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The Old System

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Saul Bellow, The Old System

'The Old System' is, by no means a simple story. Even though at first sight we are blinded by the superficial facts, after reading it a couple of times the simplicity of the action reveals its hidden features. It is a story about the integration of the Jewish in the American society; it is also a story about life and death but, above all, it is a story about emotions.

Regarding structure, the story is told in third person by a narrator who tells the events as seen or remembered by a character. The language used by Bellow is simple. The major part of the story is formed by many short and, sometimes, incomplete sentences and phrases. However, those few words are enough to understand what is going on: "Winter. Saturday. The short end of December" (Bellow, 301) If we read these three seemingly incomplete phrases, we can immediately figure out the setting of the story, there is nothing missing. It is interesting to note that the short sentences are used more commonly to describe the environment but, more important, to describe feelings and thoughts; whereas the longer and more complete sentences are used to narrate the actions. I think what the author is trying to portray with this narrative technique is the nature of the characters' feelings and thoughts: they are not structured or planned but they just burst into the mind like flashing images. Through the memories of Dr. Braun we get bits of (his) reality: sensations, odours, images.

In the next lines we can clearly see the difference between the narration of events and the representation of thoughts and feelings:

"He was alone in his apartment and woke late, lying in bed until noon, in the room kept very dark, working with a thought - a feeling: Now you see it, now you don't. Now a content, now a vacancy. Now an important individual force, a necessary existence; suddenly nothing. A frame without a picture, a mirror with missing glass." (Bellow, 301)

Another important aspect of the story's structure is fragmentation. The story is presented in fragments. First, even though there is an order and that memories are related to one another, the story is no more than a recollection of separated images. For example, what we 'see' when Dr Braun recalls his memories are flashing images of the past. In that sense, we are not told a single story but a succession of stories that are interrelated.

The story is full of images and they are vivid and appealing and through them we can taste, feel, and smell the story: "All was silent. Summer silence. Her sexual odour. The flies and gnats stimulated by delicious heat or the fragrance."(Bellow, 306)

Closely related to this is the great amount of comparisons, contrasts, parallels and exemplifications that can be found. This feature intensifies the fragmentation by presenting unrelated elements together and provides the reader a cultural frame that helps understand better the story and its connotations: "A huge tree like a complicated event", "So by irrational decree, as in The Arabian Nights", "[...] his greatcoat and humiliated legs" (Bellow, 303 - 304), etc.

In relation to the themes of the story, there are many aspects that can be discussed. Following the configuration pattern of most Bellow's works, one of the main themes is the process of integration of the Jewish immigrants in the American society. The author makes the story to evolve in order to show us the changes the characters have suffered: first, we see the characters in their 'natural' environment. There, life goes on calmly and the relationships between the characters are relatively peaceful. However, when they arrive to the USA, problems begin to arise. The fraternal family starts to suffer changes and struggles begin to appear. In that sense, we can see that all the characters



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