The Spanish word for eagle, as Augie learns, is águila, and the similarity between that word and Augie’s name invites a comparison between the eagle and the man. Both the eagle and Augie are adopted and trained by others for schemes they barely understand. And both the eagle and Augie prove to be sensitive creatures, not quite vicious enough to succeed in a Machiavellian world. The episode with the eagle can be read as a metaphor for one of the main themes of the book: nature as destiny. Ultimately, neither the eagle nor Augie does what others expect them to do, but follow their own nature.
Books are a recurring motif throughout the novel. As a boy, Augie is sent to borrow novels by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy from the library for Grandma Lausch, books which are emblematic of the old-world wisdom she imparts to the boys. Later, Einhorn gives him a set of Harvard Classics, scorched by fire, which Augie quickly reads. When Augie becomes a book thief, he reads all the stolen books before delivering them to his customers. In Mexico, he absorbs books by Karl Marx and Thomas More and wonders why worldly utopias never last. It is significant that the books Augie reads are borrowed, damaged, or stolen. The way that he gains his knowledge is unorthodox and imperfect; he gathers it in snatches as he goes through life.
Augie notes that “various jobs” are the Rosetta stone, or key, to his entire life. Americans define themselves by their work, and Augie is a sort of vagabond, trying on different identities as he goes along. Unwilling to limit himself by specializing in any one area, Augie drifts from job to job. He becomes a handbill-distributor, a paperboy, a Woolworth’s stocker, a newsstand clerk, a trinket-seller, a Christmas helper at a department store, a flower delivery boy, a butler, a clerk at fine department stores, a paint salesman, a dog groomer, a book thief, a coal yard worker, a housing inspector, a union organizer, an eagle-trainer, a gambler, a literary researcher, a business machine salesman, a merchant marine, and ultimately an importer-exporter working in wartime Europe. Augie’s job changing is emblematic of the social mobility that is so quintessentially American. Augie is the American Everyman, continually reinventing himself.
The Classical and Mythological
Throughout the book, Bellow makes many allusions to classical and mythological figures. For instance, Grandma is likened to a Caesar, a Pharaoh, and an Eastern lama; Mama to one of the hapless, pitiable victims of a lustful Zeus; Einhorn and Augie are compared to Socrates and his pupil Alcibiades; Thea (whose name means “goddess” in Greek) is compared to Danaë and Helen of Troy. The effect is to elevate the setting and characters of his modern, gritty, American novel to the timelessness of myth. This habitual mixture of the mythological and the everyday was in Bellow’s mind characteristic of Jewish culture. He explained: “The most ordinary Yiddish conversation is full of the grandest historical, mythological, and religious allusions. The Creation, the fall, the flood, Egypt, Alexander, Titus, Napoleon, the Rothschilds, the Sages, and the Laws may get into the discussion of an egg, a clothes-line, or a pair of pants.”