Seize the Day

Seize the Day


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Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

“What makes all of this so remarkable is not merely Bellow’s eye and ear for vital detail. Nor is it his talent for exposing the innards of character in a paragraph, a sentence, a phrase. It is Bellow’s vision, his uncanny ability to seize the moment and to see beyond it.” –Chicago Sun-Times

Fading charmer Tommy Wilhelm has reached his day of reckoning and is scared. In his forties, he still retains a boyish impetuousness that has brought him to the brink of chaos: He is separated from his wife and children, at odds with his vain, successful father, failed in his acting career (a Hollywood agent once cast him as the “type that loses the girl”), and in a financial mess. In the course of one climactic day he reviews his past mistakes and spiritual malaise, until a mysterious philosophizing con man grants him a glorious, illuminating moment of truth and understanding, and offers him one last hope….

This Penguin Classics edition contains an introduction by Cynthia Ozick.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780142437612
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/15/2003
Series: Penguin Classics Series
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 145,001
Product dimensions: 5.05(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.38(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Saul Bellow was praised for his vision, his ear for detail, his humor, and the masterful artistry of his prose. Born of Russian Jewish parents in Lachine, Quebec in 1915, he was raised in Chicago. He received his Bachelor's degree from Northwestern University in 1937, with honors in sociology and anthropology, and did graduate work at the University of Wisconsin. During the Second World War he served in the Merchant Marines.

His first two novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947) are penetrating, Kafka-like psychological studies. In 1948 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and spent two years in Paris and traveling in Europe, where he began his picaresque novel The Adventures of Augie March, which went on to win the National Book Award for fiction in 1954. His later books of fiction include Seize the Day (1956); Henderson the Rain King (1959); Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories (1968); Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970); Humboldt's Gift (1975), which won the Pulitzer Prize; The Dean's December (1982); More Die of Heartbreak (1987); Theft (1988); The Bellarosa Connection (1989);The Actual (1996); Ravelstein (2000); and, most recently, Collected Stories(2001). Bellow has also produced a prolific amount of non-fiction, collected in To Jerusalem and Back, a personal and literary record of his sojourn in Israel during several months in 1975, and It All Adds Up, a collection of memoirs and essays.

Bellow's many awards include the International Literary Prize for Herzog, for which he became the first American to receive the prize; the Croix de Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, the highest literary distinction awarded by France to non-citizens; the B'nai B'rith Jewish Heritage Award for "excellence in Jewish Literature"; and America's Democratic Legacy Award of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, the first time this award has been made to a literary personage. In 1976 Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature "for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work."

Date of Birth:

June 10, 1915

Date of Death:

April 5, 2005

Place of Birth:

Lachine, Quebec, Canada

Place of Death:

Brookline, Massachusetts


University of Chicago, 1933-35; B.S., Northwestern University, 1937

Table of Contents

Seize the DayIntroduction by Cynthia Ozick

Seize the Day

Reading Group Guide


The possibilities for self-creation, material success, and absolute freedom are the basis of a powerful American myth, one that can just as easily destroy as empower those who embrace it. A long line of literary and historical figures, going back at least to Benjamin Franklin, gives us insight into this myth. Because we are a nation of immigrants whose institutions aim to make the circumstances of birth a mere starting point rather than a predictor of our fate, our capacity to invent ourselves is as limitless as our imagination. Without the practical barriers imposed by a rigid class system, vast wealth becomes not only a possibility but a measure of one's inner worth; if we can't play the game well enough to win, the fault doesn't lie in the game. Our democratic system of government promises freedom from political oppression, but this freedom can encourage us to resist societal restrictions. A democratic government is responsible to its citizens, sometimes fostering the notion that they can reap the benefits of community while being responsible to no one but themselves.

Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day is both inspired and burdened by the American myth of success. At the age of twenty, he changes his name from Wilky Adler to Tommy Wilhelm, a name signifying the person he dreams of becoming. He thereby recalls James Gatz, who by calling himself Jay Gatsby thinks he can conjure up the man Daisy Buchanan will find irresistible. Unlike Gatsby, however, Wilhelm has not fled his past; he confronts it daily through his father, who still calls him Wilky. Wilhelm has "never . . . succeeded in feeling like Tommy, and in his soul had always remained Wilky" (p. 25). But he remains optimistic, though the distance between the man he is and the man he aspires to be is an endless source of despair.

