Isolation and Community
The main theme of the novel is the isolation of the individual in the depersonalized big city. Wilhelm is estranged from all the important people in his life. He cannot talk to his father about anything important, and when he does he is rebuffed. He is separated from his wife. He can talk only in superficial ways to his acquaintance Rubin, even though both men know a lot about each other. He feels out of place staying at the Hotel Gloriana, since most of the people there are much older than he. Since there is nowhere for Wilhelm to connect in a warm, human way, he is forced to turn to the eccentric Dr. Tamkin, but that relationship also ends in disillusionment and betrayal. Wilhelms one hope seems to be that he might eventually be able to marry Olive, his girlfriend (who does not live in New York City), but his wife Margaret is determined not to give him a divorce. (In the 1950s, it was harder to get a divorce than it is today.) Wilhelm therefore finds himself completely alone in a place where everyone rushes headlong in pursuit of their personal business, but no one has time to listen to him and care for him. His isolation and loneliness is destroying him, and he knows it.
The only thing resembling a community that is presented in the novel is the community of old people who live in the area around upper Broadway. They live in hotels, and during the day they fill the benches, the shops and cafeterias, tea-rooms, reading rooms and clubs in the area. They have nothing much to do but wait out the day. Clearly, Wilhelm cannot be part of this community. The only hope for him is that he might somehow be able to forge a deep spiritual connection with the wider human community, simply by virtue of sharing a common humanity. He experiences this for a moment in an underground tunnel in the subway. It is as if he is connected to what he calls the “larger body,” and he feels passionate love for the strangers he encounters, thinking of them as his brother and sisters. Something approaching this feeling returns to him as he contemplates the dead man at the funeral. This moment holds promise as a sign of a rebirth, through which Wilhelm can overcome the alienation that has come close to destroying his life.
The main business of the city is making money, which is valued above the deeper connections between human beings. New York City is presented as a soulless place, in which the authenticity of peoples lives is distorted in the interests of serving the materialism of society. Ironically, it is the charlatan Tamkin who points this out most clearly, in his description of the conflict between the real soul and the pretender soul. No one is unaffected by this conflict, and in many cases, the pretender soul, the inauthentic self, has taken control. Dr. Adler and Mr. Perls, for example, worship money, and Wilhelm is in desperate need of it. But he is naive and does not understand the financial ways of the city. He is not attuned to the prevailing materialism. There is a telling moment when the coldly efficient German manager of the brokerage office has to explain to Wilhelm the nature of the document he has signed with Tamkin. The manager is completely familiar with the ways of the city: “Here was a man . . . who knew and knew and knew. He, a foreigner, knew; Wilhelm, in the city of his birth, was ignorant.” Wilhelm is a man of feeling and emotion; he does not belong in an environment that values money over human connections. Everywhere he goes he encounters the materialistic spirit. The old, shriveled, men he meets in the brokerage office have dedicated their lives to making money on the commodities market. But Wilhelm senses something inimical to life in the way the secretive, uncommunicative Mr. Rappaport has made his money, in the “chicken business.” He imagines the appalling conditions in which the animals live on chicken farms. Then, when he notices that Rappaport will not let anyone see what he has written on his notepad, he thinks, “this was the way a man who had grown rich by the murder of millions of animals, little chickens, would act.” The thought may be sentimental and naive, but underlying it is a truth: the materialistic mentality that dominates the city is a travesty of life as it really should be lived.
Isolation and Community