Seize the Day | Study Guide

Saul Bellow

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Seize the Day | Chapter 1 | Summary



Tommy Wilhelm goes down to breakfast from his room in the Hotel Gloriana, a residential hotel in the Upper West Side of Manhattan and inhabited by retired Jewish people like Wilhelm's father, Dr. Adler. Wilhelm is a large, middle-aged, good-looking yet disheveled man who is out of work. He usually has breakfast with his father. Although Dr. Adler is retired with "a considerable fortune and could easily have helped his son," he won't.

Without his old job as a regional salesman, Wilhelm needs money and so has joined a weekly game of gin with other residents, including Dr. Tamkin, who has convinced Wilhelm to invest in commodities. According to Tamkin, it is easy to make money trading on the margin, and Wilhelm has entrusted him with several hundred dollars. The price of lard, in which he and Tamkin have invested, has gone down though, so Wilhelm apprehensively awaits news of the day's trading. He reflects that if his father would help him, he wouldn't have to look to Tamkin for assistance, but proud Dr. Adler "doesn't want to be disturbed" with Wilhelm's trouble.

Rubin at the front desk compliments Wilhelm on his shirt. Wilhelm tells him what it cost although it was really a gift. Wilhelm delays going into breakfast with his father because he knows his father is ashamed of him. He recalls his failed attempt to become an actor in his youth. When he responded to an interested casting agent named Maurice Venice, Wilhelm was enthralled with the idea of becoming an actor and left college against his parents' wishes and even Venice's advice after a terrible screen test to try to make it in Hollywood. He rejected his parents' plans for him to become a doctor and lied that Venice had assured him of success. Wilhelm tells everyone he is an alumnus of Penn State although he never finished his degree. In California, he changed his name from Wilhelm Adler to Tommy Wilhelm, something for which his father has never forgiven him.

Even though Wilhelm carefully considers risks and accurately identifies the best course of action, he always seems to pick the choice he has judged worst; "such decisions made up the history of his life." He was so eager to be free, successful Tommy rather than Wilky, as his father had always called him, "but Wilky was his inescapable self." Now he has given up on the idea of free choice, and Wilhelm longs to be delivered from his current crisis.


Chapter 1 introduces readers to the main character of the novel, Tommy Wilhelm. The author portrays Wilhelm as a middle-aged man with bad decision-making skills, a habit of lying, and under pressure to meet expectations of financial success. Wilhelm has a history of ignoring his better judgment to choose a path he has actually accurately assessed as a poor one. This choice reflects in what he did with Maurice Venice and Hollywood as well as most of his major life choices. Wilhelm lies to cover his failures. He tells his parents Venice has assured him of success in Hollywood when really the casting agent backs off after seeing Wilhelm on screen. He passes himself off as a college grad when he really dropped out to pursue acting. He even lies about the cost of a shirt that was really a gift, in order to seem more successful. He is a man under pressure, and the chapter suggests the main pressure is financial. Wilhelm has no job and needs money, but he also feels the need to meet his father's expectations of success. The larger societal pressure to achieve financial success and its effects on the individual is the energy that drives the whole plot of the novel, and the author will develop it further in coming chapters.

The theme of fathers and sons is present from the very first chapter. Wilhelm is painfully aware his father is ashamed of him. He knows he has failed to live up to his father's expectations. He isn't a doctor, he hasn't made a lot of money, and he has given up his family name. Although Dr. Adler is in a position to help his son financially, he won't. In the absence of fatherly assistance, Wilhelm turns to surrogates like Maurice Venice and Dr. Tamkin. These men offer some sort of promise of help although if Venice is any indication, they will fail Wilhelm as well. The conflict between father and son draws on the author's own experience with his father, with whom he often fought about money. Bellow wrote the novel in the year before and after his father's death, and the theme is one that appears in much of his writing from that time.

In this first chapter, the author uses Wilhelm's three names to symbolize the Reichian idea of three layers of character structure. Wilhelm tries to break free of the distorting oppression of social expectations when he is younger, casting off his family's wishes and name. He wants to be Tommy, what Reich would identify as his free self with the ability to love, dream, and have unconstrained social interactions. The drives in the second layer of character, which come from social pressures of envy and greed, appear in Wilky. Those pressures have led to the third layer of his character, which is Wilhelm, a man forced to wear a mask of politeness and controlled artificial sociality, what Reich calls character armor.

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