Wilhelm's financial troubles have more than practical implications. He feels that "everyone was supposed to have money" (p. 30), and his conversations with Dr. Tamkin strengthen his belief that with just a modest amount of will and talent, he could rid himself of financial worry. Tamkin assures Wilhelm that it will be "easy" for him to make much more in the market than the fifteen thousand he needs. Just as Wilhelm believes that he will one day become the person his name represents, so he clings to the hope that easy money awaits him. He assumes that his father would accept him if he had more money. Like Willy Loman, Wilhelm links his self-worth to his financial situation. If it really is easy to have more money than one needs, then financial failure must result from some character flaw.

Having quit his longtime job, left his wife and children, and taken a room in a residential hotel, Wilhelm seems intent on unburdening himself of the attachments and responsibilities that limit his freedom. He shares with Huck Finn the belief that personal autonomy somehow leads to personal fulfillment. But he is far from content when the story begins, sensing that "a huge trouble long presaged but till now formless was due" (p. 4). Wilhelm is bewildered by the fact that he has gone to such lengths to set himself free yet still feels trapped. Images of confinement proliferate. Beneath them is Wilhelm's desperate loneliness. Tamkin's assertion that we are all slaves to our "pretender souls" only further confuses the issue for Wilhelm. Is freedom a state of mind, rather than a description of external conditions? He cannot be sure, just as he can never be sure if Tamkin's pronouncements are revelation or simply a means by which Tamkin gets what he wants.

Bellow explores these themes within a tight structure that gives Seize the Day (1956) a formal resemblance to his first two novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947). The Adventures of Augie March (1953) heralded a new expansiveness in Bellow's fiction, against which Seize the Day would appear an exception. But the novella's comedy is in keeping with Augie March and, in fact, much of Bellow's later work. Seize the Day, which looks both backward and forward, occupies a unique place in Bellow's career; it is also a powerful commentary on distinctly American ideals.



Saul Bellow was born to Russian immigrant parents in a suburb of Montreal in 1915. His family moved to Chicago in 1924. Before leaving for Paris on a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1943, he taught at a teacher training college and worked for the editorial department of Encyclopaedia Britannica. He served in the Merchant Marine during World War II.

Bellow's first two novels, Dangling Man (1944) and The Victim (1947), attracted a small following, but it was his next novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953), that put Bellow on the literary map. The style and structure of the novel, a freewheeling picaresque comedy, signaled a dramatic shift in American fiction and won Bellow the first of three National Book Awards.

During the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, Bellow served as a war correspondent for Newsday. He spent most of his teaching career at the University of Chicago. Bellow's other works of fiction include Henderson the Rain King (1959), Herzog (1964),Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970), and Humboldt's Gift (1975, winner of the Pulitzer Prize). His most recent book is Ravelstein(2000). Bellow was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976.


  • Wilhelm wonders if "the making of mistakes expressed the very purpose of his life and the essence of his being here" and whether "he was supposed to make them and suffer from them on this earth" (p. 56). Are we meant to think he is right?
  • When Wilhelm tells his father about the loss of his investment, he says that "one word from you, just a word, would go a long way" (pp. 109-110). What kind of word does Wilhelm want to hear?
  • Why does Dr. Adler still call his son Wilky?
  • Why does Wilhelm believe that Wilky is "his inescapable self" (p. 25)?
  • On his way to the market with Tamkin, Wilhelm thinks that "everyone seems to know something" (p. 78). What is it Wilhelm feels they know?
  • When Wilhelm returns to the market with Mr. Rappaport and realizes his money is gone, why is he so careful to conceal the depth of his distress?
  • Why does Wilhelm agree to accompany Mr. Rappaport to the cigar store instead of returning with Tamkin to the market?
  • As he talks with Tamkin and they track the commodities prices, Wilhelm thinks to himself, "Oh, this was a day of reckoning" (p. 96). In what sense might this be true?
  • Wilhelm senses at the beginning of the novel "that a huge trouble long presaged but till now formless was due" (p. 4). What does this trouble turn out to be? What form does it take?
  • For Further Reflection

  • How much of our identity is determined by our parents?
  • Does America encourage individual freedom at the expense of communal bonds? Are these two things ultimately incompatible?
  • Related Titles

    Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie (1900)
    Opposite the heroine of this novel stands Drouet, a traveling salesman whose worship of money and luxury blinds him to the paltriness of his dreams.

