The Existential Situation: The Making of Mailer’s Early Protagonists

From Gerald R. Lucas

Identity in Norman Mailer’s early fiction is usually defined through how a character asserts (or fails to assert) masculinity by living dangerously and confronting existential situations.[a]

In Cannibals and Christians, Mailer writes: “Masculinity is not something given to you, something you’re born with, but something you gain. And you gain it by winning small battles with honour.”[1] These small battles are the crucial moments in life that define the experience of Mailer’s characters. They are risky and dangerous and necessary for continued growth.

Mailer in 1959. Photo by Peter Keen.

In Norman Mailer: A Double Life, Mike Lennon cites Nietzsche’s work as an influence on Mailer’s ideas, particularly a section called “Live Dangerously” in Walter Kaufmann’s Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre: “For, believe me, the secret of the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously! Build your cities under Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors, as long as you cannot be rulers and owners, you lovers of knowledge!”[2] So, Mailer’s “honor,” here, could be read as a courage to accept the challenge, to look danger in the face, and try to be ready for whatever comes next. It’s a part of Mailer’s concept of American existentialism where the outcome is both serious and uncertain.[3]

Mailer explicitly develops this idea in The White Negro: the American existentialist learns “to live with death as an immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.”[4] Later in his essay “Some Dirt in the Talk,” Mailer writes “you are in an existential situation when something important and/or unfamiliar is taking place, and you do not know how it is going to turn out.”[5] Living dangerously, then, defines the protagonist on his own terms — not as other external forces might compel him too be. The existential situation pits the protagonist against external forces, and the outcome of these small battles shapes the protagonist’s identity in subtle and profound ways.

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Two unsuccessful Mailer protagonists: Sanford Carter in “The Language of Men” (1953) and Sam Slovoda in “The Man Who Studied Yoga” (1956). Two successful protagonists: Al Groot in “The Greatest Thing in the World” (1941) and Sergius O'Shaugnessy in “The Time of Her Time” (1959).

“The Greatest Thing in the World”

Al Groot, the young Hipster protagonist of “The Greatest Thing in the World,” seems to be an archetypal Mailerian protagonist. In this Depression-era story, Al is a drifter, who’s found himself in a diner bargaining for half a doughnut and a cup of coffee. As he wonders where his next meal might come from or whether he’ll even get one, three men enter and sit in a booth. Al approaches them and says “They call me Al Groot” — suggesting it’s a name that he has not chosen, perhaps something that he changes like clothing — a name that sounds at the same time anonymous and like a sound a beast might make. Al notices that the three men “all looked alike”: as if they all just represent faceless challengers. Their names might be their most interesting characteristics, aliases bestowed, perhaps from physical attributes or cravings or predilections: Cataract, Pickles, and Cousin. They even begin calling Al “sweet-face” which he starts to use to his advantage.

Al asks them for a ride to Chicago, then watches them eat their burgers. He becomes mesmerized and “wild thoughts of seizing the hamburger, and fighting the man for it, deviled him.”[6] He decides, perhaps unconsciously, that “he hated them, and felt sick” and marks them as “sucker players of some sort.”[7] Mailer’s scene seems Zolaesque — an atavistic arena where decisions are made in the gut and everything is a contest where the winner takes all. Al is driven by bodily desires and a natural drive to gain the upper hand. The only time is now, and Al is on a quest for that one little victory that will put him on top, even if just for the moment.

Al takes the challenge immediately and begins playing them. He begins his act, taking advantage when he can to steal a cigarette or two and develop his “sweet-face” persona. He lies to them about having money, increasing the stakes of the game. In Chicago, Pickles suggests that they play pool for a “couple of bucks.”[8] Al knows he could still get out of it, but “The thought of another five dollars, however, was too strong for him.”[8] The desire for more money increases the risk of the game and the uncertainty of how it will turn out. Al knows rationally that the game he’s playing is dangerous, but it’s one where he seems to have nothing to lose.

