Seize the Day: Essay Q&A

1. To what extent is Seize the Day a Jewish novel?
All the major characters are Jewish, but their ethnic identity is not especially stressed. There is only the barest hint of the Holocaust in the fact that Mr. Perls is a Jewish refugee from Germany. One of the few references to Jewish religious observation comes in the scene with Wilhelm and Mr. Rappaport, when the old man asks him whether he has reserved his seat in the synagogue for Yom Kippur. Wilhelm says he has not. He does not attend the synagogue, and neither does his father, who has no religion. Wilhelms mother, however, was an observant Jew, a member of the Reform congregation. In terms of his Jewishness, Wilhelm is conflicted only because of his fundamental conflict with his father, which affects every area of his life. He says, “In Dads eyes I am the wrong kind of Jew. He doesnt like the way I act. Only he is the right kind of Jew. Whatever you are, it always turns out to be the wrong kind.” Other than this, Wilhelms Jewishness does not seem to matter much to him. His girlfriend Olive is a Catholic, not a Jew, and he is quite prepared to marry her. When Tamkin asks him whether he ever encountered anti-Semitism in his work as a traveling salesman, Wilhelm replies, “I cant afford to notice.”
It seems that Bellow did not want the Jewishness of his characters to be their most defining feature. Support for this assertion can be found in his revisions to the novel. In the original version, published in 1956, the funeral at the end is a Jewish funeral. This is clear from the reference to “the blue of the Star of David like velvet ribbon.” In his revised version, first published in 1975, Bellow omits this phrase, substituting, “with the blue of a great star fluid, like velvet ribbon.” What counts in Seize the Day is not Jewishness but more universal questions, such as what it means to be a human being living in isolation and desperately trying to connect with others.
2. Describe some of the references to animals and birds in the novel. What purpose do they serve?
Some of the characters in the novel are described in terms of animals and birds. Wilhelm, who is overweight, thinks he looks like a hippopotamus. When he disappoints himself at breakfast with his father, he calls himself, “Ass! Idiot! Wild boar! Dumb mule! Slave! Lousy, wallowing hippopotamus!” Later, he pants, “bearlike.” These references suggest his clumsiness and stupidity, his failure to live up to the demands of human dignity.
Dr. Tamkin is likened to a bird. He has a “gulls nose” and his nails are “clawlike.” Wilhelm actually describes him as a “rare, peculiar bird.” Wilhelm later finds that Tamkin is in fact more like a bird of prey. After Tamkin disappears and Wilhelm realizes he has been cheated, he says, “Like this they ride on me with hoofs and claws. Tear me to pieces, stamp on me and break my bones.” He is referring to Margaret as well as Tamkin. He realizes he lives in a ruthless, animal-like world in which only the strong survive.
Another animal reference is to the wolf. In one of his stories told to Wilhelm, Tamkin says, “”I understand what it is when the lonely person begins to feel like an animal. When the night comes and he feels like howling from his window like a wolf.” In Wilhelms final conversation with Margaret, when he loses self-control, Margaret says, “I wont stand to be howled at,” which suggests that Wilhelm has become like the lonely person howling like a wolf.
The animal-like state contrasts with the fully human state of being connected to all other humans in a kind of transcendental love. This is the state that Wilhelm achieves for a moment in the underground tunnel. It lifts him above the raw, animalistic, competitive society in which he lives.
