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Henderson the Rain King: Formalist Criticism


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M MARIAPPAN For this novel, I will be critically analyzing it using two theories, namely the “Formalist Criticism” (which is also known as “New Criticism”) and “Reader-Response Criticism”.

The reason I choose both these criticism theories are because I personally opine that these two theories can realistically reflect our views on the literature read as readers. By the Formalist Criticism approach, I will firstly provide a plot summary of “Henderson the Rain King”. “Henderson the Rain King” was written by Saul Bellow in the year 1959. In this novel, Saul Bellow names his main character, or also known as “the protagonist”, Eugene Henderson. Eugene Henderson is depicted, in this novel, as a troubled, middle-aged man. He is physically attributed with a large body frame, a bumbling loud voice, and ossesses great physical strength. Contradictory to his struggling life, his family background is one which is rather wealthy. Eugene’s father was a famous author and he left him three million dollars when he passed. He is not at all amazed neither pleased with the life he has been living all the while and plans to heed his inner voice and go out to search for a better life, which he believes, lies in Africa. Before leaving for Africa though, he tried numerous ways to satisfy his weird calls by playing the violin, drinking, and shouting at his wife.

He carried on with his plan to Africa with his friend Charlie Albert and his wife. He however set off to travel on his own upon finding a pampered travelling style Charlie practices. Eugene meets the Arnewi tribe and tries to help to settle their drinking problem which was caused by a frog infestation at the bottom of their drinking well. Eugene failed to help when he blasted the frogs together with the well. It only made the situation worse. Eugene went on to meet the Wariri tribe with Romilayu and becomes the Sungo, or “rain king”, when he lifts a heavy idol during the rain ceremony.

Later on, the elders sent Dahfu to find a lion which is supposed to be the reincarnation of Dahfu’s late father. As he fails and is killed, Eugene is supposed to be crowned the King as he is the Rain King, the next King in line. Eugene does not desire to be king, and flees from Africa back to his own home. Eugene finds that it is only through love that he had gained all these while when he reflects on his relationship with Smolak the bear in Ontario and his relationship with the orphan boy on the plane back to the United States. The novel consists of twenty-two chapters of roughly equal length.

Throughout the novel, flashbacks are used as a major element of. In the early stages of the novel, more precisely, in the first three chapters of the novel, Henderson’s reminiscence about his motives for departing for Africa. The setting in this novel is considerably uniform, however, throughout the entirety of the story, settings such as Europe, Connecticut, and New York are scattered randomly around. It is noticeable that the subsequent chapters are set in Africa, where most of the plot of the story develops. Through flashbacks, Eugene revisits his place of origin and time periods from his earlier life.

Literary tools such as foreshadowing and cliffhangers are used to keep the reader flipping through the pages eagerly for more. Generally, throughout the most major parts of the story, the setting is held in Africa, in the mid-1950s. Scenes from Connecticut, New York City, and Europe during the Second World War are intermittent when Henderson’s rambling narratives take place. Actions which take place in Africa are mostly held in the Arnewi and Wariri tribes. The African plains show up once in a while when Henderson and Romilayu wander through the African desert. However, a major part of the story takes place in the Wariri tribe.

At the denouement of the story, Newfoundland is also included in the setting of the story, where Henderson touches down from the plane. Physical settings aside, symbolical spiritual settings are also widely included in the novel. A touch of pre-human quality in the landscape and a tinge of childhood memories Henderson had is depicted through the beautiful slight pink in the sky and the sharpness of the rocks surrounding the Wariri village, respectively. Also, after deplaning from Newfoundland, Henderson is said to be walking on ice. This icy-setting shows that Henderson has clearly made his escape from Africa and has started his life anew.

Henderson’s word choice in the narration of the novel is of great interest to the readers as he makes reference to the Bible regardless of how informal and colloquial his style is. However informal his style is, though, historical events and psychological theories are explained in a rather offhand albeit knowledgeable method. The colourful description of his narration is made up of detailed explanations made possible through visuals and audio. The inability of Henderson speaking in the native African language makes it complicated as Romilayu and Dahfu are required to translate for him directions and advices made on the barren land of Africa.

The appearance of African words such as “grun-tu-molani” appeal to our minds and memories strongly and further enhances the elaboration of the African culture. For this novel, the third person point of view is used. In this case, the third person’s point of view is the point of view of Eugene Henderson. A conversational and more intimate approach is applied in the narration in the story. Examples which show this are “As you can see for yourselves, these are all impossible answers (HRK 133)” and “I’ll tell you why (HRK 7)”.