Once he wins a few dollars, he decides he needs to get out. When Pickles lays down $20, the stakes become too high, and “Al looked about him, trapped, thoughts of fighting them mixing with mad ideas of flight.”[9] In the bathroom, he twice looks at his winnings: “He held it in his hands, and let the bills slip through his fingers. Gathering them up, he kissed them feverishly, rubbing the paper against his face and arms. He folded them tenderly, let down his pants and slipped the cash into a little secret pocket, just under the crotch.”[10] Here the connection between this risk and an almost sexual excitement is made explicit by Mailer. The money symbolizes Al’s masculine potency — his sexual surrogate for having screwed Pickles. Now all he had to do is keep it, or not be the one who gets screwed.

After a confrontation where it seemed as if Al would loose his prize, he manages to get away from the three men with the money. As the men drive Al to a place he knows will not be good for him, Al says an impromptu prayer: “Anger and rebellion surged through him. They were taking away something that he had earned dangerously, and they were going to beat him up, because they had not been as smart as he. It was not fair. He wanted the money more than they did. . . . Oh please God, show me the sign, you got to, it's my money, not theirs, oh please.”[11] Al manages to tumble out of the car and run away with the money. He is victorious this day, a sign from God, perhaps, that Al’s deserving of his win and was rewarded in kind. The story closes with Al smoking a cigarette and laying in his rented bed thinking “by God, this is the happiest moment of my life.”[12] The greatest thing in the world, therefore, is that moment of victory — of being in a place he had never been and relishing the feeling — almost in a state of ecstasy. Al might not be so lucky the next day, but the thought of tomorrow becomes secondary to the ecstasy of that moment.

While not overtly either violent or sex-filled, “Greatest Thing” begins to link the two ideas for Mailer. Mailer makes this connection clear in The White Negro, showing how they work as an antidote to the over-analyzed and therefore unsatisfying contemporary American life. The lucky ones are able to see through, as Morris Dickstein puts it, the “soft totalitarianism of conformity, McCarthyism, middle-aged timidity, and intellectual compromise” and embrace something more primal, more essential, and more satisfying.[13] Yet, some of Mailer’s early fiction illustrates the consequences of conformity, of living life like a bureaucrat, comfortable but estranged from what Mailer saw as the essential as parts of humanity.

“The Language of Men”

In “The Language of Men,” Mailer’s protagonist Sanford Carter longs to connect with his fellow soldiers, but can’t seem to be break out of the roles that have been imposed upon him by others. One of Mailer’s army stories, “The Language of Men” centers around Sanford and his assignment as an army cook after the war. From the outset, he has an aversion to this job without quite knowing why. Similarly, Sanford feels that his service has not been successful, and he needed to do something “to prove to himself that he was not completely worthless” to the “huge army which had proved to him that he was good at no work, and incapable of succeeding at anything.”[14] His insecurities bubble to the surface throughout the story, leaving Sanford in fits of rage, “close to violent attacks of anger,” and near to tears.

While Sanford seems incapable of decoding his troubles, Mailer provides clues that suggest Sanford’s identity has been determined by his community and the need for security and acceptance, perhaps centering around the fact that he “was accustomed to the attention and the protection of women. He would have thrown away all he possessed — the love of his wife, the love of his mother, the benefits of his education, the assured financial security of entering his father's business — if he had been able just once to dig a ditch as well as the most ignorant farmer.”[15]

Sanford’s life has been cloistered from the necessary experiences that would help him build his own identity. Even the army added to his impotence by making him a cook. This fact, coupled with Sanford’s admission that he “was accustomed to the attention and the protection of women” suggests further that he has been feminized by his experiences and shaped into something other than a man that would be successful in the army and accepted by the other soldiers. At first, when assigned to be a cook, Sanford acts with revulsion, as

cooks existed for him as a symbol of all that was corrupt, overbearing, stupid, and privileged in army life. The image which came to mind was a fat cook with an enormous sandwich in one hand, and a bottle of beer in the other, sweat pouring down a porcine face, foot on a flour barrel, shouting at the K.P.s, “Hurry up, you men, I ain't got all day.” More than once in those two and a half years, driven to exasperation, Carter had been on the verge of throwing his food into a cook’s face as he passed on the serving line. His anger often derived from nothing . . . Since life in the army was in most aspects a marriage, this rage over apparently harmless details was not a sign of unbalance. Every soldier found some particular habit of the army spouse impossible to support.[16]

