Because he was born in Canada, Joseph's induction into the U.S. Army has fallen into a bureaucratic limbo. With nothing but time on his hands -- it has been seven months since he quit his job at the Inter-American Travel Bureau, expecting to be inducted immediately -- he has begun to keep a journal, which is the narrative vehicle for the novel. He is self-conscious about the journal -- "to keep a journal nowadays is considered a kind of self-indulgence, a weakness, and in poor taste" -- but then he's self-conscious about almost everything. The journal is, in fact, his one way of confronting the existential nothingness of his life: "The hard-boiled are compensated for their silence: they fly planes or fight bulls or catch tarpon, whereas ... I am alone ten hours a day in a single room."
He and his wife, Iva, live in a rooming house with "the standard rooming-house annoyances: cooking odors, roaches, and peculiar neighbors." She supports him with her job, and "claims that it is no burden and that she wants me to enjoy this liberty, to read and to do all the delightful things I will be unable to do in the Army." One of them would be to continue working on a series of "essays, mainly biographical, on the philosophers of the Enlightenment," that he had begun about a year earlier. But he has quit work on that. Although Iva brings him books, he says, "I find myself unable to read. Books do not hold me."
They no longer see their friends in Chicago, so Joseph sits "idle in my room, anticipating the minor crises of the day, the maid's knock, the appearance of the postman, programs on the radio, and the sure, cyclical distress of certain thoughts." He has thought of going back to work, but the prospect of having to leave the job when he is finally called up has stymied that move.
There is nothing to do but wait, or dangle, and grow more and more dispirited. It is perfectly clear to me that I am deteriorating, storing bitterness and spite which eat like acids at my endowment of generosity and good will. But the seven months' delay is only one of the sources of my harassment. Again, I sometimes think of it as the backdrop against which I can be seen swinging. It is still more. Before I can properly estimate the damage it has done me I shall have to be cut down.Bellow's Dangling Man is not unlike Dostoevsky's Underground Man, trapped in a vicious circle of inertia that feeds his "bitterness and spite." And his name, Joseph, echoes that of the victim of bureaucracy in Kafka's The Trial.
Joseph is also the victim of his own imagination: "In the middle of winter, isolating a wall with sunlight on it, I have been able to persuade myself, despite the surrounding ice, that the month was July, not February. Similarly, I have reversed the summer and made myself shiver in the heat." Now, he has persuaded himself that he is rooted to his chair: "It is a real, a bodily feeling. I will not even try to rise." But he realizes that when the maid, Marie, comes to clean the room, he will get up and go to the store.
He goes out, he says, at most four times a day: thrice for meals and an occasional fourth time for some "contrived errand or on some aimless impulse." Sometimes, he says cryptically, he goes out without his wife's knowledge "to see Kitty Daumler." But on all his excursions he tries to avoid running into people he knows, or even to be seen too frequently in the same place, for fear that he'll attract attention. He reads the newspaper "from end to end, ritualistically, missing not a word," starting with the comic strips. And when he finishes it, he says, "I even reread the comics to see if I have missed anything."
When the maid arrives, "She has a cigarette in her mouth. I think I am the only one before whom she dares smoke; she recognizes that I am of no importance." Sometimes he listens to the radio, but he can't play it too loud because the landlady "has been bedridden for more than three months" and "is not expected to live very long." The rooming house is run by her daughter and her husband, Captain Briggs.
Their next-door neighbor is a man, "a queer, annoying creature," named Vanaker. Joseph asserts that Vanaker "coughs to draw attention to himself." Iva has complained to Mrs. Briggs that "when he goes to the toilet he leaves the door ajar. He tramps down the hall, and a moment later you hear him splashing." Mrs. Briggs has posted a notice on the bathroom door asking that it be closed while in use. "So far it hasn't helped." The maid, Marie, says that she "has found half-smoked cigars ground out on the floors of unoccupied rooms" and suspects that Vanaker prowls about when the occupants are gone.
One day, Joseph says, he was leafing through a copy of Goethe's Poetry and Life (presumably a translation of Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit) and was taken with this passage:
All comfort in life is based upon a regular occurrence of external phenomena. The changes of the day and night, of the seasons, of flowers and fruits, and all other recurring pleasures that come to us, that we may and should enjoy them -- these are the mainsprings of our earthly life. The more open we are to these enjoyments, the happier we are; but if these changing phenomena unforld themselves and we take no interest in them, if we are insensible to such fair solicitations, then comes on the sorest evil, the heaviest disease -- we regard life as a loathsome burden. It is said of an Englishman that he hanged himself that he might no longer have to dress and undress himself every day.Joseph read on, and came to the heading "Weariness of Life," but was disappointed to read: "Nothing occasions this weariness more than the recurrence of the passion of love." Recognizing the irrelevance to his own weariness, Joseph says, "I put the book down."
