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Seize the Day | Themes

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Isolation

Tommy Wilhelm is isolated from his family and the community around him. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, Wilhelm has left his wife, Margaret, and sons. He is in Manhattan while they remain in Brooklyn, a separate borough of the city. He misses his children, and he worries they are becoming alienated from him under his wife's influence. In the residential hotel, the Gloriana, Wilhelm, too, is isolated. It is home to mostly retired people like his father. The older residents spend their days sitting in the park, leisurely passing the time, while he frantically tries to figure a way out of his financial crisis. They have no worries, which only intensifies his sense of panic. In the bustling, crowded streets of Manhattan he is seemingly alone with his worries—only once, and then very briefly, feeling a real connection with the rest of humanity. In the final scene of the novel, he "alone of all the people in the chapel ... was sobbing" at the dead man's funeral, alone in his cathartic expression of grief.

Wilhelm feels isolated in the modern world because he is an idealist living in a world of cynicism. Dr. Tamkin recognizes Wilhelm's idealism, describing him as a man who is "humble for life, who wants to feel and live." Wilhelm leaves his job when he feels he isn't given what he is due. He condemns salesmen like those at his company as "cynical right to the bones." Despite failing to consistently embody his own ideals, Wilhelm reacts strongly. He is "especially horrified by the cynicism of successful people" like his cousin Artie, a professor of languages. Wilhelm wonders if his cousin even likes languages, suspecting him of doing the work for the money. Wilhelm finds cynicism all around him, and he is disgusted by too much of "the world's business ... too much falsity." His idealism makes him different from those around him, setting him apart.

Tommy Wilhelm's sense of isolation is why the novel is almost entirely an inner dialogue. The majority of the novel is taken up with describing Wilhelm's thoughts and motivations and memories. Although readers also learn about Wilhelm from the perspective of other characters through the narrator, most of the narration focuses on Wilhelm and his perspective. As such, readers are privy to his feelings of isolation and suffocation as he tries desperately to connect, to save himself.

Fathers and Sons

The novel is full of fathers and sons, a preoccupation of the author: he wrote the novel in the years preceding and following his own father's death. The novel mostly portrays the absence of fathers and the needs of sons. Tommy Wilhelm's own father refuses to fill the fatherly role Wilhelm wants, either financially or emotionally. Dr. Adler has plenty of money, and he could easily help Wilhelm financially. He refuses to do so, however. He views Wilhelm's problems as his own fault, and his son's requests for help are a cross he is unwilling to bear. In Dr. Adler's view, fathers in his position should be left in peace to enjoy their final years. It's almost as if Dr. Adler has retired from being a father. Wilhelm's father "lived in an entirely different world from his son's." Wilhelm needs more from his father than money, though; he needs sympathy. He tells Dr. Adler there is so much more a father can do for a son than give him money. He begs his father for "just a word" of kindness, and it makes him "profoundly bitter that his father should speak to him with such detachment about his welfare."

Wilhelm's father is not only emotionally unavailable but also cold and critical. He judges Wilhelm to be irritating and disappointing, finding fault with everything from his manner of dress, to his use of medicine, to his driving. He blames Wilhelm for not being like himself, and he rejects him as an embarrassment.

In the absence of his father's support, Wilhelm turns to another father figure, Dr. Tamkin. Wilhelm knows if his own father had helped him, he would not have needed to look to Tamkin for help. Tamkin provides a sort of sinister paternal surrogacy for Wilhelm, giving him all the sympathy and advice Wilhelm desires. Taking advantage of Wilhelm's vulnerability, Tamkin betrays him, ultimately abandoning him just as much as Dr. Adler has.

Wilhelm is a different sort of father to his own sons, to some extent. He sends money to his wife, paying all the bills he is able to because he doesn't want his sons to go without anything. Although Wilhelm loves his own sons, refusing to believe he has abandoned them as his own father has abandoned him emotionally, it is a fact that Wilhelm no longer lives with his sons and seldom sees them. Wilhelm is functionally unavailable to his sons, too.

Other fathers in the novel similarly fail their children. Tamkin tells stories of a "father-and-son case" in which the father questions the paternity of the son. One of the other traders, Mr. Rappaport, reportedly has two families to which he currently has questionable ties, and Tamkin's own father left his family to begin another with an opera singer, something for which Tamkin actually admires him. The sources of estrangement between fathers and sons, ultimately, are the crushing power of modern life and its expectations, which make communication and paternal care impossible. In modern New York, Wilhelm understands "the fathers were no fathers and the sons no sons."

Materialism

The materialism of modern urban life creates the pressure to chase after financial success, pressure Tommy Wilhelm finds crushing. Dr. Tamkin voices the expectation of modern existence, that "there's money everywhere. Everyone's shoveling it in." Wilhelm recognizes "everyone's supposed to have money ... [and] they'd be ashamed not to have it." Materialism is a source of pride and identity. Materialism takes a number of forms, one of which is a salacious interest in exact incomes. Dr. Adler never misses an opportunity to brag his son once earned "five figures." Mr. Perl digs to find out the precise amount. Dr. Tamkin claims some men make "five, ten thousand a week" trading commodities. He boasts about selling a lawsuit to a Wall Street lawyer for $20,000.

Even those of more modest means in the novel express materialism through preoccupation with possessions like clothing. Rubin, the employee at the Gloriana's front desk, is a bit of a clothes hound who "dressed very well." He notices the clothing of others, too, commenting on Wilhelm's shirt. He wants to know if it came from Saks, an upscale department store. Dr. Adler is said to be a snappy dresser as well. Clothing projects the appearance of material success.

Questions for Themes

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