From the outset, Sanford equates the cook with a overbearing and castrating figure that exerts a wife-like power over him, driving him into a “rage over apparently harmless details.” Coupled with his insecurities of being a failure as a soldier and the fact that he comes from a secure and successful background, he attempts to redirect that aggression into his new role as a cook to win the respect of the men. He became comfortable in the kitchen, tried to make the extra effort to improve the food to each soldier’s individual taste, and “he baked like a housewife satisfying her young husband.”[17] Yet, even though he tried to do his best as a cook, he notices the men start to look at him the way he viewed the cook. Finally, he catches wind of the men’s intention to take some oil from the kitchen for a fish fry — not only is this against the rules, but Sanford finds out that the men had no intention of inviting him — that he was considered “one of the . . . undesirables.”[18] He attempts to show his authority by denying them the oil, and when he is confronted, becomes flustered, falling into the role of the unappreciated housewife, even catching himself as he was about to use utter a cliche:

“I'm sick of trying to please you. You think I have to work”—he was about to say, my fingers to the bone—“well, I don't. From now on, you'll see what chow in the army is supposed to be like.” He was almost hysterical.[19]

Sanford wins this contest by becoming that which he hates. In a moment of frustration, Sanford becomes aggressive and tries to fight Hobbs, a man he knows he could not best. This aggression allows Carter to come out on top, momentarily gaining the men’s respect, especially Hobbs. While there’s a moment of reconciliation at the end of the story, it is short-lived. Sanford again alienates Hobbs by attempting to assert his moral superiority in a passive-aggressive way. Sanford laments at the story’s end that “he would never learn the language of men.”[20] His realization is one of failure. While his aggression with Hobbs seemed to be an existential situation that Sanford could learn from, he falls back into his comfortable, feminized role.

“The Man Who Studied Yoga”

Similarly, the protagonist of “The Man Who Studied Yoga,” Sam Slovoda (another suggestive name — maybe slovenly or sloppy), has retreated from the challenges of the world into a claustrophobic life. He is, in Andrew Gordon’s words, “a middle-class square, a failed radical, and a failed artist in servitude to a deadening psychoanalytic jargon and to the power of his analyst, Dr. Sergius.”[21] Like Sanford, Sam is aware of his failings and “wishes to be better,” but “he seems powerless to change his habits.”[22] Unlike Sanford, Sam seems to have unrealized potential as an artist, which might make his situation all the more tragic. Here, Mailer employs Dr. Sergius as the therapist villain along with Sam’s wife Eleanor as the domineering forces in Sam’s life who seem to sap him of his creativity and masculinity.[23] Sam encapsulates his feelings in therapy talk along with Eleanor so that their conversations even bore the narrator.[24] Eleanor keeps the apartment too hot, and Sam is surrounded by detritus of life that aids in keeping him stagnant and immobile. Gordon argues that this is a kind of constipation — a “shapeless fecal horror” that Sam wants to order but cannot, represented by the great novel he longs to write but remains disorganized and too complex: “One does not know where to begin.”[25]

The existential situation in this story comes in the form of a pornographic film some of Sam’s friends bring over to their apartment. As a group, they watch the film; it contains a character named Eleanor (a double of his wife) who is ravished by a couple. They watch the film twice, and Sam imagines an orgy commencing with the two other couples, but instead they discuss the film like intelligent people.[26] Instead of a dangerous situation, this has turned into a way for them to dominate and make the danger safe without confronting it. Unlike the titillation and danger of sex that was not sanctioned by social mores, Sam sees their response as retreating into “the womb of middle-class life.”[27] Even Sam and Eleanor’s real love-making — which they do later while watching the film again — cannot match the excitement of the simulated love making, and Sam lies insomniac at the story’s end feeling his body go numb, an outward manifestation of his inner life. The narrator sums up the moral at the end, as if it isn’t already apparent: “So Sam enters the universe of sleep, a man who seeks to live in such a way as to avoid pain, and succeeds merely in avoiding pleasure. What a dreary compromise is life!”[28]