One day, Iva asked Joseph to go to see her father, Mr. Almstadt, who had come down with a cold. "Iva, knowing how inept her mother is, asked me to go there and help out." He arrived to find things in "great disorder," and went up to see Almstadt. Meanwhile, he could overhear Mrs. Almstadt continually talking on the phone: "Her words showered down upon us like little glass pellets." But when he comments to Almstadt on this, his father-in-law gets angry at his presumption. Joseph remembers that Almstadt had said before to him, "Katy's still a child; she never grew up." But when he repeats this to Almstadt, it doesn't ease his anger.
Joseph decides that Almstadt has reconciled himself to the situation: "Babble, tedium, and all the rest were to be expected; they came with every marriage." And then he thinks that perhaps his father-in-law "heard and delighted in her, wanted her slovenly, garrulous, foolish, and coy, took pleasure in enduring her."
He agrees to go to the drugstore to fill a prescription for Almstadt, and on the way hears Mrs. Almstadt say on the phone, "My Iva's husband Joseph is here to lend a hand. He isn't working now, he's waiting for the Army, so he has all the time in the world." This makes Joseph angry, and he wonders "whether her thoughts were as smooth and contentless as counters or blank dominoes; whether she was half guile and half innocence; or whether there worked through her a malice she herself knew nothing about." When he returns to the house with the prescription, he decides not to enter into a conversation with the Almstadts: "If I began to talk I would soon find myself explaining my position and defending my idleness."
Before he leaves, he looks out of the window of the Almstadts' living room and reflects on the ugliness of what he sees: "Where was there a particle of what, elsewhere, or in the past, had spoken in man's favor?" He feels alienated from the human lives that he sees in the "billboards, streets, tracks, houses, ugly and blind." He thinks of the people reflected in his reading of the newspaper: "In their businesses and politics, their taverns, movies, assaults, divorces, murders, I tried continually to find clear signs of their common humanity." They were all caught up in history, he reflects.
And if, as was often said, this part of the century was approaching the nether curve in a cycle, then I, too, would remain on the bottom and there, extinct, merely add my body, my live, to the base of a coming time. This would probably be a condemned age. But ... it might be a mistake to think of it in that way.... The worlds we sought were never those we say; the worlds we bargained for were never the worlds we got.In the next day's entry he reflects on what he was a year ago: a twenty-seven-year-old employee of the Inter-American Travel Bureau, "a tall, already slightly flabby but, nevertheless, handsome young man, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin -- major, History -- married five years, amiable, generally takes himself to be well-liked." He had been seventeen when he met Iva, and was then a member of the Communist Party. He is also, he thinks, "somewhat peculiar ... even his oldest friends, those who like John Pearl and Morris Abt have been close to him since boyhood, often find it hard to make him out." And he acknowledges, thinking of himself in the third person, that "Joseph suffers from a feeling of strangeness, of not quite belonging to the world, of lying under a cloud and looking up at it."
Returning to the present, Joseph goes out shopping in preparation for the holidays, though his view of the scene is hardly full of Christmas cheer: "bell-ringers ... in beards of soiled cotton and red Santa Claus costumes.... Immense wreaths were mounted on buildings in the green, menacing air; the thousands upon thousands of shoppers ground through the stores and the streets under the smoky red façades and in the amplified roar of carols."
At the rooming house, "Vanaker is restless these days." He moves the furniture around and sometimes blocks the door with his bed, and Marie tells Joseph that he doesn't wash his underwear, he just hangs it in the window to air. Mrs. Briggs tells him that Vanaker is converting to Catholicism to get married, but Joseph notices that he also "receives large quantities of mail from the Masonic Scottish Rite. It may be this conflict of principle that drives him to get up at two in the morning to change the position of his bed."
They have been invited to have Christmas dinner at both the Almstadts and Joseph's brother Amos. "I am for refusing both."
His friend Myron Adler invites Joseph to have lunch to talk about a temporary job "asking people questions for a poll he is conducting." At the restaurant, Joseph sees a man, Jimmy Burns, whom he had known when they were both members of the Communist Party. But when Burns doesn't acknowledge Joseph's nod, Joseph takes offense. Adler doesn't understand why Joseph is so upset and vows, "I'm going to go up to him and say hello whether he likes it or not." He explains to Adler, "Simply because I am no longer a member of their party they have instructed him and boobs like him not to talk to me.... Forbid one man to talk to another, forbid him to communicate with someone else, and you've forbidden him to think, because, as a great many writers will tell you, thought is a kind of communication. And his party doesn't want him to think, but to follow its discipline."
