The Dangling Man: In Between | Teen Ink

The Dangling Man: In Between

July 19, 2021
By aliu23 GOLD, Simsbury, Connecticut
aliu23 GOLD, Simsbury, Connecticut
10 articles 0 photos 0 comments

Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man takes the form of a journal written by the protagonist Joseph, an unemployed man in his late twenties waiting to be drafted into the military. The journal spans from December 15, 1942, to April 9, 1943. The plot of the novel is pushed forward by the crises culminated by Joseph’s multiple identities and his, unfortunately, failed attempt to reconcile them. Joseph finds himself consistently dangling between the present and the future, between the desire for integration and the desire for maintaining his spiritual isolation, and between the pursuit of reason and the occurrence of emotional outbursts. Joseph’s troubled philosophical musings on current events, coupled with introspective flashbacks to events before the starting date of the journal instigates reflection upon the meaning behind being truly human.  


The novel opens with a narrative of the protagonist's current situation. Joseph relates that still waiting for induction into the army, he has been unemployed for almost seven months. Initially, Joseph expected the liberty of time provided by unemployment would bring ample time to pursue his exploration of enlightenment ideals. However, he soon finds himself deprived of the sense of purpose and thus unable to read. He grew lost and dispirited, aimlessly taking errands and wandering around. Joseph feels the sense of purpose slipping away from him and tries to mask his lack of purpose by feigning preoccupation. Then physical appearance sympathized with emotional deterioration. He grew stout and struggled with basic exercises. Joseph's emotional and physical deterioration symbolize his inner struggle. Joseph dangles between the future and the present. His future lies in the army; however, his present lies in unemployment. It is during the struggle between the future and the present, that Joseph began to refer to himself in the past as his “older self”. The reference suggests the change that has taken root inside of Joseph. He finds himself changing, developing new identities that are incompatible with each other. 


Joseph finds himself dangling between the desire for integration and the desire for maintaining his spiritual isolation, between the desire for reason and the frequent emotional outbursts. At multiple points throughout the journal, Joseph implies his desire for a sense of community. When he saw Jimmy Burns, a past “comrade”, he nodded at the latter but did not receive recognition. Joseph describes Brun, “he looked through me in the way which is, I suppose, officially prescribed for renegades.” Burns is a member of Joseph’s past community. His presence symbolizes Joseph’s past community and his refusal to recognize Joseph is a sign of the growing distance between Joseph and his community. The alienation with his community pained Joseph. He was devastated when his consistent effort of winning Burns recognition failed. The devastation resulted in an emotional outburst, which shocked Joseph, as his behavior was an obvious deviation from his value of reason. Such incidents of Joseph’s alienation from his community are abundant in the novel. For example, at a Christmas party at his wealthy brother’s house, Joseph, wanting to stick to his principles, despised the topics they discussed: money, status, the pairs of shoes worn every year, et al. and refused to participate in such discussion. He later hassled with his teenage niece and his relatives were appalled by his behavior. His behavior at the party furthered the distance between him and his family. Yet at the same time, Joseph desires integration in his family. The sense of detachment from his wife, his brother, and his niece- whose appearance resembles his own- pains Joseph. He visits Kitty to heal his pain, to obtain a sense of spiritual console. 


Reading the Dangling Man, readers feel propelled to reflect on the meaning of life. Socrates argues that a happy life stems from wisdom. Joseph gains intellectual progress from his philosophical musings. But is he happy? Epicurus claims that the removal of diversion results in a happy life. Joseph is unemployed and thus does not have any kind of diversions in his life. But he suffers from solitude. Perhaps at some point in one’s life, one would desire complete freedom, from work, from school, from one’s family. However, Joseph’s experience shows readers that, paradoxically, absolute freedom results in sadness. 



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