“The Time of Her Time”

In “The Time of Her Time,” Mailer’s first-person narrator is another Dr. Sergius, but the antithesis of the one in “Yoga.” He is the full-fledged hipster, perhaps a grown-up Al Groot, who lives in Greenwich Village and sees himself as a sexual saint bestowing his erotic gifts on all comers. He teaches bull fighting out of his apartment and continually puts himself in risky situations. The story is broken into two uneven chapters: the first is in October and has Sergius arriving in the slums of Manhattan’s lower-east side, setting up an apartment, and marking the neighborhood with his scent. The second is set six months later in the spring and centers around his involvement with Denise Gondelman, a nineteen-year-old student of psychoanalysis. Mailer uses chapter one to set Sergius up as the machoman Hipster before introducing Denise, the character stifled by society and who must be shown her true self, in Sergius’ estimation. In this sense, Mailer is also setting up his audience, members of the same tranquilizing society who have certain expectations from him and his fiction, especially one that so obviously alludes to Hemingway via the bullfighting. Serguis is the stud protagonist, and he must save the repressed and frigid Denise Gondelman by giving her an apocalyptic orgasm. Simple.

Mailer writes this story in first-person, and it probably wouldn’t have worked as well in third. He wants us to sympathize with and support his protagonist, like we are trained to do when reading a first-person narrative. Mailer even devotes two pages early in chapter two to Sergius’ “sexual saint” narrative, and he has us convinced that he treats women well at the same time we see his womanizing: they mean as little to him afterward as a fly drowning in some spilled coffee. His actions tell another story, so Mailer seems to hint that he’s not totally reliable.

I’ll allow myself one example, though there are many: Sergius calls his penis “the avenger.” It needs to be asked: what is it avenging? Who is getting paid back for what? Interesting, too, that this links sex with the idea of payback for him — a revenge, or getting even. What great wrong does his penis set right? In other words: what egregious wrong have women done to Sergius that all must be paid back for? Sergous’ misogyny links sex to a potentially violent contest, like a duel, perhaps here like an allegorical one between the champion of Psychoanalysis, Denise, and the Hipster, Sergius. The former seems to be a creature of the mind which stifles her ability to feel and ultimately achieve satisfaction in sex. Sergius, while clever with language, is a man of the senses: a bullfighter, a handsome aficionado, a sexual conquerer. He does what he wants, it seems, but in calculated ways. He understands his environment  and moves in that jungle like a beast born there. In his realm, he is king, and Denise is the other in need of local domestication. In his world, he is the bullfighter, and Denise is the bull.

However, what Sergius doesn’t seem to see, but what the perspicacious reader might pick up on, is that it’s really Denise who plays the matador, and Sergius the beast. Mailer gives us plenty of textual hints, all revolving around her final pronouncement of Sergius: “your whole life is a lie, and you do nothing but run away from the homosexual that is you.”[29]

There are likely many more examples than I give here, but these stick out to me. Sergius describes Demise in masculine terms, even suggesting that she might be a lesbian; she had an “ugly New York accent,” small breasts, and the “flat thin muscles of a wiry boy.”[30] During their first sexual encounter, she sticks a finger in his posterior, arousing him once again from his refractory period.[31] She runs sexual marathons, seems forever angry, and plays the aggressor: “When I kissed her she answered with a grinding insistence of her mouth upon mine, and a muscular thrust of her tongue into my throat, as direct and unfeminine as the harsh force of her voice.”[32] She shows up on their last night together with short-cropped hair and smelling like her boyfriend. This excites Sergius so much, he ejaculates prematurely.

