Are you thinking of writing a story about a kid who leaves the house and rides the bus to school, all the while observing other passengers and gazing out the window? Or a story about a woman who buys frozen pizza at the supermarket, complains about the roast beef then observes characters in the car park before peacing out to the radio? A parking warden who eats a sandwich in the town square before seeing shapes in the clouds? If these quiet stories are your jam, Saul Bellow wrote the mentor text for you. Of course, there’s far more going on than happens at the surface level. Reading deep into the symbol web, I reckon I know what this story is really about; it’s nothing to do with shampoo, delicatessens and strangers on subways.
“A Father To Be” was published in the February 5, 1955 edition of The New Yorker. More recently, this story was chosen by author Camille Bordas to talk about with Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker Fiction podcast.
The entire plot of “A Father To Be”: A man visits a delicatessen, takes a train to his fiancé’s apartment and the fiancé washes his hair. This story is an example of internal monologue. All thoughts are cued by the main character’s environment. It’s not easy to make a story like this believable because thoughts can sound artificial when written on the page.
Weirdly, this one isn’t in Bellow’s Collected Stories. Why didn’t it make the cut? We can’t say for sure, but Bordas and Treisman agree on this much: “A Father To Be” is dated but also strangely contemporary in its depiction of gender roles. Also, this story ‘feels preparatory’ for Bellow’s novel Seize The Day, published the following year. (Perhaps the editors thought Seize The Day usurps “A Father To Be”?)
The story centers on a day in the life of Wilhelm Adler (a.k.a. Tommy Wilhelm), a failed actor in his forties. Wilhelm is unemployed, impecunious, separated from his wife (who refuses to agree to a divorce), and estranged from his children and his father, although he lives in the same Broadway hotel as the old man, a highly regarded former doctor. He is stuck with the same immaturity and lack of insight which has brought him to failure. In Seize the Day Wilhelm experiences a day of reckoning as he is forced to examine his life and to finally accept the “burden of self.”
Bellow’s novel was adapted for film in 1986, starring Robin Williams. By unrelated coincidence, Robin Williams found himself yelling “Carpe diem!” three years later, in Dead Poet’s Society. (Perhaps Robin Williams was drawn to the philosophy.)
SETTING OF “A FATHER TO BE”
Since very little happens at the surface level of this story, the pacing is significantly dilated. This is a character study. In stories where plot takes a back seat, writers give themselves time to explore. If you’re after description, this story’s your ticket.
It probably takes about as long to read this story as it takes the main character to go to the deli and to his girlfriend’s, which makes this story basically ‘isochronic’ (using the narratological terminology of Ganette).
New York? (I believe Rogin is a Filipino name??)
Between the subway and Rogin’s fiancée’s house.
This is a story of city living, in which the forest of people provide ample opportunity for observation of human nature. You’d have trouble setting this story in a actual forest.
It’s cold enough to wear a Burberry coat.
LEVEL OF CONFLICT
Very strange in this story.
The main conflict is between the internal monologue running through Rogin’s mind (negative) and his outward behaviour (perfectly amenable).
THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE
Okay. Hear me out. I code Rogin as trans, but in an era before gender queerness was recognised as a possibility. I’m not saying Saul Bellow intentionally created a trans character. (I don’t believe many authors fully understand the depths of what they are creating.)
As pointed out in the podcast, the narrator constantly shifts his views of women in this story. Every woman character is ‘difficult’. There’s a general distaste for women and what women (actually the dominant culture) require of Rogin. (To be the Big Provider.)
But is that interpretation a little too easy? Perhaps the real difficulty is not ‘women’ per se, but Rogin’s own relationship to femininity.
At a surface level, Rogin doesn’t like the cousin his fiancée, Joan, is living with. Rogin wants equality but he also wants mothering and nurturing. On the podcast, it is thought that this ‘difficulty’ comes from a place of envy. (This doesn’t excuse Rogin’s nastiness, but provides an explanation.) I agree it comes from envy, not because women get to kick back while men provide, but because Rogin would like to embody the femininity that is granted without question to these cis women in Rogin’s life and periphery.
Luckily for the women in Rogin’s life, all of this is internal. However, Rogin does tell the deli guy the gherkins are rubbery, which is probably misplaced frustration against the gherkins.
Now, I can’t believe nothing was said on the podcast about the phallic imagery of this gherkin. Perhaps I’m only seeing it because I’m familiar with “A Dill Pickle” by Katherine Mansfield. In any case, let’s take a second to code the gherkin as Rogin’s penis. If I were arguing that Rogin is experiencing gender dissonance or even dysphoria, then I might point to Rogin’s complaint about the penis shaped foodstuff he complains about on the page and consider it symbolic.
Which I am.
Then there’s the hair. As said in the podcast, “There’s something going on with Rogin’s hair.” Treisman wonders, is this related to the Old Testament story of Samson and Delilah?
