History: Published in 1956.
Plot: Wilhelm is unemployed, impecunious, separated from his wife (who refuses to agree to a divorce), and estranged from his children and his father. He is also stuck with the same immaturity and lack of insight which has brought him to failure. 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. 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", 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.
Review: Tommy Wilhelm is divorced, unemployed, broke, undereducated, self-indulgent, and dependent (on pills and his father, among other things). He lives in a hotel in New York City and wants desperately to put his life in order. Tommy, like all Bellow protagonists, has trouble determining how to cope with the modern world.
One of the symbols of Tommy’s problems, and those of modern society generally, is his relationship with his father. Tommy’s father lives in the same hotel and is disgusted with his son’s weakness. He refuses to give the one thing Tommy wants most--sympathy.
Tommy makes one last grasp for success by investing in the commodities market under the dubious influence of Dr. Tamkin. His money quickly evaporates and with it his hopes.
At this lowest point, however, Tommy has an epiphany. He accidentally happens into a church during a funeral, and, after looking at the body of a man he does not know, breaks into uncontrollable weeping.
Tommy weeps for the man, for himself, and for the human condition. He is transported beyond his own particular problems to a cathartic suffering for all mankind.
Bellow sees the problems of the modern world as essentially matters of the spirit. In a high-pressure, pluralistic, threatening, materialistic world, people must find a way to live and to remain human. Tommy does this by recognizing that human beings, for all their weaknesses--or perhaps because of them--must accept and share one another’s burdens.
Bellow offers this important response to the modern condition in a comic tale that is a contemporary classic, one which later helped win for him the Nobel prize.
Opening Line: “When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow.”
Closing Line: “He heard it and sank deeper than sorrow, through torn sobs and cries toward the consummation of his heart’s ultimate need.”
Quotes: "Bringing people into the here-and-now. The real universe. That's the present moment. The past is no good to us. The future is full of anxiety. Only the present is real--the here-and-now. Seize the day."