3. At the end of the novel, is Wilhelm saved, or freed? If so, how?
Throughout the novel, Wilhelm has been like a drowning man. Each development in the plot worsens his situation. He plainly cannot go on much longer in this day of reckoning. Alienated from his wife and his father, cheated by his advisor Tamkin, without a job and without an income, he is being overwhelmed. And yet there is a catharsis at the end in which Wilhelm in his desperation finally finds “the consummation of his hearts ultimate need.” The context is the funeral and the moment that Wilhelm finds himself gazing down at the corpse. He comes face to face with the fate that awaits all humans. As he begins to cry, his first thought is “A man-another human creature.” Finally, this isolated man feels a connection with someone else, a dead man. The “ultimate need” of Wilhelms heart is to belong, to love and be loved, to be part of a family that cares, to know his place in human society. These are simple human needs, but in the disaster that is Wilhelms life none of them have been met up to this point. He is completely isolated. Wilhelm is an emotional man and not to have these things in his life feels like a slow death. But in this final moment of death and rebirth he feels a sense of brotherhood within the wider human community. It is the same emotion he experienced for a moment in the underground tunnel, contemplating all the strangers-a sense of universal love. As Wilhelm weeps over the corpse, a bystander remarks that he may be the dead mans brother, and although this is not literally true, symbolically it is accurate. Another bystander remarks that the two cannot be brothers because “Theyre not alike at all. Night and day.” But Wilhelm has discovered that they are in fact alike, in a way that is deeper even than family connections. In the extremity of his need he has learned the truth of the famous passage from John Donnes “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions” (1623): “any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
4. How is New York City presented in the novel?
The urban environment as presented in Seize the Day tends to reinforce the sense of isolation that Wilhelm feels. In the crowded streets around Broadway an impersonal tide of humanity sweeps along, each person isolated in his or her own thoughts: “in every face the refinement of one particular motive or essence-I labor, I spend, I strive, I design, I love, I cling, I uphold, I give way, I envy, I long, I scorn, I die, I hide, I want.” In this helter-skelter environment the values of the heart that Wilhelm longs for are ignored in favor of an individualistic, grasping materialism. This is a city where it is hard for anyone to communicate with anyone else, and “to know the crazy from the sane.” The natural order of things has been turned upside down: “The fathers were no fathers and the sons no sons.” Wilhelm thinks you cannot even tell the old from the young anymore. (At one point he encounters some elderly women who “stared at you with expressions that did not belong to their age.”) The isolation is such that people end up talking not to others but to themselves.
The artificial, materialistic nature of the city is conveyed in the descriptions of the machines at the brokerage office, which appear as noisy parodies of living creatures: “The machinery of the board . . . hummed and whirred like mechanical birds, and the tubes glittered in the dark.” On another occasion, the same machinery sounds like “a huge cage of artificial birds.”
Twice Wilhelms thoughts turn to a different, more peaceful world, the apartment he rented in Roxbury, which had a garden in which he could sit and enjoy the sun, hear real birds (not artificial ones) singing, and breathe in “the sugar of the pure morning.” That is not possible in the city, in which all natural things are polluted. On Broadway, for example, the sunshine cannot come through clearly; it throbs “through the dust and fumes, a false air of gas visible at eye-level at is spurted from the bursting buses.”
In such an environment it is not surprising that Wilhelm loses his bearings and cannot get a grip on life.
5. Why does Wilhelm accept Dr. Tamkin as his financial, psychological and spiritual guide?
One of the reasons that Wilhelm falls under the influence of the charlatan Dr. Tamkin is that he does not know how to make sound judgments. This is typical of his entire life. Being taken in by Tamkin is little different from how he was fooled by the talent scout Maurice Venice when he was a young, inexperienced man. Wilhelm lacks self-knowledge and a sense of being grounded in his own value system. The result of these failings is that he becomes like a floating reed that anyone who appears to have something positive to offer can take advantage of. Wilhelm is also suffering from the pain of being rejected by his father, so he adopts Tamkin as a kind of surrogate father. Tamkin is a complex figure. He is colorful and he talks well. He has an answer and an explanation for everything, and a collection of outlandish stories to back up his claims. He is a very convincing fake, and he gives Wilhelm the attention he craves.
And yet if that was all Tamkin was-a fake-he would not be able to exert such a hold over Wilhelm, desperate though Wilhelm is. Tamkin is, after his own fashion, a learned, clever man, although probably not as learned as he claims. Perhaps he is self-taught. From time to time, in the midst of all the tall tales, he can be devastatingly accurate in speaking to Wilhelms situation. Some examples are his description of the “real” soul and the “pretender” soul, his advice to Wilhelm not to “marry” suffering, and his explanation that Wilhelm is allowing Margaret to make him feel guilty. In such moments, Tamkin shows genuine psychological insight, and it is this that keeps Wilhelm attached to him, against his better judgment.