Places: Henderson the Rain King

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1959

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Mock-heroic

Time of work: Late 1950’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedWariri village

Wariri Henderson the Rain Kingvillage. Domain of King Dahfu of the imaginary East African Wariri people. More lush than neighboring areas, the Wariri land also boasts a few of the modern amenities that Henderson associates with “civilization”: firearms, books, and Western furniture. Bellow often shows the village as a place of confinement; Henderson and his African guide are held captive when they first arrive, as they are again after Dahfu’s death, and Dahfu himself seems a prisoner in his own palace, chained by the obligations of his throne.

An atmosphere of death and danger hangs about the village, emphasized by Bellow’s repeated use of the color red. The Wariri people have a fearsome reputation, yet Henderson finds the inhabitants attractive and their traditional garb stylish. The opulence and pageantry of Wariri culture contrasts with the pervasiveness of death in the village, exemplified by the corpse with which Henderson wrestles his first night there and the fondness of the Wariri for ornaments made of human bone. This weaving together of death and life underscores one of Bellow’s favorite themes: In order to live fully, human beings must come to terms with their own mortality.

Dahfu’s palace

Dahfu’s palace. Home of the Wariri monarch, a place where human and animal, intellectual and sensual converge. Dahfu keeps lions in one part of his palace and a harem in another. He and Henderson discuss philosophy, yet Dahfu must live (and die) by the most elemental facts. Henderson at first envies Dahfu his exotic luxuries, but soon learns that they, like his own wealth, are accompanied by heavy burdens. Both characters, too, are displaced people: just as Dahfu once renounced his medical studies in Syria to assume his place as the Wariri king, so must Henderson renounce his Western arrogance in order to emulate the equipoise he admires in Dahfu.

The palace can be taken both as a literal location–one in which Henderson’s friendship with the king deepens and where, under Dahfu’s guidance, he faces some of his starkest fears–and as an allegory of Henderson’s inner self, with the harem symbolizing his many raging lusts and the lions, in contrast, his dormant potential for nobility and serenity. The subterranean location of the lions’ den is significant: In order to earn the freedom of his soul, Henderson must first descend into an allegorical Hell. Interestingly, Henderson’s and Dahfu’s friendship comes to its climax on a tower, outdoors, in direct antithesis to the palace’s enclosed underground lions’ den.


Bush. Wild areas surrounding the Arnewi and Wariri villages. Bellow repeatedly uses fire imagery to hint at the evanescence of life in this harsh setting, and at the way the land makes permeable the boundaries between matter and energy. Henderson’s greatest fears are death and chaos, and thus he must learn to accept decay and disorder before he can live with the ease and mastery he desires. Henderson finally confronts death unflinchingly as Dahfu dies trying to catch a lion that his people believe contains the soul of his father. It is fitting that Dahfu’s death and Henderson’s redemptive attempt to save him occur in the bush, beyond the reach of both Western and African culture, at the “changing point between matter and light.”

Earlier in the novel, Dahfu explains that people’s surroundings influence their mentality and physical appearance. While Henderson at first finds this philosophy bizarre and depressing, he later, while in the bush, realizes that Dahfu is correct, connecting the African king’s ideas with Albert Einstein’s equation of matter and energy. Henderson, then, is changed by his time in Africa, especially the time he spends around the unselfish, noble Dahfu and his lions. Near the end of the novel, for example, Henderson begins to display a generosity that is, for once, unmotivated by expectation of reward. His adoption of Dahfu’s lion cub ensures that he will take a part of Africa back to his home in the United States and thereby bring a healing element of the bush and its wildness into his domesticated, suburban American life even as he preserves the memory of his lost friend.

Arnewi village

Arnewi village. First stop on Henderson’s journey in East Africa. In ironic allusion to the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus and the wasteland motif from the Grail mythos, Bellow depicts the village afflicted both by drought and a plague of frogs infesting its water supply. Henderson’s attempt to become a hero by killing the frogs ends in disaster that leaves the parched village worse off than before, mirroring Henderson’s arid, unsatisfied soul.


*Newfoundland. Eastern Canadian province in which Henderson’s plane makes a refueling stop on the last leg of his return trip to the United States. The contrast between the African bush and Newfoundland’s “gray Arctic silence” could not be more pronounced and serves to underscore the changes Henderson has undergone. Energized by the cold and by his sense of carrying on Dahfu’s lineage, Henderson runs and leaps like the lions that for the Wariri symbolize the sovereignty of the soul.


*Connecticut. Henderson’s New England home at the beginning of the novel. There he raises pigs, to the consternation of his neighbors. His house’s disorder and his unkempt appearance indicate his alienation from the world and from himself. Feeling unhappy and confined at home, Henderson indulges in displays of temper; during one of these tantrums an elderly female neighbor dies of a heart attack, and his guilt over her death, as well as his dismay at seeing that her house is as cluttered as his, shocks Henderson out of his inertia and prompts him to travel to Africa. He realizes that he, too, will die one day, and that he must make some kind of peace with the world.


*France. Country in which Henderson lived for a time as a child; it is also the country where he lives with his first wife and begins the affair that will become his second marriage. As he tours France in adulthood, Henderson’s memories of his cultured, accomplished parents fuel his feelings of inadequacy and discontent, and he quarrels with his lover, Lily. At the height of his misery he visits an aquarium and is both mesmerized and horrified by the sight of an octopus, the seeming embodiment of the randomness and death that terrify him.

BibliographyDutton, Robert R. Saul Bellow. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Focuses on the underlying philosophical theme of humans as “subangelic,” situated between animals and divinity. Henderson the Rain King, with its biblical references and its menagerie of pigs, lions, cattle, and a bear, fits this theme easily.Fuchs, Daniel. Saul Bellow: Vision and Revision. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1984. Traces the evolution of the novel from manuscript versions to the finished book.Hyland, Peter. Saul Bellow. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Starts with a brief overview of Bellow’s life and career, then discusses the novels chronologically. The discussion of Henderson the Rain King focuses on its mixture of the comic and serious.Malin, Irving. Saul Bellow and the Critics. New York: New York University Press, 1967. Twelve essays on Bellow’s works. Most of the essays refer to Henderson the Rain King to some extent; David Hughes’s essay, “Reality and the Hero,” compares and contrasts the work to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) to “illuminate the problems of the contemporary novelist.”Wilson, Jonathan. On Bellow’s Planet: Readings from the Dark Side. Cranbury, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1985. Analyzes Henderson the Rain King in terms of anthropology, examining the relation between ritual and order in African societies and in twentieth century America. Includes a discussion of the novel’s ending.
Categories: Places