“I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to know, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.” (Chapter 1)
In this, one of the most famous opening paragraphs in American literature, the narrator introduces himself to his readers. Augie’s declaration of himself as “an American, Chicago born,” indicates that the story of his life is to be a quintessentially American one. Augie stands for the American Everyman, someone who comes up from humble beginnings to reinvent himself, to shape his own extraordinary destiny. 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.
“[T]he monkeys could be potent, and awesome besides, and deep social critics when the old woman, like a great lama—for she is Eastern to me, in the end—would point to the squatting brown three, whose mouths and nostrils were drawn in sharp blood-red, and with profound wit, her unkindness finally touching greatness, say, ‘Nobody asks you to love the whole world, only to be honest, ehrlich. Don’t have a loud mouth. The more you love people the more they’ll mix you up. A child loves, a person respects. Respect is better than love. And that’s respect, the middle monkey.’” (Chapter 1)
Grandma Lausch has three monkey statues representing see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, and hear-no-evil, a trio which Augie refers to as “the lower trinity of the house.” Grandma uses the middle monkey, with his hands over his mouth, to illustrate her lesson on the value of speaking honestly and respectfully. Grandma herself tells lies, so her lesson is somewhat hypocritical, but nonetheless profound. Simon takes Grandma’s lesson to heart and chooses respect over love; Augie, however, continues, stubbornly and childishly, to cling to the ideal of love.
“Don’t be a sap, Augie, and fall into the first trap life digs for you. Young fellows brought up in bad luck, like you, are naturals to keep the jails filled—the reformatories, all the institutions. Those sad and tragic things are waiting to take you in—the clinks and clinics and soup lines know who’s the natural to be beat up and squashed, made old, pooped, farted away, no-purposed away. If it should happen to you, who’d be surprised? You’re a setup for it. …But I think I’d be surprised.” (Chapter 7)
Einhorn, a father figure to Augie, delivers this speech after he learns that Augie participated in a robbery with Joe Gorman. Like others in Augie’s life, Einhorn sees promise in Augie, and does not want to see him waste his potential.
“I’m not marrying a rich girl in order to live on her dough and have a good time. They’ll get full value out of me, those people. They’ll see that I won’t lie down and take it easy. I can’t. I have to make money. I’m not one of those guys that give up what they want as soon as they realize they want it. I want money, and I mean want; and I can handle it. Those are my assets.” (Chapter 10)
Simon expresses his ambition in life. Simon has a clarity of vision that his younger brother lacks. He knows what he wants and how to get it.
“Well—you understand. Everyone has bitterness in his chosen thing. Bitterness in his chosen thing. That’s what Christ was for, that even God had to have bitterness in his chosen thing if he was really going to be man’s God, a god who was human.” (Chapter 12)
These words are spoken by Kayo Obermark, Augie’s neighbor, as he discusses Mimi’s abortion. His point is that nobody is ever made blissfully happy by the things they choose. It’s not in human nature to find perfect happiness, perfect success. We will always find some way to be, at least in part, disappointed and bitter.
“Oh, you screwball! You get human affection mixed up with everything, like a savage. Keep your silly feelings to yourself. Those lizards don’t want them, and if they did they wouldn’t be lizards—they’d be too slow, and pretty soon they’d be extinct.” (Chapter 16)
Thea teases Augie when he feels sorry for the little lizards killed by the eagle. Augie is too softhearted and idealistic; he doesn’t want to accept the harsh ways of the world. Thea, however, has a more honest and realistic view of the world.
“[Y]ou’re too ambitious. You want too much, and therefore if you miss out you blame yourself too hard. But this is all a dream. The big investigation today is into how bad a guy can be, not how good he can be. You don’t keep up with the times. You’re going against history.” (Chapter 21)
Padilla’s assessment of Augie is that he is trying too hard to be good. He won’t be able to live up to his own expectations for himself. In other words, he is not thinking, as everyone else, in a Machiavellian way.
“I have a feeling about the axial lines of life, with respect to which you must be straight or else your existence is merely clownery, hiding tragedy…. When striving stops, there they are as a gift… Truth, love, peace, bounty, usefulness, harmony!” (Chapter 22)
When Augie explains his theory about axial lines to his friend Clem Tambow, he feels that he has come upon an important conclusion about life. He resolves to do something meaningful with his life, namely, to open a home and academy for orphaned children. Although Augie is never able to align himself completely with these “axial lines,” he continues to try to live up to his ideals.
“Nobody should pretend to be always one hundred per cent honest. I wish I knew how to be seventy, sixty per cent.” (Chapter 23)
This is Stella’s confession to Augie. Augie later finds that Stella has lied to him about many things, but he loves her despite her dishonest nature. Augie himself is not one hundred percent honest. As Mintouchian notes, “A large part of this genius [of the human species] is devoted to lying and seeming what you are not.” Lying is a part of human nature, and all one can do is try not to do it intentionally.
“Look at me, going everywhere! Why, I am a sort of Columbus of those near-at-hand and believe you can come to them in this immediate terra incognita that spreads out in every gaze. I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.” (Chapter 26)
At the end of the novel, Augie reflects on his vagabond life and concludes that his destiny has been as a discoverer of the world around him. The message is that America—or the world as a whole—is what one makes of it. We are each the discoverers of our own reality.