Augie joins the Merchant Marines and sets out on a training cruise in Chesapeake Bay. When they return, he studies bookkeeping and ship’s doctoring. Having some free time while in New York, he looks up Stella Chesney, the girl he helped escape in Mexico. He meets her at her apartment, and they spend the weekend together. Stella is sincere with Augie about her faults, saying, “Nobody should pretend to be always one hundred per cent honest. I wish I knew how to be seventy, sixty per cent.” Yet, she promises to try to be more open with him. Augie is powerfully in love, and they decide to get married as soon as he graduates from the marine academy.
Augie befriends a wealthy, distinguished Armenian lawyer and international businessman named Harold Mintouchian, the married lover of a friend of Stella’s. Augie looks up to the older man as “a sage, prophet, or guru, a prince of experience with his jewel toes” and seeks his wisdom. Mintouchian, who has seen much of the darker side of human nature through his law practice, has more realistic ideas than the love-bitten Augie about what to expect from human relationships. Secrecy and lies, he tells Augie, are unavoidable. “Mind you, I’m a great admirer of our species. I stand in awe of the genius of the race. But a large part of this genius is devoted to lying and seeming what you are not.” He confesses to Augie that his mistress, Agnes, is keeping secrets from him, while he is keeping secrets from his wife.
Mintouchian’s cynical outlook does not deter Augie from marriage. Augie is still “drugged with love.” He no longer envies Simon, and feels, on his wedding day, that he is “advancing on the only true course of life.” The wedding is grand. Sylvester, Robey, and Frazer attend. Sylvester is now “off politics” and Frazer is an intelligence agent who has just returned from a mission in China. Augie thinks he is poised to become an important man, and is proud to have him there: “he gave tone to the wedding and was a great success.”
Augie and Stella have a two-day honeymoon before he ships out and Stella heads for Alaska on a USO tour. On his ship, the Sam McManus, Augie is officially a druggist and bookkeeper, and unofficially, a ship’s confidante. Men come to him with their hard-luck stories and problems, looking for advice.
One night while he is having one of these informal counseling sessions, the ship is torpedoed and sinks. Augie finds an empty lifeboat and helps another man into it, but the man then coldly refuses to help him on. He finally gets inside and beats the other man. The cold, indifferent man, whose name is Basteshaw, is a fellow Chicagoan and the ship’s carpenter. The two are the only survivors and drift at sea for days. A brilliant but apparently mad biophysicist, Basteshaw tells Augie that he has been working on a cure for human boredom. He claims to have discovered, in the course of his research, how to create life in the form of protoplasm. Basteshaw figures that they will soon land in the Canary Islands, where they will be interned by the Spanish, and he can continue his experiments there with Augie as his research assistant. Augie finds this idea ludicrous, and insists that he wants to be rescued and go home to his wife.
Finally, Augie sights a ship and attempts to light a smoke signal. However, Basteshaw attacks him and ties him up. Augie realizes to his horror that Basteshaw is completely insane. He manages to get free and signal a British tanker, and the two are rescued. They learn that their lifeboat was nowhere near the Canaries and, if they had followed Basteshaw’s plan, they would certainly have perished at sea.
Six months later, Augie is back in New York and reunited with Stella. He realizes that his idea for a foster home was only a “bubble-headed dream.” What he envisioned as a bucolic utopia, like Walden Pond or Yeats’s lake isle of Innisfree, might be more like a squalid shack in the wilderness, where Stella would never be happy. Anyway, all he had wanted was a place to call his own, and a way to share his love.
Instead, Augie goes to Europe to work for Mintouchian as a black market importer-exporter. Profits are good and he is doing very well. He and Stella get an apartment in Paris, and Stella pursues her dream of becoming a movie star. While in Paris, he runs into Hooker Frazer, who is in Europe working for the World Educational Fund.
Stella, Augie has discovered, has lied to him about many things, but he still loves her. She had told him that she was getting money from her father in Jamaica, but that was false; she had a lover named Cumberland who had her as a kept woman, and is now trying to sue him for debts. He confronts her and she cries, and insists that she will forget about Cumberland and stop trying to get something out of him.
