Friends' Book Discussion Series

West End Library

Friends' Book Discussion Series

"Henderson the Rain King" by Saul Bellow

Henderson the Rain King book coverPlease join us for a discussion of Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King to be held on Wednesday, December 7, at 6:30 p.m. in the small meeting room on the second floor. The talk is the latest in the series on heroic adventure in Western literature, sponsored by the West End Library Friends. The presenter will be Ori Z. Soltes, resident scholar in theology and fine arts at Georgetown University.  Refreshments will be served.

Earlier books read and discussed in the series are The Gilgamesh Epic, Homer's Odyssey, Dante's Inferno and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.  The series will conclude with a discussion of Salmon Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh to be held January 4, 2012, at 6:30 p.m.

Far from Willy Loman, Eugene Henderson is an American millionaire who has been the socioeconomic success that Willy never was, but who finds himself in middle age suddenly aware that his life has become all but meaningless. He needs an adventure of the sort that Gilgamesh and Odysseus experienced. But where in the modern world can one encounter Laestrygones, Cyclopes, Calypsos and the Gates of Death? Perhaps in that continent labeled by Europeans and Americans as "dark"—that is, full of inaccessible mystery—since the 18th century. On the other hand, since the time of Cervantes and his rambling Don Quixote de la Mancha, it has become clear in Western literature that all one requires is some imagination and a little bit of madness, and one can find adventure not far from one’s own back yard. But the audience of Quixote and Sancho Panza finds itself teetering on the edge between tragedy and comedy as much as between reality and illusion, as the tale unfolds. And Henderson is as much the heir to Don Quixote as he is to Odysseus and Gilgamesh and to Willy Loman.  What and whom exactly will he find as he sets out on his journey? Where does the border lie between laughter and tears for his audience as he discovers new worlds? And what does returning home mean for him?

Some related questions to think about:

1. Think back to Joseph Campbell: What forms the “call to adventure” for Henderson?
2. Who constitutes Henderson’s “helpers” and obstructions”?
3. What attributes does Henderson share with Gilgamesh and Odysseus? With Dante’s Dante? With Willy Loman?
4. What are the parameters of the dialogue between life and death in Henderson?
5. What do we mean by referring to this novel and its hero as picaresque?
6. To what extent might we place the novel in other categories in the history of the genre—such as the “Bildungsroman” (coming of age novel) or “romantic” novel?
7. Bellow once warned readers against expending too much energy searching for and analyzing symbols in literature. How does Henderson the Rain King fare as a symbol-laden work?
8. What is the religio-historical significance of the royal lion hunt upon which Bellow plays?
9. Odysseus comes home to clean up a mess—but Tiresias’ prophecy at the edge of the Underworld suggests that home is not to be the hero’s final destination. Where is the endpoint for Henderson in adventuring out and coming back?
10. What is the Campbellian “elixir of immortality” that Henderson seeks—and is it what he brings back from his adventure?