In the Biblical story, fourteen-year-old Delilah (a Philistine) was bribed to entrap Samson. She learned after becoming close to him that Samson’s strength existed in his hair, which was very long. After learning this about him she betrayed him to his enemies. (Is there a trans re-visioning of that old story, in which a cis woman outs a trans woman?)
I don’t believe believe this hair motif has a single thing to do with Samson and Delilah. Even Bordas and Treisman step away from the allusion after agreeing that cutting someone’s hair is very different from washing it. Bordas and Treisman point out (with humour) that the bottle of shampoo in the first scene functions as a Chekhov’s gun, meaning someone has to use the shampoo before the end of the story. But… why?
If we’re arguing that Rogin is a trans woman, the hair motif now makes sense. Hair is coded as a feminine thing, healthy hair a sign of healthy femininity, and one significant source of dysphoria for trans women who, for whatever reason, do not access gender affirming HRT: the trauma of male pattern baldness. When Rogin lies back and accepts the love and attention of his fiancée, she enters a sublime state. (I’m calling Rogin she/her now.) The most reassuring thing a fiancée could say to Rogin: There’s nothing wrong with you. Joan refers to the colour of his scalp, but Rogin imagines she means it more broadly. Then:
[Joan] pressed upon him from behind, surrounding him, pouring the water gently over him until it seemed to him that the water came from within him, it was the warm fluid of his own secret loving spirit overflowing into the sink, green and foaming, and the words he had rehearsed he forgot, and his anger at his son-to-be disappeared altogether, and he sighed, and said to her from the water-filled hollow of the sink, “You always have such wonderful ideas, Joan. You know? You have a kind of instinct, a regular gift.”Father-to-Be by Saul Bellow
It’s easy to read way too much into colour symbolism, but the greenness of the water does suggest to me that some kind of ‘monster-ness’ is washing right off her (Rogin). I say this because green-ness is frequently used to Other in horror and fantasy works, and the 1940s and 1950s reached peak popularity for this trope. (See, for example, the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz movie.)
Philosophers use the word ‘sublime’ to describe the feeling of becoming one with something bigger. For Rogin, to embody her own, internal gender would be ‘to become something bigger’. And while a cis woman is washing her hair, pushing her body against Rogin’s, Rogin is becoming one with a cis female body, the body of his cis fiancée.
This is why the story needs to end on a warm note and why ‘the warmth of the water seems to come from within him … a moment of complete physical sensuality that shuts his brain down … This is the only moment in which he does not seem overwhelmed by his own thoughts’, or as I would argue, his gender dysphoria. Bordas and Treisman code this warmth as maternal, which can happily co-exist with the trans reading, and which also holds true.
It is an oddly specific (and resonant) detail that Rogin still wants his mother to cut his meat for him even though he’s thirty-one. Of anyone in the world, we can assume Rogin’s mother knows her better than anyone. Rogin has started to believe this attentiveness is purely transactional (mother will cut your meat; you’ll pay mother’s bills). However, I suspect the mother understands that Rogin needs to be babied. Actually, we learn at the end that Joan understands this about her fiancee, too. When she greets Rogin at the door, her words are kind and reassuring and babylike. “Oh, my baby. You’re covered in snow…”
Why might Rogin like to be babied? Well, no one is ever going to treat Rogin like a woman, so the closest she comes to being free of male-gendering is to become a child. Children, with their secondary sex characteristics yet to develop, are the most genderfree versions of themselves (though still not without gender). Mothers speak to their young sons in caring, reassuring ways. As a very young child, the burdens of compulsory masculinity are yet to descend upon Rogin. Early childhood was likely a far less dysphoric place. However, Joan ruins the play a little by using the third person. “It’s all over its little head.” Ironically, she removes gender from Rogin, which she may sense is somewhat freeing, but she’s doing it in a way that is differently dysphoric; for Rogan, to be called ‘it’ is also no good. To be an ‘it’ is to be an object, less than human. (Note that a number of contemporary trans people have reclaimed it/its pronouns, but otherwise, no.)
Bordas and Treisman say, ‘With the woman on his head being either mother or Joan, this suggests [Rogin] is trading one mother for another.’
So what’s with the woman on Rogin’s head? To me, this uses the preposition we’re more familiar with in ‘monkey on my back’ or some idiomatic expression like that. Rogin has an imaginary other self ‘on’ her head (I would say ‘in’ but heigh ho). If we read this story as an allegory for trans femininity, this isn’t about an apparent man who’s about to ‘marry his mother’, but instead becomes about a trans woman who is battling to integrate different types of femininity and find a way of navigating through a 1950s world as an acceptable version of herself.
