Nicole’s Outline

Topic: How marriage is presented and operates in Humboldt’s Gift and Golden Gate

Both Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate present marriage as an entity able to thrive, perhaps necessarily, without the typically passionate love attributed to such a lifelong bond. Each novel captures the complete evolutionary cycle of marriage: relationships that never fulfill a potential for conjugality, those that either attain or are in the processing of attaining marital status, and those that have already resulted in divorce. Using marriage as a vehicle for understanding these two works facilitates a study of each novel’s approach to interpersonal relationships through the lens of an overwhelmingly powerful, yet surprisingly fragile, institution.

Relationships That Never Reach Marriage:

  • Bellow and Seth both literally extinguish their most promising romance by killing Demmie and Jan. Demmie is reflective of the significant dead that weighs so heavily on Charlie’s mind: how does his image of them, and his relationship with them, distort itself once they are permanently taken from him? Naomi, however, is still alive yet seems to have more of a “What if?” effect on Charlie. In Humboldt’s Gift, the unfulfilled potential of marriage is consistently sweeter than the actualization of it. Blossoming at the end of the novel, John and Jan’s rekindled romance retains a slow-burning sweetness that the other young relationships in Golden Gate lack. Is Seth’s killing off of Jan a warning against any optimism in romantic relationships? (I hope not, but I’m not yet sure what it does stand for then)
  • Humboldt’s Gift: Charlie/Demmie and Charlie/Naomi
    • 166: Demmie talks about marriage
    • 169: Demmie’s death revealed
    • 315: “What you do…is invent relationships with the dead you never had when they were living”
    • Naomi: p. 294 “I always felt that if I could have embraced your mother every night for forty years, as her husband, of course, my life would have been completely fulfilled, a success—instead of this”
    • Naomi: P. 300 à “I keep repeating that it would have been bliss to sleep with her for forty years, that it would have defeated death, and son on. But could I really have borne it? The fact was that I became more and more fastidious as I grew older. So now I was honor-bound to face the touchy question: could I really have embraced this faded Naomi and loved her to the end?” (308)
  • Golden Gate: John/Jan
    • ~265: Jan and John’s relationship begins to rekindle
    • Jan’s death 281; “The unforgiving realization of his own love now pierced his heart so savagely and wrenched apart his spirit with such desperation, he felt he never would regain the fervor to outlive this pain”
    • 292: “The knowledge that he never mentioned his love for her, or heard her say that she loved him—his well-intentioned design to keep all pain at bay”

Relationships That Become/Are About to Become Marriages:

  • Both novels share some degree of cynicism in approaching the impending, or proposed, marriages that take place. Charlie and Renata’s constant dance around the topic of marriage is completely detached from any romantic aspect of their relationship. Here, marriage is about status, money, and reluctant compromise. John and Liz’s romance starts with cinematic cuteness, but Seth slips in hints that it is fated for combustion from the start. The ultimate determination that “there’s more to life than love” leads to Phil and Liz’s marriage (the only proposal that actually goes through in either novel). This entirely unromantic partnership is nonetheless satisfying; Seth seems to claim that romantic love is overly prioritized, especially in comparison to platonic and familial love. Bellow, on the other hand, seems to be entirely skeptical that any romantic relationship can sustain itself given modern materialism and social stress on more superficial things.
  • Humboldt’s Gift
    • 317: “As a rule [Renata’s] own reflections satisfied her perfectly and she used my conversation as a background to her own thoughts. These thoughts, so far as I could tell, had to do with her desire to become Mrs. Charles Citrine, the wife of a Pulitzer chevalier.”
    • P 318: “Now you’re staggering a bit and here’s a chance to marry you, grab off a piece of you before Denise gets it all. Maybe even rebuild you as a name and a money-maker”
    • 331 “I might not have cared to know what went on behind that beau front; and her dreams might have shocked me but her odor alone was a great solace in the night”
  • Golden Gate
    • John/Liz
      • 52: “Their brains appear to be dissolving To sugary sludge as they caress” “Love is not blind, but, rather, dumb”
      • 194: “Quirks that delighted him at first, through the months’ mill wheels suffer worst of all the bills of love discounted—the bills and coos of dateless love”;
      • 197 “It’s not that we don’t love each other. We’re a good match: Liz dresses well; She’s dynamite in bed”; 210 “Well, love’s fun at first…but living with someone your love can be less than appealing if everything’s just great in bed yet nothing’s shared inside your head”;
      • 226: John proposes to Liz: “There’s more to life than love. I’ve got to think this out”
    • Family love
      • Phil and Paul: 202 -204: “I sometimes wonder if I am quite enough for Paul”; p. 60: “Never think you’re alone. You’ve got me”
      • 245: “My mother’s ill. The earlier, the better”
    • Phil/Liz
      • 211 “I now yearn less for heart attacks, passion’s angina, and love’s blindness than company and warmth and kindness”
      • 240: “Whether it’s love or not means nothing much. Love by itself’s a tightening tether, A habit-forming drug, a crutch…I like Phil, and he likes and needs me. And then, there’s Paul too…and that leads me to wonder about Charlemagne”

