Search for Identity
The foremost theme in The Adventures of Augie March is the search for identity. Unsure of what he wants from life, Augie is pulled along into the schemes of friends and strangers, trying on different identities and learning about the world through jobs ranging from union organizer to eagle trainer to book thief. His path seems random, but as Augie notes, quoting the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “a man’s character is his fate.” As Augie goes through life, knocking on various doors, these doors of fate open up for him as if by random, but the knocks are unquestionably his own. In the end of the novel, Augie defines his identity as a “Columbus of those near-at-hand,” whose purpose in life is to discover the terra incognita spreading all around him.
Love and Respect
Grandma Lausch tells Augie, “The more you love people the more they’ll mix you up. A child loves, a person respects. Respect is better than love.” Which is really better, respect or love? The two brothers, Augie and Simon, are on opposite sides of this argument. Augie identifies himself on the side of love. An idealist with a soft heart, he is almost comically susceptible to falling in love, and openly shows his sympathy, even toward the small lizards that are killed by the eagle Caligula. Augie’s vision for an orphan home and academy is driven by his motivation to share love. Simon, on the other hand, prefers respect. He marries Charlotte and stays with her because he admires her business sense, not because he feels romantic love for her. He doesn’t care whether the men at the club love him. In fact, he knows they hate him. But this doesn’t matter to him as long as he is respected. Ultimately, Simon is richer and more successful, but Augie seems happier.
Coming of Age
The Adventures of Augie March is a Bildungsroman, or novel about a young man’s coming of age. Alternately, it may be described as a picaresque novel, which is a type of novel that tells of a roguish antihero coming of age in a tough, corrupt world. The novel depicts Augie’s adventures and misadventures growing up among “Machiavellians of small street and neighborhood” in Chicago, and follows his early life through a variety of jobs and romances, successes and failures. At the end of the novel, Augie reflects on his vagabond existence and laughs aloud. “That’s the animal ridens in me,” he says, “forever rising up.”
Honesty and the False Self
One of the major themes of the novel is the human tendency toward dishonesty. Augie is not a particularly honest character. He cheats, he steals, and lies quite frequently. Dishonesty characterizes many of the other characters in the novel, including Grandma, Einhorn, Mimi (who lies to doctors that she thinks her pregnancy abnormal), Stella, Agnes, and Mintouchian. The only characters who do not lie or cheat are the simple-minded Mama and Georgie. Lying appears necessary for people to survive in a Machiavellian world. As Mintouchian puts it: “I’m a great admirer of our species. I stand in awe of the genius of the race. But a large part of this genius is devoted to lying and seeming what you are not.”
Search for Identity