoarding.”
An Idle Mind is the Devil’s Workshop
Joseph has a rich inner world, and it helps keep him occupied but also slowly drives him insane. Many of us struggle with overthinking when we have a lot of free time. Our imaginations entertain us but also cause our suffering.
“... I could have avoided making scenes if I had wished. It may be that I am tired of having to identify a day as “the day I asked for a second cup of coffee,” or “the day the waitress refused to take back the burned toast,” and so want to blaze it more sharply, regardless of the consequences.”
Joseph tries to understand his irrational and out-of-character bouts of rage. He hypothesizes that fiery situations make him feel alive, and his anger is a cry of desperation to push through the dullness of his current situation.
Growing Resentment Towards Others
“… our rages are decepetive; we are too ignorant and spiritually poor to know that we fall on the “enemy” from confused motives of love and loneliness. Perhaps, also, self-contempt. But for the most part loneliness.”
Times of strife often result in extreme intolerance towards other people. Everyone seems to be the “enemy”. Saul Bellow had an undergraduate degree in anthropology, and his sharp understanding of humans is evident in his writings.
His characters make us realize how human experiences of living and suffering are not unique to us as individuals. We have more in common with the people we disagree with than we’d like to believe. In understanding where resentment stems from, we will find our answers and be able to build bridges.
I read Dangling Man whenever I feel like I am dangling. We often turn to feel good, chirpy, mind-numbing content when we are going through tough times.
But, I find comfort in reading about characters who are also struggling like I am. The overly cheery belief that all phases of our life must end well is misleading. Read Dangling Man if you want to feel less alone in your loneliness.
Have you read a particularly insightful book during the pandemic and want to tell others about it?
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