By the way, if Rogin is a trans woman, it’s not just the hair motif that now makes sense. The detail she notices suddenly makes sense, too:
- The Burberry coat (In Detransition, Baby, the detransitioned character looks at female clothing differently from cis men. Peters’ character Ames looks at clothing from a style point of view rather than through solely through a sexual and objectifying gaze.)
- Back to Saul Bellow’s story. Joan buys Rogin a ‘velvet smoking jacket’ which ostensibly almost drives Rogin mad because she is spending too much of Rogin’s own money on a gift she doesn’t want. But why does she not want it? Is it only about the frivolity, or is it because this smoking jacket, with the frog fasteners (and the beautiful pipe) are peak masculinity? Rogin goes on to explain that Joan bought for Phyllis a garnet brooch and other ultra-feminine items. I put it to you that Rogin would have preferred the garnet brooch. She can’t bear to wear the smoking jacket.
- Rogin pacifies herself with the reminder, “Who is free? No one is free.” If no one is free to be themselves, Rogin can’t expect to be, either. This works better some days than others. Sometimes the idea is ‘rather vague’. A few paragraphs later, Rogin pities people who live alone and ‘people whose gaze was turned inward’. For Rogin, to turn her gaze inward is to invite danger when living in a transphobic world.
- Rogin is very happy to be in the delicatessen. I put it to you that Rogin is mostly surrounded by other women while in this place, since housewives are typically in charge of buying and preparing food. I can also imagine, however, that a butcher-like place is a gender dysphoric place to be for a trans woman larping as a man, because male butchers are known for flirtatious interactions with female customers. This storekeeper is brusque with male customers, first angrily addressing the Puerto Rican boy. So we can predict Rogin isn’t going to have a good time with him, either.
- When Rogin tries hard to understand ‘what Joan likes’, she (Rogin) is wanting to feel, really feel, what it is like to exist in the world as a woman. For that she must get inside Joan’s head.
- Rogin sees two men at the train station in ‘shapeless’ coats. What does ‘shapeless’ mean in relation to coats? It means we can’t easily determine the gender of the wearer. Read into that what you will. More to the point, Rogin reads these coats as ‘chain mail’, a symbol of protection. What must a coat protect Rogin (the interpreting observer) from, exactly?
- One of these men tells the other he is an alcoholic. Why might this overheard snippet of conversation resonate with Rogin, who is not an alcoholic? Like the guy with the alcohol problem, Rogin perhaps wonders if his true self is visible to everyone, as this man’s alcoholism was plainly visible to his friend. What if she told his friends she wasn’t a man? Would they say, “Yes, I did know.” If only.
- Next, “They’ve turned a man into a woman.” If this isn’t a blatant signal that we’re to read Rogin as trans, I don’t know what is. This is clearly Bellow exploring gender, even if the word ‘gender’ isn’t on the page.
- “How come he thought nobody would know what everybody couldn’t help knowing?”
- Now let’s take a look at the inventions Rogin has supposedly invented (in her mind, by my reading). The synthetic albumen. Albumen is the white of eggs. In contemporary trans woman culture (at least), eggs are a symbol of coming out. An “egg” is a trans person who is yet to come out. “Hatching” means to come out as a “chick”, and so on. Rogin has just overheard a snippet of conversation about trans surgery. The ‘synthetic’ adjective hooks into the symbol web of appearance versus reality running through the entire story. Next we have ‘a cigarette that lit itself’ which lends itself so well to symbolic interpretation it could mean almost anything. A shot in the dark: Cigarettes are a masculo-coded accoutrement, especially in 1950s America, and to ‘light’ is to start something. To ‘light oneself’ is therefore to have some kind of anagnorisis (and act upon it). No one else can transition for you. No one else can tell you about your own gender, and your own particular relationship to expected gender conformity. ‘Cheaper motor fuel’ is more difficult to extract symbolic meaning from, which is fine. Perhaps we’re not meant to. The wish to provide something less expensive for people does, however, demonstrate Rogin’s caring nature, as much as her own need for more money, because she is caring financially for so many people, even on a good salary.
- Rogin notices the little girls with the feminine muffs and the doll. Is this something a typical cis man would dwell upon? Not so sure. ‘It seemed to Rogin that each child was in love with its own muff and didn’t even see the other.’ This must be symbolic, right? Two little girls who look identical but who don’t know the other exists… The Rogin which presents to the world, failing to acknowledge the inner, feminine Rogin.
- Rogin is disturbed by the little person (the ‘dwarf’) not because of the smallness but because of the indeterminate gender. Examples of gender queerness (or in this case simply ambiguity) can be challenging when you’re genderqueer yourself. If not challenging, supremely interesting. Would it be possible for Rogin to also go through life without a masculine gender? (Why did Bellow make the person small in stature? Because to travel through life without the privilege of masculine gender would be a diminished existence.)
