Places: Mr. Sammler’s Planet

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1970

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social realism

Time of work: Mid-twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*New York City

*New Mr. Sammler’s PlanetYork City. Like many of Bellow’s protagonists, Sammler functions chiefly as an eye and a brain, and audiences see New York through his eyes. The city is, to use a phrase of Saul Bellow’s that he got from Wyndham Lewis, a “moronic inferno,” a metropolis ridden with detritus, broken objects and wrecked people, reduced to the level of a Third World capital. Its parks are full of dog excrement, and their flowers are soiled with pollution almost immediately after blooming. The X’s painted on the windowpanes of a building marked for demolition loom in Sammler’s mind as portents of the end of time. In a notorious scene, an African American pickpocket whom Sammler observes threatens retribution by physically exposing himself to Sammler in the run-down lobby of his own apartment building.

In Sammler’s mind, this decay is the result of Western civilization’s surrender to the philosophies of the Enlightenment, the concrete aftereffects of the dreams of nineteenth century Romantic poets. His images for the city’s denizens are based in literature; at one point they are spider monkeys, throwing their excrement at passersby–in other words, Yahoos. Later, the zonked-out youths lounging in the city’s parks remind Sammler of H. G. Wells’s effete Eloi race of the distant future in The Time Machine (1895); they are almost feral, tinged with a decadent grace. Outside the city, even the flora can be ominous; like the ancient Roman poet Juvenal, Sammler views the plant life as providing hiding spaces for thieves, robbers, or even worse. “Great cities are whores,” he concludes.

Yet even in this metropolitan circle of hell, Sammler can find pleasure–“Bliss from his surroundings!” as he calls it. There is a hint that Sammler resists such delights as the city can provide him, the resistance symbolically expressed by his injured eye. His own personal history, so intertwined with the worst aspects of twentieth century history in the Holocaust, limit the pleasures he can take from his milieu. Nevertheless, near the end of the novel he can exult: “To see was delicious.”


*Poland. Eastern European country in which Sammler is born and where he experiences the horrors of the Holocaust. In Poland’s Zamosht Forest he returns to a state of nature and kills a German soldier, and later must hide in a mausoleum: Both locations are obviously symbolic.


*London. Capital of Great Britain in whose Bloomsbury district Sammler lives before World War II. Britain’s greatest city is a fitting location for an Anglophile who loves the life of the mind and who, like the early twentieth century writers of London’s Bloomsbury Group were accused of doing, has not yet confronted the problem of evil in the modern world.


*Israel. Modern Middle Eastern homeland of the Jews, which Sammler visits twice; both times are marked by incongruities of place and time. During his first visit, he encounters an Argentine gaucho in Galilee and notes that William Blake’s verdant imagery in “Jerusalem” (1820) does not tally with the arid landscape before him. Later, during his visit when Israel is fighting the Six-Day War, his observation of a tank battle is invaded by an irruption of modernity as several photographers, accompanied by uncomprehending models, come to photograph it. In Gaza, Sammler sees a group of Bedouin tents made not out of fabric, but pieced together out of the detritus of modern civilization–plastic, styrofoam, and cellulose. Even the famous biblical sites of the Holy Land are not immune from the disease of modern life, a disease that leaves eternal remnants of itself.


*Earth. Mr. Sammler’s planet. As the title of the novel suggests, Sammler is forced to consider the entire globe because of the imminent landing on the Moon and Dr. Govinda Lal’s manuscript about humanity’s settling there. Sammler is initially not sanguine about the prospect of humanity’s surviving on Earth, let alone its Moon. Having seen the world nearly collapse during the Holocaust, he is afraid of its happening again. The extraterrestrial perspective inspired by Lal’s writing allows Sammler to see Earth not as one big, blue ball, the home of life, but as one huge grave. Yet at the end of the novel, Sammler holds out a glimmer of hope: “We will die. Nevertheless there is a bond.” Whether that bond has the strength to allow people, to use the epigraph of a famous Bloomsbury novel, to “only connect,” is outside the province of the narrative.

BibliographyCronin, Gloria L., and L. H. Goldman, eds. Saul Bellow in the 1980’s: A Collection of Critical Essays. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1989. Essential reading for Mr. Sammler’s Planet. See especially Allan Chavkin’s article, “Bellow and English Romanticism,” Susan Glickman’s “The World as Will and Idea: A Comparative Study of An American Dream and Mr. Sammler’s Planet,” and Ellen Pifer’s “Two Different Speeches: Mystery and Knowledge in Mr. Sammler’s Planet.”Dremer, S. Lillian. Witness Through the Imagination: Jewish-American Holocaust Literature. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989. An essential discussion of Mr. Sammler’s Planet as a Holocaust novel.Fuchs, Daniel. Saul Bellow: Vision and Revision. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1984. Making use of Bellow’s collection of unpublished manuscripts, Fuchs details for the reader the evolution of a Bellow novel, from idea through revision. Also examines the literary and intellectual milieus in which Bellow writes.Kiernan, Robert. Saul Bellow. New York: Continuum, 1988. Contains analysis of Bellow’s individual works as well as an introduction on his life and career. Chronology, bibliography of works by and about Bellow, index, notes.Stock, Irvin. Fiction as Wisdom: From Goethe to Bellow. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1974. Has chapter on Saul Bellow that provides an excellent overview of Mr. Sammler’s Planet’s debt to British Romantic literature.
Categories: Places