It Makes A Difference What You Go Down From

2023 10 03

This was my character essay that I wrote for the course Bellow and Company at Tufts University taught by Professor Janis Bellow. I based it on Mimi in The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow.

At the end I include a discussion question I asked the class.

When Bellow introduced us to Mimi Villars, we are told that she has “a large mouth, speaking for a soul of wild appetite, nothing barred; she’d say anything, and had no idea what could hinder her” (p. 222). This statement, particularly the latter part, does more than any other to describe what to expect from her as a character in the novel. Mimi, driven by love, faces an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy which forces her to seek an abortion. Following through with the abortion proved to be something that could finally give her an idea of what could hinder her. However, she didn’t face it with any fear, but with acceptance. An unusual willingness to be held accountable for her actions. Mimi holds the admirable quality of sincerely sticking to one’s beliefs and a desire to face the consequences of living a life aligned with her values. I find Mimi to share a character trait with Captain Ahab. In Moby Dick he says that “Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!” Mimi has her own iron way, characterized by Augie as her “hard view” (p. 232).

Augie has a tendency to flow through his life, and allowing himself to be formed by those that provide resistance to his fluidity. Oftentimes these characters are pliable enough, due to their own deficiencies, and bend back as Augie passes among them; for instance, we don’t see Augie take everything that Grandma Lausch, Einhorn, or Mrs. Renly stand to instruct him. Mimi tends to provide more resistance than these other characters in Augie’s life: “if someone fell against Mimi’s lines she had no mercy” (p. 231). Augie initially expresses little interest in Mimi. She is a seemingly simple waitress that his friend Manny wants to get with. Augie stands as an observer to this dynamic noting that she is already romantically entwined with a customer of their book thieving scheme. However, the fact that she happens to live on the same floor in the apartment complex as Augie leads to the two developing a friendship. I argue that this is due in large part to Mimi’s quality of being consistent in how she lives her life. She is someone who was supposedly expelled from college after necking beyond public acceptance in a university lounge and is proud of the fact; “it was a favorite subject of her ferocious humor” (p. 223). Augie comes to find that “the thing I began to learn from her was of the utmost importance, namely, that everyone sees to it his fate is shared. Or tries to see to it” (p. 230). Mimi is a character that we would be quick to dismiss at face value, a girl kicked out of college and joking about it, but she surprises by living with an intent, and that intent becomes clear and remarkable when learned when one spends enough time with her.

This lesson had been initially imparted on Augie when Mimi recalls a story about dealing with an armed robber. Driven by an instinct to not be suppressed in how she should live, she kicks the assailant and grabs the dropped gun before shooting him in the groin. Conventionally, one might have expected her to be relieved at avoiding a robbery, where the “bad guy” getting his justice served. Instead, she feels a “crude love appeal”, that this “city-tutored rough child struggled for his instinct and was less cared about, providentially speaking, than the animal in the woods who was at least in the keeping of nature” (p. 229). From this crude love, she first attempts to visit him at the hospital, and then have the charges dropped. All of these attempts of love are rejected and the assailant is sentenced to 5 years. Sharing the fate, Mimi sends gifts and letters to him in prison “not because she feared harm from him…, but out of remorse” (p. 229). Love is Mimi’s “iron way”, she “could have lived in desert wilderness for the sake of it, and have eaten locusts” (p. 229), which serves to foreshadow how Mimi reacted when she faced the abortion.

Mimi may have saved herself trouble of going through with an abortion by getting married to Frazer and having the baby, but that was out of the question as a matter of her principle. “If I wouldn’t marry him before, why should I now because of an accident?” (p. 275). There is no hesitation for Mimi. Her ideals are clear to her and slight changes of circumstance do not change her calculus. Mimi is also courageous: she says to the abortion Doctor, “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t make any jokes. I’m only interested in your medical services” (p. 279). Her courage is tested as this first method fails to abort the child, which leads her to seeking an abortion in a hospital under the premise of a problem with the pregnancy that she believes now may have been caused by this failed injection. She undergoes an operation where the doctors determine that the pregnancy is ok and leave the fetus intact. Augie describes Mimi in the aftermath: “She wasn’t crying now, though in her eyes there were the crimson threads that tear salts bring out, and her nose was stung with them too, but she was not less but more, as was clear on her push-faced beauty, and aristocrat in her idea of the energy you should devote to love” (p. 287). We find that Mimi’s armor may have a chink in her reaction to this news and what she had to endure: a surgery that was “successful” in the eyes of the doctor, but another obstacle for her to overcome in the desire to love. With no other choice now she pursues the more dangerous operation of the abortion doctor a mere few days after this previous operation. Augie finds her afterward “faint to such a degree that for the first time I saw her without an expression” (p. 294). As such a lively person, it is heavy to read that Augie finds her expressionless. Mimi showed no restraint in her pursuit of life, and these two observations from Augie serve to show her being taken to the discovery of what could finally hinder her.

After enduring self imposed hardship, Mimi speaks from her core: “It makes a difference what you go down from, don’t fool yourself. It does to me, now. Though, probably that is only if I come up again. If you’re dead, does it make a difference for what?” There is an implication that what you go down from speaks to your character. If you let yourself get down by any triviality then you have no character. Mimi believes that you should only be brought down by fighting for something you believe in, and perhaps that if you never get put down you aren’t fighting hard enough for the life you want to live. But Mimi finds now that this may only be true to a point. There is a limit to what you can do and death is the answer. If something brings you to cross this boundary, does it really matter what led you across? What puts you down also matters because you can get back up from it. You can continue your fight for life and getting back up shows your desire to keep going. When you cannot get up any longer, then it may no longer matter.

Throughout this section of the book Mimi acts decisively. It is only when brought face to face with death that she questions her actions at all. Her willingness and determination to bring herself to that point because of her love demonstrates her remarkable character. She doesn’t go through the difficult process to impress anyone; she only does it for her own integrity. Few characters act so robustly in this book or in life, and she serves to help us think: just how intently should we act aligned with our principles and when is it right to relax them? Fortunately for Mimi, unlike Ahab, she comes up from her knockdown and is perhaps changed from it.

Question: Does what you go down from make a difference if you’re dead?