Joseph gets increasingly upset, as Adler tries to calm him down. He tells Adler that when he left the party, he wrote a letter to Jane Addams apologizing for the communist rejection of her brand of reformism. Finally he calls out, "Hey, Burns! Hey!" as Adler shushes him. "Burns glanced briefly in my direction and then resumed his conversation with the other man, who, however, turned ... to examine me." Adler tries to hustle Joseph out of the restaurant before he causes another scene, but as they leave, Joseph stops at Burns's table and confronts him. Burns acknowledges "in a low voice" that he knows Joseph, which satisfies him.
Later, Joseph is repentant for his "sheer dishevelment of mind," and reveals that he fabricated the story about writing to Jane Addams. (An anticipation of Moses Herzog's many letters to famous people?)
But still, I could not condemn myself altogether for it. It was wrong to make a scene but, after all, it was not so wrong to be indignant at Burns. To have invented a letter to Jane Addams was, however, clearly wrong. Why on earth had I done that? ... Later, thinking these incidents over, I felt less inclined to shoulder all the blame.... For the insolence of Burns figured the whole betrayal of an undertaking to which I had once devoted myself.The experience reminds him of a party he attended the previous March, which led to his present disillusionment with his friends. Again, for a moment, he objectifies himself as "Joseph, that creature of plans," who asked himself "How should a good man live; what ought he to do?"
What he wanted was a "colony of the spirit," or a group whose covenants forbade spite, bloodiness, and cruelty.... The world was crude and it was dangerous and, if no measures were taken, existence could indeed become -- in Hobbes' phrase, which had long ago lodged in Joseph's mind -- "nasty, brutish, short." It need not become so if a number of others would combine to defend themselves against danger and crudity.We see here why Joseph joined the Communist Party and why he broke from it: a longing for a community to take on the world, and a realization that communities are frangible because they're made up of human beings.
The party was given by Iva's friend Mina Servatius, and Joseph goes reluctantly: "I liked nothing better than to see my friends singly or in pairs, but when they came together in a large group they disheartened me." He could predict what his friends would be like at the party, including "that Minna would have difficulties with her husband."
They arrive late and Minna accuses them of doing so "when everybody's high so they can stand around and watch us make fools of ourselves." She proceeds to order people around, making them do things they don't want to do. Joseph finds out why when he asks Myron Adler, who tells him that Minna's husband, Harry, has been spending the evening talking to Gilda Hillman.
When Iva asks Joseph to get her another drink, he worries that she'll get drunk, and when he sees her at the punch bowl later, he thinks about taking the glass away from her. But he continues to talk with Morris Abt, an old friend who recently got his doctorate in political science from Chicago. Their conversation is interrupted by a shrill laugh from Minna, and Joseph begins "to think what a gathering of this sort meant," which is "to free the charge of feeling in the pent heart." He likens it to the rites of Eleusis. "Only we did these things without grace or mystery, lacking the forms for them and, relying on drunkenness, assassinated the Gods in one another and shrieked in vengefulness and hurt. I frowned at this dreadful picture."
When Harry Servatius and Gilda Hillman appear and begin dancing together, Minna orders Abt to hypnotize someone -- an old party trick that he says he has given up. She persists, and when no one else volunteers to be hypnotized, decides to have it done to herself. Joseph watches as Abt puts Minna under, but after several tricks she sits up and calls out for her husband. "Then she began to cry, her face fixed and bewildered."
As people try to bring Minna around, the party disintegrates, and Joseph goes in search of Iva, whom he finds outside on the porch. He has a testy conversation with Jack Brill, a recent addition to their circle of friends who resents being treated as an outsider to the group. Then he calls a cab and takes Iva home, reflecting, "I thought that with one leap 'nasty, brutish, and short' had landed in our midst." He is disgusted by his friend Abt for participating in the hypnosis stunt, but also with his entire circle of friends: "I began to discover one weakness after another in all I had built up around me." In the following months, he separates himself from them, though he still occasionally corresponds with Abt, who has gone to Washington.
After the incident with Burns, Myron Adler tells Joseph that the agency had decided to hire women for the polling job.
Vanaker is drinking heavily and throwing empty pint bottles into the neighbors' yards. Joseph counts eighteen of them one day. Iva discovers that some bottles of perfume that she had been sent by their friend Ethel Pearl are missing, and assumes that Vanaker has stolen them.
