Mr. Sammler's Planet

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Novel by Saul Bellow, 1970

Artur Sammler of Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) is a Holocaust survivor living in New York City. Forced to strip naked, Mr. Sammler was shot along with his wife and many other Jews in a pit he and the others had dug in the woods in Poland. Wounded (he was blinded in one eye so that he can distinguish only light and dark with it), he dug himself out through the corpses on top of him and the loose soil piled over them. Symbolically reborn, he joined the Polish resistance, but toward the end of the war the resistance began shooting its Jewish members. Sammler escaped and hid in the Mezvinski family tomb, where he was cared for by Cieslakiewicz, a Gentile. Thus, this time he literally emerged from the tomb.

Found in a camp for displaced persons, Sammler and his daughter, Shula, were taken in 1947 to the United States by his nephew, Arnold (Elya) Gruner. The nephew supports Sammler and his daughter during the time of the novel and assures his uncle that he will have no financial worries after his death. A retired surgeon, Gruner is rumored to have made money by providing illegal abortions to the girlfriends of members of the Mafia. At the time of the novel he is in a hospital dying.

Shula had survived the Holocaust by hiding in a Polish convent for four years, an experience that helped drive her insane. She is torn between her identity as a Jew and as a Roman Catholic, sometimes using her Jewish name, Shula, and sometimes her Catholic name, Slawa, and consulting both rabbis and priests. Shula went to Israel and married Eisen, another mad survivor. After Eisen began beating Shula, Sammler rescued her, and they both returned to New York.

During the war, Sammler says, he lost his faith in God. The novel shows him wandering in an America that also seems to have lost faith in God, and Sammler finds himself wondering, "Is our species crazy?" Many readers initially see him as an observer who prefers not to participate in life. But by the end of the novel he participates in life once again, feels faith in God and humanity, and even prays for the soul of Gruner. Sammler becomes a kind of one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, seeing people as they really are.

Sammler's change can best be traced in connection with a pickpocket he spies while riding the bus from Columbus Circle. Fascinated by the man, Sammler watches what he does. He tries to report him to the police, but they are not interested. The man sees Sammler watching him, follows Sammler to the lobby of his apartment building, and exposes himself. Sammler tells friends about the pickpocket, and one, Lionel Feffer, uses a miniature camera to photograph the pickpocket at work. The pickpocket sees Feffer and starts to beat him, trying to get the camera. Sammler, who is trying to get to the hospital to visit the dying Gruner, sees what is happening and calls upon Feffer to give the pickpocket the camera, and he begs the people in the gathering crowd to help Feffer. No one responds except Eisen, who is in America trying to make a fortune selling iron medallions. Eisen starts mercilessly beating the pickpocket with a sack full of the medallions. Sammler stops Eisen before he kills the pickpocket. He is horrified at what has happened to the pickpocket and feels tremendous sympathy for him. Eisen, who smiles throughout the beating, cannot understand his father-in-law's horror and reminds Sammler of his own experiences during the war, when he too had to kill people. As a result, Sammler realizes that for him merely to observe is impossible; he has to take a stand.

At the same time Sammler recognizes similarities between New York City in the 1960s and Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. In both the thin veneer of civilization was being stripped aside, revealing the chaos beneath. As a result of his experiences Sammler learns that utopian schemes like those of H.G. Wells, whom he had known in London before the war, and Govinda Lal, whom he meets after Shula steals Lal's manuscript on colonizing the Moon, cannot be fulfilled. But he also learns to value human life, to forgive his fellow humans for their faults, and even to love them, just as he recognizes that Gruner, in spite of his faults, was basically a good human being. Thus, although several of the central characters in the novel experience the horrors of the Holocaust, it ends with what critics find at the conclusion of most novels by Saul Bellow, an affirmation of life.

—Richard Tuerk