The education of a writer: literary influence and intertextuality in Saul Bellow's early novels

Matthew Crowe

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Saul Bellow is considered one of the towering figures of American literature in the second half of the twentieth century, an original and compelling voice of postwar realism. And yet Bellow was not only powerfully influenced by earlier works of literature in defining his own vision, but actively engaged with specific works in his early novels in order to come to an understanding of and define his own vision. In each of his first three novels, Dangling Man (1944), The Victim (1947) and The Adventures of Augie March (1953) Bellow develops in accordance with techniques of conscious literary intertextuality. These works reflect increasing originality and ambition as Bellow moves from exploring the obstacles and potential dilemmas inherent in individual subjectivity to asserting the selffulfilling potential of individual freedom and selfhood. Therefore these novels demonstrate the crucial evolution of the role of literary intertextuality within Bellow’s artistic strategies as he establishes his position as a novelist.

Chapter 1 analyses Bellow’s first novel Dangling Man. Bellow explores the desire for an impossible degree of individual freedom by constructing a dilemma with allusion to several earlier works of literature which explore similar notions of freedom and authenticity. In particular, Bellow defines his authorial vision of the limits of individual subjectivity by rebutting the central ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea. Chapter 2 analyses Bellow’s technique in The Victim which appropriates the artistic strategy of Dostoevsky’s The Eternal Husband in order to explore the foundations of human interaction. Specifically Bellow extends Dostoevsky’s literary technique to consider complex questions around the conditions of human responsibility, discord, empathy, and dignity, particularly in regard to the limits of individual subjectivity. In The Adventures of Augie March, Bellow’s third novel and the subject of Chapter 3, Bellow embarks on an ambitious project of liberation: to portray his innovative vision of the potential fulfilment of individual freedom and selfhood. For this purpose Bellow no longer constructs his novel in direct relation to literary precedents. Instead he draws upon the relevant qualities of earlier literary works and their characters to create an original quixotic protagonist who embarks on a series of self-perpetuating adventures. In this novel then, Bellow rejects the mood and techniques of his first two novels and depicts the potential of individuals to define their own reality.

The analysis of these chapters attests to the fact that as an emerging novelist Bellow consciously applied methods of intertextuality towards developing his original vision as an author. The nature and extent of Bellow’s intertextual techniques evolved as his literary ambitions expanded. This thesis provides insights into the function of literary inheritance and intertextuality during the developmental phase of Saul Bellow’s career as a novelist, and in this way delivers an original contribution to understanding the evolving artistic strategy of one of America’s great novelists.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - Nov 2012

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