The entirety of this novel is told as if Henderson reminisces about his journey to Africa, and also the will and events which led up to his decision to go to Africa. Dialogues are noticeable in some parts of the novel, but the essence and the message of the story is generally brought to the readers by Henderson’s descriptions and inner monologue. The characters who appeared in “Henderson the Rain King” are as follows. The main character in the story is Eugene Henderson. Even when Henderson is the main character in the story, he is the anti-hero of the novel. Character-wise, he is a bumbling man, always angry and is confused.

His physical attributes are big, shocking appearance, and possesses great strength. Henderson’s father leaves behind 3 million dollars. Henderson had married twice and has five children. He was stubborn and pushed on for combat duty even when he was declared to be too old for it. He got injured by a land mine during the Second World War and received the Purple Heart upon his return. Henderson owns a pig farm but deep down inside, he ambitions to be a doctor. Henderson is constantly plagued by a voice that says “I want”. He tries various activities and hobbies which he hopes are able of relieving his unknown desire.

He tries playing the violin, drinking, and even shouting at his wife. When none of these methods seem to make any effect on satisfying his weird and unknown desire, he goes on to visit Africa with Charlie Albert and his wife. He was fifty five. Upon realizing Charlie’s travelling style which he thinks is too contemporary and boring, Henderson leaves with Romilayu to visit the Arnewi tribe. He attempted to solve the Arnewi tribe’s difficulty which was the infestation of frogs in their drinking well by bombing the frogs. Instead, he bombed and wrecked the whole drinking well.

Regretful and sad, Henderson left for the Wariri tribe with Romilayu. Most of the plot of the story develops from here. Henderson is crowned Sungo, the Rain King, after being able to lift a heavy idol during a rain ceremony in the Wariri tribe. Henderson was supposed to be the King’s successor after Dahfu’s passing. However, Henderson did not want to be King and escaped from Africa to live a complete new life back in the United States. Frances Henderson is Henderson’s first wife. Frances is, as described by Henderson, tall, handsome, elegant, and sinewy. Frances was married to Henderson just to please Henderson’s father.

Henderson once told Frances of his dreams of becoming a doctor. His ambitious dreams was revoked and laughed at by Frances. Lily Simmons Henderson is Henderson’s second wife. She is known throughout the story as only “Lily”. She has a sweet face, fair, and large. Lily is not prone to scolding. Instead, she moralizes. Lily had married twice before she got married to Henderson. She had previously married a man from Baltimore and an abusive broker from New Jersey who is named Hazard. In the story, Henderson describes Lily as one who is not very clean, a liar, and a con-artist.

Edward Henderson is Henderson and Frances’ eldest son. Edward can be considered as Henderson’s pride as Edward is clean-cut and smart. Edward drives around in a shiny sports car. Henderson always believed that Edward would not get a lover. One day, Edward brings home a girl from Honduras and proclaimed to Henderson that he loves her. However, Henderson chose not to believe it. Ricey Henderson is Henderson and Frances’ eldest daughter. She is pretty. Ricey takes a child from the backseat of a car one Christmas and is eventually expelled from boarding school. Alice Henderson is Henderson’s youngest daughter with Frances.

The twins are Henderson’s two children by Frances. Charlie Albert is to Eugene Henderson, a childhood friend. They both attended dancing classes together in the year 1915. Charlie is a year younger than Henderson and also a bit richer than him. Charlie was once a cameraman in the army. Henderson was Charlie’s best man at his wedding. Charlie’s wife resented Henderson because Charlie forgot to kiss his wife at the wedding. Henderson joined Charlie and his wife’s honeymoon trip to Africa in the first part. Dick Henderson is Eugene Henderson’s older brother. Dick dies in a rather tragic and ridiculous way.

He was shooting a broken fountain pen with his pistol and got engaged in a chase by the police. He crashed his car in an embankment during the chase and jumps into the river. Dick’s cavalry boots got filled with water when he jumped into the river and Dick drowned. Dick was considered by Eugene as the “sanest of us”. Klaus Spohr is the artist who paint’s Lily’s portrait. There was once when Klaus and Lily observed Henderson kiss Clara, Klaus’ wife, passionately. Doctor Spohr is the cousin of Klaus Spohr. He is the dentist who replaces Henderson’s bridgework.