Simon and Charlotte come to visit Augie in Paris, and Augie asks about Renée. Simon is upset to be asked about this. Renée had lied about her pregnancy, and had sued him and made a scandal. She is now married to someone else. Charlotte declares bitterly that Renée made a fool of Simon; she never loved him, only used him for his money. Augie is sad to realize how much this affair hurt his brother, and how much Simon had wanted to have a child.
At the end of the novel, Augie is headed for Bruges on business. Their housemaid, Jacqueline, an ugly but proud woman with an adventurous spirit, rides along part of the way, heading to see her family for Christmas. The car breaks down and they are forced to walk a long way across a snowy field, and Jacqueline insists that they must sing loudly to prevent their stomachs from freezing. Augie sings “La Cucaracha,” and Jacqueline announces that it is her dream to go to Mexico. Augie laughs aloud.
The car is fixed and he continues on alone, still laughing to himself about the absurdity of it all. How did he get to this field in Normandy, singing out loud? And why did the ugly, used-up Jacqueline refuse to let life get her down? He concludes that nature and eternity will never get the better of hope. Reflecting on his vagabond life, Augie decides that fate has made him a “Columbus of those near-at-hand,” whose purpose in life is to discover the terra incognita spreading all around him. “I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor,” he muses. “Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.”
Analysis of Chapters 23–26
On the lonely lifeboat in the cold Atlantic, Augie is frightened and awed to find himself again being recruited into someone else’s scheme. Basteshaw wants him to be an assistant in an unimaginably huge project: “To understand the birth of life and be in on the profoundest secrets. Wiser than the Sphinx. You’ll gaze on the riddle of the universe with comprehension!” But Augie is tired of being involved in other people’s schemes: “I don’t want any more done to me, and I don’t want to tamper with anyone else. No one will be a poet or saint because you fool with him. When you come right down to it, I’ve had trouble enough becoming what I already am, by nature.”
Basteshaw’s grand scheme, “to assist in making a historic contribution to the happiness of mankind,” recalls the mission of the miserly millionaire Robey. Robey had wanted to describe human happiness, while, ironically, being totally miserable himself. Robey hates philanthropy and fears what will happen if goods become too abundant and there is no great need or starvation any longer. Basteshaw claims to have the secret for creating life, and wants to do great things for humanity, but he shows very little love for individual human beings—unwilling, for instance, even to lift a finger to pull Augie onto the lifeboat to save him from drowning. It is ironic that those who wish to do something grand for humanity actually have contempt for individual men.
Augie’s last mentor, Mintouchian, aids him in becoming more realistic about human nature. Although Augie doesn’t want to accept it at first, Mintouchian is right that no love relationship is free from deception. Stella is imperfect; she is, by her own admission, honest at most “seventy, sixty per cent” of the time. But Augie continues to love her and remains committed to her even after learning that she has lied to him.
Mintouchian also helps Augie realize that his idea of the orphan academy is a “bubble-headed dream.” Still, he remains true to the motives that were at the heart of the idea—the desire to share love, to have someone living with him for a change, instead of living off of someone else. With Stella, he creates a home. It is not a perfectly appointed, luxury apartment such as Simon would approve of, but it is all his.
Working for Mintouchian, Augie has become a more worldly person, and in the final chapters, his world has expanded. He began in a poor neighborhood in Chicago, and now he is in Europe—in fact, Paris, “the City of Man.” He asks himself, “if [Paris] was for Man why shouldn’t it be for me too?” The world is grand and vast, but it is for everyone; as Augie notes: “The Ganges is there with its demons and lords; but you have a right also, and merely, to wash your feet and do your personal laundry in it.”
In the end, Augie concludes that his life has been that of a wanderer, “going everywhere” on a voyage of discovery. Whether or not he has been a success, he doesn’t know, but he won’t be discouraged. Bellow suggests that each person is, like Augie, a version of Columbus, free to discover his or her own America, making of it what they will; he shares a vision of characteristically American optimism and hope, encouraging the reader to be, like Augie, “forever rising up.”