Relationships That Attained Marital Status and Then Failed:

  • In incredibly different ways, a past divorce looms over the characters in each novel. Denise’s constant critique and brutal legal warfare plagues Charlie, but in ways completely unrelated to lingering heartbreak. Similarly, Humboldt and Kathleen’s ugly separation incites litigious and violent fury on Humboldt’s part, but very little sorrow. On the other hand, the completely non-present Claire seems to haunt Phil on a deep emotional level. In fact, it seems like this failed relationship is what pushes Phil to believe that a dispassionate marriage is for the best.
  • Humboldt’s Gift
    • Denise
      • 232: the court’s involvement in his divorce; “Now you’ve had a taste of marriage, the family, middle-class institutions, and you want to drop out. But we can’t allow you to dabble like that”
      • 273: “Sometimes I’m grateful to Denise…It keeps me in touch with the facts of life…I realize how universal the desire to injure your fellow man is”
      • 41: “Denise continually spoke to me about myself”
      • 43: “She may think she’s offering me the blessings of an American marriage. Real Americans are supposed to suffer with their wives, and wives with husbands. Like Mr. and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. It’s the classic US grief, and a child of immigrants like me ought to be grateful”
    • Kathleen (I need to find more too but I’m very lazy right now)
      • P 23: “My happiness may be peculiar but once happy I will make you happy, happier than you ever dreamed. When I am satisfied the blessings of fulfillment will flow to all mankind. Wasn’t this, [Charlie] thought, the message of modern power?”
      • 158: Humboldt preparing to sue Charlie for embezzlement immediately after Kathleen leaves him
    • Golden Gate
      • 61: “You said I tried to dominate you. What gave you that idea—Claire—Why would I want to?—Do I hate you?—I think of you and I despair of any happiness without you. What wretched loveliness about you Makes me still long to see you”
      • 62: “I think our home Was what I’d always longed and prayed for. What crept into our happiness? What made you leave me, Claire? I guess Disfiguring is what dreams are made for. A fool in bliss, what made me feel Our rings were not soft gold but steel?”
      • 244: “I’ve found that love’s a pretty poor forecaster. I loved a woman—and was dropped. I loved man—and that too flopped. Passion’s a prelude to disaster. It’s something else that makes me sure our bond can last five decades more”


Nicole —

Some wonderful material here.  To tighten your argument and give it a sharper analytic edge, you might want to restructure your essay under this title: “Marriages that Never Happen and One Marriage that Does.”   Under this formulation, it becomes immediately clear that both Humboldt’s Gift and The Golden Gate are about marriages that fail to materialize: in the former, between Charlie Citrine and Naomi, Demme, and Renata; and, in the latter, between John and Liz, John and Jan, and Phil and Ed.   The Golden Gate, however, does offer one marriage — counterintuitively — between Phil and Liz.   The similarities here and this single, significant difference would give you a chance to make larger arguments about each novel, about the writing styles of Saul Bellow and Vikram Seth, and the different fictional worlds they have created.



I agree with Prof. Dimock’s suggestion of putting the unlikely but successful marriage of Phil and Liz at the center. It would also be useful, I think, to expand on the idea that both novels prioritize other, non-romantic relationships. In “Humboldt’s Gift,” the friendship between Charlie and Humboldt is key, and in “The Golden Gate,” there’s Phil and Paul (as you mentioned), the relationships within the Dorati family, plus the many relationships between characters and pets. An interesting point to make in talking about the marriages that never happened could be that neither John nor Charlie truly appreciated the love they could have had until it was no longer possible (once Jan and Demmie died, once his time with Nicole was long past). Are Seth and Bellow making a point about the illusory or imaginary nature of love? How do both novels manage to do this and still come across as very hopeful? Maybe this could be linked in to the failed marriages – although since we never meet Claire or learn exactly where her marriage to Phil failed, there’s not too much to go on there. You’ve picked a really interesting topic – and there’s so much to work with. All you need now, I think, is a cohesive thesis to structure your paper around.

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