The protagonists in the seven Bellow novels examined in this thesis suffer from insufficient self-knowledge. Their aim is, in Jamesian terms, "to see," to gain insight which will enable them to reach an accommodation with self and world. These novels can be read as initiation novels because each protagonist experiences a rite of passage--from innocence or ignorance to knowledge, from inability to ability to cope with the circumstances of his life. But because American society lacks the tradition of a stable social structure and accepted values characteristic of European society, the quest of the protagonist in the Bellovian initiation novel is not for reconciliation with society but for inner harmony and discovery of values that transcend the discords of American society. In several early novels the rite of passage leads to these goals and to optimism for the future. But later protagonists find it harder to find personal peace. We see a progression from hope to skepticism, from free-wheeling comedy to humor tinged with acerbity.
What does the Bellow hero learn and how does he learn it? Through reflection and self-examination of his motives and actions, he learns to forge human communities based on love, to accept his limitations, and to accept death as part of life. "Reality instructors" offer valuable or harmful advice; alter egos point the way to self-truth; and minor characters act as foils to demonstrate to him that the romantic cult of the self can lead to disaster. How and what the hero learns is also influenced by the setting, structure, language, and tone of the novels. The vividly realized urban world serves as a backdrop which illuminates and contrasts with the hero's inward journey. The structural pattern varies but in the best novels perfectly complements the hero's journey, and the language--from spare and solemn in Dangling Man, to expansive and vigorous in Augie March and Henderson the Rain King, to witty and acerbic in Herzog and Humboldt's Gift--reflects the mental state of the protagonist. Above all, Bellow's ironic tone serves as a corrective to the hero's vision.