Saul Bellow’s and Henderson The Rain King

There was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it got even stronger
— Saul Bellow
Saul Bellow Quote


Saul Bellow’s

Henderson the Rain King:

Now I have already mentioned that there was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it got even stronger. It only said one thing, I want, I want!

And I would ask, “What do you want?”

But this was all it would ever tell me. It never said a thing except I want, I want, I want!

At times I would treat it like an ailing child whom you offer rhymes or candy. I would walk it, I would trot it. I would sing to it or read to it. No use. I would change into overalls and go up on the ladder and spackle cracks in the ceiling; I would chop wood, go out and drive a tractor, work in the barn among the pigs. No, no! Through fistfights and drunkenness and labor it went right on, in the country, in the city. No purchase, no matter how expensive, would lessen it. Then I would say, “Come on, tell me. What’s the complaint, is it Lily herself? Do you want some nasty whore? It has to be some lust?” But this was no better a guess than the others. The demand came louder, I want, I want, I want, I want, I want! And I would cry, begging at last, “Oh, tell me then. Tell me what you want!” And finally, I’d say, “Okay, then. One of these days, stupid. You wait!”

This was what made me behave as I did. By three o’clock I was in despair. Only toward sunset, the voice would let up. And sometimes I thought maybe this was my occupation because it would knock off at five o’clock itself. America is so big, and everybody is working, making, digging, bulldozing, trucking, loading, and so on, and I guess the sufferers suffer at the same rate. Everybody wanting to pull together. I tried every cure you can think of. Of course, in an age of madness, to expect to be untouched by madness is a form of madness. But the pursuit of sanity can be a form of madness, too. (pg. 24-25)

Henderson The Rain King Summary

Saul Bellow’s novel Henderson the Rain King(1959), nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, has survived the test of time in spite of not being well received at the time of its release. Containing many parallels to Miguel De Cervantes’s Don Quixote and filled with symbolism, the novel was released, ironically, a week following the appearance in The New York Times Book Review of an article by Bellow titled “The Search for Symbols, a Writer Warns, Misses All the Fun and Fact of the Story” in which he hypothesizes that looking for symbolism can hurt a reader’s understanding of a novel. The story is a third person narrative from the perspective of Eugene Henderson that on occasion resembles the second person voice. Henderson is looking back on a period of his life when he traveled to Africa and the events that led him there. The use of narration and interior monologue outstrips the use of dialogue in the work.

The unhappy,fifty-five-year-old Henderson makes the decision to go to Africa to avoid the troubling aspects of his home life. Henderson is large of stature and strong. He is cast, however, as a bumbler. His father, a well-known author, left Henderson three million dollars when he died. Henderson is a farmer who raises pigs and a veteran of World War II. He secretly wishes to be a doctor. Frances, his first wife, did not take him seriously with respect to that desire. Something within him constantly says, “I want,” leading him to drink, play a musical instrument, and argue with his wife, Lily. He feels that Lily does not accept reality, while he does. At one point, while Henderson is yelling at Lily, the housekeeper suffers a heart attack and dies. Henderson feels guilt, and this fuels his decision to go to Africa. He is traveling with his old friend, Charlie Albert, and Charlie’s wife.

While in Africa, Henderson does not enjoy traveling with Charlie and his wife,so he leaves them and takes on a guide named Romilayu. The pair goes on for many days, eventually encountering the Arnewi tribe. This is a friendly tribe of people who are dealing with a water supply that is no longer usable due to a frog infestation. A serious result of this is that their cattle can no longer survive. Henderson wrestles with the prince, Itelo, of the tribe, which leads to him being accepted and admired. Their queen then teaches him about grun-tu-molani, which means, “I want to live” or “man’s will to live.” Henderson grows attached to the Arnewi people and hopes to help them solve their water problem. He constructs a bomb to kill the frogs that are in the cistern but the result is the destruction of the wall of the cistern and the loss of the water within it. His failed attempt leaves him crestfallen.

Next, he meets the Wariri tribe and their king, Dahfu. Henderson becomes the rain king, the Sungo, when he raises an idol during a rain ceremony. King Dahfu attempts to help Henderson move past the suffering he carries with him by having him spend time with a lion named Atti. Henderson is to try to be like the lion. The king also explains to Henderson that people’s inner and outer appearances are intertwined and that their characteristics and emotions are shown physically. A group of the Wariri tribe that follows Banam, a priest, does not agree with Dahfu’s using the lion as he has, and they attempt to use Henderson as a way to manipulate the king. Upon the death of Dahfu, while he was trying to capture the lion, which he thought contained the spirit of his father, Henderson rises to the position of king by virtue of having been the Sungo.

Henderson is saddened by the death of King Dahfu. Since he does not trust Bunam and his followers, Henderson decides to leave the Wariri. He departs with Romilayu and a lion cub, which in the tradition of the Wariri tribe has the spirit of Dahfu. During the journey back home, Henderson provides care for an orphan boy he finds traveling unaccompanied. He comes to the realization that true relationships must stem from love. Returning to his long held dream, he makes the decision to begin training to become a doctor.

Henderson the Rain King uses love and death thematically, yet largely it is about a man’s overall quest in life, largely in the spirit of Don Quixote. Henderson acquires Romilayu as a sidekick much as Quixote did Sancho Panza. The main protagonists of the two texts are both around fifty years of age when they set out, and both, at times, look to connect with their heritage. Comparable details appear throughout the two books, such as Henderson finding a corpse in the hut in which he stays in the village of the Wariri tribe, and Quixote’s coming upon a group performing “The Parliament of Death.” Both Henderson and Quixote acquire new names during their quests. Henderson becomes The Rain King while Quixote becomes Knight of the Lions following an encounter with two of the animals. The use of lions is a further point of similarity.

Henderson the Rain King has become a respected entry in Bellow’s body of work, overcoming the unenthusiastic reception it received from the New York Times Book Review upon its release in 1959. “Saul Bellow is a talented and ambitious writer best known for his The Adventures of Augie March, which was published six years ago. The comic extravaganza about the absurdities and trials of modern life was also written in the first person by a narrator a trifle touched in the head. But rhapsodic, tedious and stupefying as Augie often was, it was also intermittently funny and spangled with examples of Mr. Bellow’s richly inventive imagination. As much cannot be said for Henderson the Rain King, which is an unsuccessful experiment, noble in purpose but dismal in result.”

Source: Supersummary