Analysis of Saul Bellow’s Looking for Mr Green

Originally published in the March 1951 issue of Commentary magazine and subsequently included in collections of Bellow’s short fiction, “Looking for Mr Green” is one of Saul Bellow’s best early stories. It anticipates the unmistakable and abundant sense of happy invention in the better-known Adventures of Augie March (1953). It is an instance of Bellow’s maturing storytelling genius that harnessed to the full the Chicago material that molded his creative imagination and sharpened his sense of individual American experience. The story has all the strengths one associates with Bellow at his best—Realism of presentation combined with an ability to evoke the ineluctable mystery of human life rendered in quirky and riveting episodes. The story partakes of all the ingredients of a successful narrative. Set in depression-era Chicago, it describes the first working day in the life of George Grebe, a white employee of the relief bureau entrusted with the job of distributing uncollected checks in a black neighborhood. Bellow works up a steady narrative tempo in the opening paragraphs and goes on to sustain the brisk pace of action in a judicious mixture of description, incident, and reminiscence with a puzzling encounter in the end to conclude the tale on an ambivalent note. In the process the narrative explores important themes like money, race, human survival, and, above all, that recurring Bellovian concern with the problem of appearance and reality in an object-laden world.

Saul Bellow/Vanity Fair

Like most other Bellow heroes, Grebe is an intellectual (with a degree in classics) and cast in the role of a seeker. The epigraph of the story is taken from the Book of Ecclesiastes: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” In a story that predominantly follows a realistic mode of narration, the biblical imperative underscores the inescapability of human effort in the face of uncertain and perplexing life situations and alerts the reader to the tale’s serious intentions. What follows is, in effect, a simple story line. Grebe reports for work in his new job at the city relief bureau in the difficult days of the depression. He is asked by his supervisor, Raynor, also white, with the extra benefit of a law degree, to go to a black neighborhood on a bracing wintry day and deliver uncollected checks to their beneficiaries. He is given the usual tips by his boss and sets out with a bunch of information cards. Grebe, puny of stature but resolute of mind, goes about his job with a determined air and has a reasonably fruitful day except for the hard time he has in locating a recipient named Tulliver Green. One of the high points of the story is pitching the frail Grebe against the “high energy” of Chicago, “the giant raw place” (100). Skillful storyteller that Bellow is he succeeds in orchestrating the action between two parallel planes—the thick external world of a desolate urban ghetto with an overwhelming sense of loss and aspiration and the surprised consciousness of an itinerant relief worker unwilling to be intimidated by “the fallen world of appearances” (93). In an eventful first day in the field Grebe manages a series of meetings that sets his nerves on edge but finds himself absolutely clueless about Mr. Green at the end of the day. Reluctant to give up, he stumbles upon a run-down letter box with the name faintly scrawled over it and knocks on the door nearby with the hope of finally discovering Green and bringing his day to a satisfactory end. In a perplexing last paragraph the reader is told that the check is delivered to a drunken naked woman who responds to the knock on the door but refuses to identify herself. Despite his misgivings, Grebe hands over the check to the mysterious emissary: “Whoever she was, she stood for Green, whom he was not to see this time” (105). Grebe retreats with the consoling thought of having found Green. Quite clearly, the ending indicates the elusive nature of Grebe’s search. Although Grebe understandably exercises his option to end the search, the mystery lingers. In fact, there is just a hint that the search will resume another time. Thus, far from being clear in purpose and outcome, Grebe’s foray into the black ghetto sends out contradictory signals of human frailty and steadfast resilience.

“Looking for Mr Green” is best interpreted as a symbolic quest. Although the story contains a wealth of sociological information and is affiliated to the naturalistic representational style of Theodore Dreiser and James T. Farrell, there is no mistaking the moments of transcendence in the flow of mundane urban reality. Like his worthy Chicago predecessors Bellow is a master of city facts and harnesses these hard facts to lay the basic groundwork for the story. But what ultimately matters in Bellow’s story is the tendency of everyday facts to acquire symbolic resonance without quite losing their specific weight as contingent facts. In sum, the quest of the Bellow hero carries with it the usual burden of worldly trivia, but there is also a distinctive suggestion that this facticity gestures toward a higher wisdom that endows the narrative with a rare sense of ethical urgency. “Looking for Mr Green” is a fine illustration of this principle.

Bellow, Saul. “Looking for Mr Green”: “Mosby’s Memoirs” and Other Stories. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1977, 83–105.
Rodrigues, Eusebio L. “Koheleth in Chicago: The Quest for the Real in ‘Looking for Mr Green.’ ” Studies in Short Fiction 11 (Fall 1974): 387–393.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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