Saul Bellow (b. 1915)
Contributing Editor: Allan Chavkin
Classroom Issues and Strategies
I think the best strategy is to focus on specific parts of the story by asking a series of specific questions. This particular story can be approached on two different levels, for it is both a realistic depiction of a relief worker's dedicated attempt to search for an unemployed, crippled black man in the slums of Depression Chicago in order to deliver a welfare check and a symbolic quest to discover the relationship between reality and appearances.
My approach to the story is generally conventional--asking questions and prompting class discussion on key issues. Another possible approach would be to play all or part of an excellent unabridged audio-recording of the story by Books on Tape, P. O. Box 7900, Newport Beach, CA 92658-7900, and discuss the interpretation that the Books-on-Tape reader gives to the story.
Students often respond actively to the following issues raised by "Looking for Mr. Green":
1. Money as a formative influence on the creation of identity.
2. The problem of the noncompetitive in a highly competitive society.
3. The clash between idealism and cynical "realism," between the noble idealist and the cynic.
4. The quest of a stubborn idealist in an irrational world.
5. Racism and stereotyping.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Historical Issues and Themes: How does society help the downtrodden (in this story an unemployed, crippled black man) in bad economic times (e.g., the depression)? The story also examines the problems of race, class, and gender. Other issues that the class might focus upon are: the plight of the noncompetitive in a capitalistic, highly competitive society; how money influences character; the alienation of the urban black man.
Personal Issues and Themes: How does an idealistic humanist (i.e., the typical Bellow hero) reconcile noble ideas with the harsh facts of the human condition? Is man essentially a victim of his situation or is he the master of his fate? What is Bellow suggesting about the problem of human suffering and evil? The relationship of the individual to his society? The relationship of appearance to reality? The clash between the human need to order and make sense of life according to moral principles and life's amoral disorder, discontinuity, irrationality, and mystery?
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
The story can be discussed as a bildungsroman; as a parable; as a symbolic quest; as a realistic depiction of the depression and of the alienation of the urban black man.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
The story might be compared with some works by such black writers as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison, or any other writers who have written about the depression (e.g., John Steinbeck). The story could be compared to some stories by such naturalistic writers as Theodore Dreiser and Jack London who are also concerned with the free will versus determinism theme. An interesting comparison would be with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote on the formative influence of money on the self. The idea that illusion is necessary for the survival of self in a harsh, predatory world is a central theme of modern American drama (Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller), and this story might be compared to the most important modern American plays. Bellow's depiction of women might be compared to that of other writers.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. (a) What is the purpose in the story of Grebe's supervisor Raynor? What is Bellow's attitude toward Raynor's cynical "wisdom"? Is concern for the individual anachronistic? For philosophical studies?
(b) What is the purpose of the encounter with the Italian grocer who presents a hellish vision of the city with its chaotic masses of suffering humanity?
(c) The old man Field offers this view of money--"Nothing is black where it shines and the only place you see black is where it ain't shining." Discuss. What do you think of the scheme for creating black millionaires? Why does Bellow include this scheme in the story?
(d) What is the purpose of the Staika incident in the story? Raynor sees her as embodying "the destructive force" that will "submerge everybody in time," including "nations and governments." In contrast, Grebe sees her as "the life force." Who is closer to the truth?
(e) The word "sun" and sun imagery are repeated throughout the story. Discuss.
2. (a) Discuss the theme of appearance versus reality.
(b) Bellow ends the story with Grebe's encounter with the drunken, naked black woman, who may be another embodi- ment of the spirit of Staika. Why does Bellow conclude the story this way? Has Grebe failed or succeeded? Is he deceiving himself?
(c) David Demarest comments: "Grebe's stubborn idealism is nothing less than the basic human need to construct the world according to intelligent, moral principles." Discuss.
(d) Believing that "Looking for Mr. Green" needs to be seen "as one of the great short stories of our time," Eusebio Rodrigues argues that the Old Testament flavors it. This story is "a modern dramatization of Ecclesiastes." Discuss.
Chavkin, Allan. "The Problem of Suffering in the Fiction of Saul Bellow." Comparative Literature Studies 21 (Summer 1984): 161-74.
Demarest, David. "The Theme of Discontinuity in Saul Bellow's Fiction: 'Looking for Mr. Green' and 'A Father-to-be.' " Studies in Short Fiction 6 (Winter 1969): 175-86.
Friedrich, Marianne M. Character and Narration in the Short Fiction of Saul Bellow. New York: Peter Lang, 1995, 47-57.
Fuchs, Daniel. Saul Bellow: Vision and Revision. Durham: Duke University Press, 1984, 287-89.
Kiernan, Robert F. Saul Bellow. New York: Continuum, 1988, 121-24.
Opdahl, Keith Michael. The Novels of Saul Bellow. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1967, 100-03.
Rodrigues, Eusebio L. "Koheleth in Chicago: The Quest for the Real in 'Looking for Mr. Green.'" Studies in Short Fiction 11 (Fall 1974): 387-93.