The title of the story seems to refer to Denise’s achieving orgasm: as in it’s about time she did. However, it could also refer to the fact of her victory over Sergius and his realization of it. Indeed, how else can we read the final line: “And like a real killer she did not look back, and was out the door before I could rise and tell her that she was a hero fit for me.”[29] Perhaps it’s less the fact of her win, but more Sergius’ realization of her now heroic status. Indeed, this reflects an earlier sentence where Sergius foreshadows her victory: “this new chick had been a mistake” — a statement made less in the harsh reality of morning, but more upon their later experiences.[33] This is not a defeat for Sergius, but as a new experience that the Hipster constantly craves.

It’s difficult not to (psycho)analyse “The Time of Her Time,” perhaps to Mailer’s amusement. Even if Denise is correct about Sergius, it seems to matter little to Mailer’s Hipster, for he’s always on the search for “new kinds of perception.”[4] Denise’s conclusion about Sergius is only a fact in terms of psychoanalysis, not existentially where those labels remain insignificant. Indeed, Sergius is able to make Denise orgasm — we have to take his word for it — a little victory in his world. She, too, is also able to claim victory in hers. They part with mutual respect (this might be a stretch in Denise’s case). Perhaps Sergius believes his minuet of macho ends with Denise in a draw.


  1. Delivered at the conference of the Norman Mailer Society, 2018.


  1. Mailer 1966, p. 242.
  2. Lennon 2013, p. 318.
  3. Merrill 1978, p. 71.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Mailer 1992, p. 339.
  5. Mailer 1972, p. 104.
  6. Mailer 1941, p. 74.
  7. Mailer 1941, pp. 74, 75.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Mailer 1941, p. 77.
  9. Mailer 1941, p. 78.
  10. Mailer 1941, p. 80.
  11. Mailer 1941, p. 82.
  12. Mailer 1941, p. 83.
  13. Dickstein 2007, p. 120.
  14. Mailer 1953, pp. 142, 143.
  15. Mailer 1953, p. 146.
  16. Mailer 1953, p. 142.
  17. Mailer 1953, p. 145.
  18. Mailer 1953, p. 147.
  19. Mailer 1953, p. 150.
  20. Mailer 1953, p. 153.
  21. Gordon 1980, p. 33.
  22. Mailer 1956, pp. 157, 162.
  23. Gordon 1980, p. 91.
  24. Mailer 1956, p. 161.
  25. Mailer 1956, pp. 89; 164.
  26. Mailer 1956, p. 176.
  27. Mailer 1956, p. 177.
  28. Mailer 1956, p. 185.
  29. 29.0 29.1 Mailer 1959, p. 503.
  30. Mailer 1959, pp. 487–88.
  31. Mailer 1959, p. 491.
  32. Mailer 1959, p. 489.
  33. Mailer 1959, p. 488.

Works Cited

  • Dickstein, Morris (Fall 2007). "How Mailer Became 'Mailer': The Writer as Private and Public Character". The Mailer Review. 1 (1): 118–131. Retrieved 2017-08-13.
  • Gordon, Andrew (1980). An American Dreamer: A Psychoanalytic Study of the Fiction of Norman Mailer. London: Fairleigh Dickinson UP.
  • Lennon, J. Michael (2013). Norman Mailer: A Double Life. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Mailer, Norman (1966). Cannibals and Christians. New York: Pinnacle.
  • — (1972). Existential Errands. New York: Little, Brown.
  • — (1941). "The Greatest Thing in the World". Advertisements for Myself. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992. pp. 70–84.
  • — (1953). "The Language of Men". The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer. New York: Dell, 1967. pp. 142–153.
  • — (1956). "The Man Who Studied Yoga". Advertisements for Myself. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992. pp. 153–185.
  • — (1959). "The Time of Her Time". Advertisements for Myself. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1992. pp. 478–503.
  • — (1992) [1959]. "The White Negro". Advertisements for Myself. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. pp. 337–358.
  • Merrill, Robert (1978). Norman Mailer. Boston: Twayne Publishers.
  • Rollyson, Carl (1991). The Lives of Norman Mailer. New York: Paragon House.