    F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
    Fitzgerald's novel is the consummate depiction of the American belief in the possibility of self-invention and its tragic potential.

    Herman Melville, "Bartleby the Scrivener" (in Billy Budd and Other Stories) (1853)
    The fiercely independent copyist of Melville's classic story prefigures Wilhelm's resistance to a society driven by money and the need to quantify.

    Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman (1949)
    Willy Loman, the stark and deluded "drummer" trying to shore up the edifice of his life against a thankless career, embodies the elusiveness of the American dream.

    Leo Tolstoy, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" (in The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories) (1886)
    This short story traces a dying man's gradual realization of his spiritual essence as his social and physical being dissolve.

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    Seize the Day 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
    Crowyhead on LibraryThing 11 days ago
    I know this is a classic of modern literature, but it's never really grabbed me. I should probably re-read it at some point.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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    Guest More than 1 year ago
    This book was extremely dull. A struggle to read that was only completed as a project for school.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    i thought that Saul Bellow did an amazing job with writing this novel. It was hard to read some of the things Tommy's father would say, because even though that deep down we know some father's say that stuff it does happen. I also loved the ending of this book because it summed up everything in the book. Beyond everything i just mentioned i love love love his choice for the title. It just makes the book amazing. That you should live life to the fullest because in a split second it could be taken from you.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I loved this short but very complex tale. Bellow writes with a zest that no postmodern writer has acheived. He captures city life in his romantic realism that is far beyond Sandburg. This is neither a postmodern novel or modernist novel. In fact, it refutes both ideals. It engages the character of Wilhelm as a Jewish character in the middle of urban America, a place that Bellow feels comfortable. Bellow's ultimate vision is that humanity can only learn through experience and not ideology. Wilhelm constantly finds bad characters and financial mishandlings that put him on the verge of destruction. Also in this myriad is his very troubled relationship with his father. Live in the moment. Carpe diem or 'seize the day,' is the motto of Dr. Tamkin, the malevolent trickster or stranger myth encountered in Judaism. I'd recommend it thoroughly. Shows the appreciation of Judaism, although Bellow's obviously masculine character could not delve to be observant.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I tried to read this book and couldn't get interested. It was so slow, and seemingly pointless that I could not remember what I was reading. Only read this book if you must.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    This is arguably Bellow's most profound and moving work. It captures the world of West Side New York , and is filled with remarkable portraits of stunning minor characters. Its hero,Wilky,is a failed salesman, the poor losing- his- last- cent- son of the prosperous Dr. Adler. He is the hippotamus- like failed actor whose contradictory and broken heart fails him in his struggle to make sense of his life.The book is written with a precise Yiddish- English and rare humor.The final scene in which Wilky comes to a funeral cortege and weeps copiously ,but not for the dead person but for himself is tremendously painful and poignant. This is a great book, a book about failure and success , the American dream in one Jewish version of it. I believe anyone who cares for Literature will love this book.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    I read Seize the Day by Saul Bellow for an AP English book critique and found it mesmerizing. It makes one discover that throughout life's ups and downs, and there's always that silver lining. Because life is a precious thing to behold and to LIVE, live every day to the best of your ability, because you never know when it will be taken from you.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    Last year I was given an English assignment where we were to choose between several books and write a literary analysis. I chose 'Seize the Day', intrigued by it's title. It sounded like a fairly uncomplicated story about how you should, well, seize the day. Boy, did I underestimate this novel! It has become one of my favorite books- thought provoking, meaningful, mournful and uplifting all at the same time. The story of a man who is desperate to succeed in a harsh, unrelenting business world is unforgettable. I suggest this book to any intelligent person who enjoys exploring the gray areas in life. This book will change you!