Iva accepts the Christmas dinner invitation from Joseph's brother Amos, who is twelve years Joseph's senior and has married into money. He had offered Joseph a position in his firm, and was disappointed when he "took what seemed to him a menial job." This led to a split between the brothers for a year, but Iva brought about a reconciliation. Amos and his wife, Dolly, have a fifteen-year-old daughter, Etta. Dolly and Etta remind Joseph of the haughty daughters of Zion in Isaiah, who "walk with stretched forth necks and wanton eyes," and whom "the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the head ... and ... discover their secret parts."
Certainly it is the "stretched forth necks," or delicacy in conjunction with the rugged ancient machinery of procreation, that has for a long time been identified in my imagination with feminine nature. Here the parallel ends, for I am the very opposite of vindictive in regard to this duality and have, indeed, found pleasure in recognizing it.But maybe not so much, as what follows suggests. For Joseph sees Etta as "a vain girl" and is "sure she spends a great many hours before the mirror." But what complicates matters is "that she must be aware of the resemblance she bears to me." He is annoyed by the family's complaints about shoe rationing: "We couldn't get along on four pairs a year." And after Iva says that Joseph "never buys more than one pair of shoes a year," he bristles at Etta's comment, "He isn't on his feet much."
He also gets crosswise with Amos, when he says he won't go for officer candidate school when he finally is inducted: "As I see it, the whole war's a misfortune. I don't want to raise myself through it." Amos, who scorns his brother's lack of ambition, doesn't take well to this, especially when Joseph points out that "Socrates was a plain foot soldier, a hoplite." Later, when Joseph and Amos are alone together, Joseph refuses the hundred-dollar bill Amos tries to put in his pocket. Amos says, "I'm beginning to think you're not all there with your convictions and your hop--! I wish I knew how it was going to turn out with you. You'll ruin yourself in the end." But Joseph scorns Amos's concern for the future: "There is no personal future any more.... I wouldn't stake a pin on my future."
Amos leaves him alone in the bedroom, and Joseph searches for something that he can use to pin down the hundred-dollar bill that Amos has left behind. After going through some dresser drawers he finds a pincushion and leaves the bill attached to the cover over a pillow. Then he goes upstairs to the music room, where he puts on a recording of "a Haydn divertimento for the cello, played by Piatigorsky." He had given it to Etta in one of his attempts to "improve" her.
"It was the first movement, the adagio, that I cared most about. Its sober opening notes, preliminaries to a thoughtful confession, showed me that I was still an apprentice in suffering and humiliation."
What I should do with them, how to meet them, was answered in the second declaration: with grace, without meanness. And though I could not as yet apply that answer to myself, I recognized its rightness and was vehemently moved by it. Not until I was a whole man could it be my answer, too. And was I to become this whole man alone, without aid? I was too weak for it, I did not command the will. Then in what quarter should I look for help, where was the power? ... The music named only one source, the universal one, God. But what a miserable surrender that would be, born out of disheartenment and chaos; and out of fear, bodily and imperious, that like a disease asked for a remedy and did not care how it was supplied.It's a moment that, in this earliest of Bellow novels, will be repeated throughout the body of his work: the solitary intellectual, brought to a moment of spiritual crisis -- and then brought down from the lofty heights of introspection by the rude intrusion of ordinary life. For at this moment, as Joseph is wandering through "the seldom-disturbed thickets around the heart," Etta pops up and wants to play her Xavier Cugat records.
They argue, childishly. Especially childishly on Joseph's part, since he's almost twice her age. And then, shockingly, Joseph decides that what she needs is a spanking. Shockingly, because the psychosexual import of what he's about to do is an entirely new note in the novel, prepared for only by the quotation from Isaiah that had been part of Joseph's thinking earlier.
With the fingers of her free hand she tired to reach my face. Seizing her by the hair fiercely, I snapped her head back; her outcry never left her throat; her nails missed me narrowly. Her eyes shut tightly, in horror. "Here's something from a beggar you won't forget in a hurry," I muttered. I dragged her to the piano bench, still gripping her hair.... I pulled her over my knee, trapping both her legs in mine.This near-rape is the product of an argument over who gets to use the phonograph. That alone opens an new window into Joseph's character, into the dark frustrations of the dangling man. Adding to the perverseness of the scene is Joseph's own acknowledgment earlier that Etta looks like him. There is an element of self-rape in the scene.
Her cries attract Amos, Dolly, and Iva. Accusations fly, and in the course of them Etta reveals that she has been spying on her uncle: "You were looking in Mama's dressing table." For his part, Joseph has the bad grace to take out his anger (and nascent guilt) on his wife: "In the darkened corner near the phonograph Iva lowered her head into her hands. 'Hey! what are you acting up for back there?' I called out to her." And when they get home and she sits on the bed and bursts into tears, he shouts at her, "It's so nice to know that you at least have faith in me!"