Romilayu is Henderson’s guide and translator in Africa. Romilayu tells Henderson that he is in his late thirties. However, he looks wrinkly and much older. Currently Christian, he shows signs of tribal living in his past as he has tribal scars on both his cheeks and ears. He is a patient companion to Henderson. The Arnewi Tribe are the fist tribe Henderson visits in Africa. They are loving and warmly welcomed Henderson’s visit. They were suffering from a drought and their cattle are dying. They are ruled by Willatale. Iteloo is a prince of the Arnewi tribe. He learned English in Beirut with Dahfu.

He loses to Henderson in a wrestling match even when he equalizes him physically. Willatale is Itelo’s aunt and the queen of Arnewi. She is a Bittah, which means she is the most revered in the tribe and has husbands as well as wives. She has cataract in one eye and wears a lion skin as a robe. Henderson describes her as a happy woman, stable, and good natured. Mtalba is the queen’s sister and also is a Bittah woman. She is beautiful and pampered looking with indigo hair but is obese. She proposes to Henderson in their traditional way but rejects him when he blows up their well.

The Wariri tribe is the second visited tribe by Henderson in Africa. Henderson becomes the Rain King of the Wariri and a close friend to their King, Dahfu. Dahfu is the kin fog the Wariri tribe. Dahfu studied in a medical school but had to return to his dying father in the Wariri tribe. Dahfu impresses Henderson with his charm and philosophy. King Dahfu keeps a lion named Atti and trains him. He dies while trying to capture his father-lion Gmilo. Horko is the uncle of King Dahfu and the man sent to meet Henderson on the day of the rain festival.

Horko speaks some English and French because he traveled with Dahfu when he studied abroad. The Bunam is the head priest of the Wariri tribe. The Bunam believes that Henderson can lift the idol during the rain ceremony. Henderson believes that the Bunam communicated to him to encourage him to lift the idol without needing to talk to him. Turombo is the strong Wariri man who lifted Hummat at the rain ceremony. He was misunderstood as one who is shadowed by his past as he did not lift Mummah. It is learned later on in the story that Turombo did not want to lift Mummah because he understands the danger in being a rain king.

Queen Yasra is Dahfu’s mother and also the widow of Gmilo. She believes the words of the Bunam who said that Atti represents power of an evil sorceress. Therefore, she begs Henderson to make Dahfu get rid of Atti. The executioner is assistant to the Bunam in the Wariri tribe. He has a narrow face and leathery appearance. He was dressed in white on the day of the lion hunt and guards King Dahfu’s corpse after he passed. Gmilo is Dahfu’s father and the former king of the Wariri tribe. Another approach to analysing this novel will be the “Reader-Response Criticism”.

The “Reader-Response Criticism” is based on what the reader feels and perceives about the story after reading the piece of literature. As a reader, I was quite fazed and taken aback when I read the beginning of this story. I was shocked at how unsettled Henderson was even when his father had left behind him such a large amount of money. I think Henderson’s pursuit of happiness and the meaning for life is strong and objective. Henderson is to me a steadfast person and does not get swayed easily by external factors. What makes me feel pitiful towards Henderson is when he was trying to help the Arnewi tribe out by killing the frogs.

His intention started out as a good one but ended as an act which displeased the Arnewi tribe. It was lucky for him that Itelo did not kill him after such an act because Itelo is his friend. There is a point in the story which I do not agree with the narrator himself. He had seen such bitterness in the Wariri tribe since the first day he got there. He did not have any good moments to savour. The only acceptable moments are when King Dahfu shared with him some philosophy and ways of life. This interests Henderson and us, the readers, but other than that, all the other happenings are bitter.

Therefore, it is quite illogical that Henderson did not choose to escape in the earlier part of his visit to the Wariri tribe. However, this is only my view and opinion. Generally, this novel has raised my awareness in issues such as the pursuit of meaning in life and the pursuit of happiness. At the end of the story, Henderson realizes that what he has been going after all this while is love. This is a story worth reading and telling as it bends the human mind into different concaves of perception to what is worth going after, what is worth our pursuit, and what is worth holding on to.

Bibliography 1) Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow. (2000). Retrieved from http://www. bookrags. com/studyguide-henderson-the-rain-king/ 2) Bellow, S. (1976). Henderson the rain king. NY: Penguin Books. 3) Dobie, A. B. (2011). Theory into practice: An introduction to literary criticism. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning. 4) 50 Plus One Great Books You Should Have Read: And Probably Didn’t. Retrieved from http://books. google. com. my/books? id=HPDqaTLKOEEC;pg=PA194;lpg=PA193;dq=%22Henderson+the+Rain+King%22;as_brr=3;ie=ISO-8859-1;output=html;redir_esc=y