- Trains carry heavy symbolism in stories, especially in short stories. Notably, Rogin is on a subway, meaning she’s delving into her subconscious. Bellow puts this right on the page for us, in case we miss it: ‘Thoughts very often grow fertile on the subway, because of the motion, the great company, the subtlety of the rider’s state as he rattles under streets and rivers, under the foundations of great buildings…’
- Next, Rogin thinks about X and Y chromosomes. Neither Bellow nor this main character have access to an understanding we have now: That sex and gender do not line up in some people. Back in the 1950s, believe it or not, people were still having trouble wrapping their heads around the idea that biology and orientation don’t always line up. Meaning, if you looked like a woman and wanted to be a nurse, you couldn’t possibly be lesbian. (For deeper discussion on that, I highly recommend Hugh Ryan’s 2022 interview at the LGBTQ&A podcast.) But here we have a character who knows a lot about science-y stuff, trying to wrap their head around the idea that you can have an XY chromosome but (off the page, only symbolically) still not feel as if you do. Rogin instead delves into reflections and dreams, attempting to scry some kind of gender truth, before the general populace understand the concept of ‘gender’.
- Next Rogin notices a man and feels ‘linked to him through all existence’. Is this Rogin dealing with gender dissonance by not only throwing away the category of sex, but the entire category of individuated personhood, in which everyone is agender? ‘There are all kinds of dandies, not all of them the flaunting kind.’ I’m sure some readers will read Rogin as a repressed gay man. I’m going further than that. Also, there’s no indication of sexual attraction on the page. This feels more like aesthetic, aspirational attraction. Rogin is noticing the guy’s clothing, admiring its pattern, and his ‘faultless’ hat. We also learn that Rogin is homophobic in a way typical of the era: Gay men are respectable so long as they don’t ‘flaunt’ it. Hence, Rogin isn’t about to flaunt anything herself. Internalised queer phobia.
- The gay man reminds Rogin of Joan because they each have the same shaped nose. More than that, Rogin conflates two people of different gender. This is all part of Rogin’s conflation game, in which she persuades herself her gender dissonance doesn’t matter, because she’s going to have to live with it forever anyway. Que sera sera.
- “Probably the children would resemble her.” True that Rogin has zero evidence. But if she’s wondering about heredity, she’s probably wondering what kind of children a woman and a trans woman would produce together. If they have a girl, she would likely be cis. If they have a son, would he be feminine? There’s no logical process to any of this interior monologue. Yet I have a sense Rogin is thinking deeply about gender and sex and heredity and chromosomes in an effort to work herself out. By ‘dominant traits’ I don’t think she’s considering the punnet square, scientific meaning of ‘dominant genes’. She’s thinking of ‘dominant masculinity’.
- Rogin worries she’d be unable to father a son properly because the son would never understand her. How does a father who does not feel manly himself bring up a son? Aren’t fathers charged with the task of turning sons into manly men?
- Rogin finds Joan’s father disgusting. I put it to you that Rogin does not find Joan’s father personally disgusting, but the spectre of ageing into elderly manhood disgusting. Even the gay man is ultimately disgusting to Rogin, who previously admired the man’s clothing. Sure, Rogin finds women ‘difficult’, but she finds manhood ‘detestable’, even when it’s the somewhat feminised, gay version of manhood.
- “He could not afford the luxury of such a carefree, debonair attitude himself, because he had to work hard and earn money so that disturbing things would not happen.” What would be so disturbing to Joan, who ‘always assumed no really disturbing thing would happen’? Rogin living as herself.
- Before Rogin has her hair shampooed, she must take off her shirt to expose her masculine chest. Right before that, we are told ‘Rogin was full of his troubled emotions’. Is nakedness dysphoric for Rogin? Under the coat, she could hypothetically imagine herself with any kind of body. Without clothing she is very much a man.
- ‘Take away the externals, like the muscles, deeper voice, and so forth, and what remains? A pair of spirits, practically alike. So why shouldn’t there also be equality? I can’t always be the strong one.’ (By the by, if we didn’t live in a gender binary world, if gender were wholly uncoupled to biology, would gender dysphoria exist?)
Now, let’s return to the opening passage, in which we learn the main character is a guy called Rogin. From the opening sentence, we learn that ‘the strangest notions’ have a way of ‘forcing themselves’ into Rogan’s mind. This tells me readers need to look beyond the literal words on the page. Look for something that does not yet have a name in 1950s America.
Next, Bellow tells us in detail what Rogin looks like, which appears to be written in close third person, meaning this is not some objective assessment of Rogin’s appearance, but instead describes how Rogin appears to him/herself:
The strangest notions had a way of forcing themselves into Rogin’s mind. Just thirty-one and passable-looking, with short black hair, small eyes, but a high, open forehead, he was a research chemist, and his mind was generally serious and dependable. But on a snowy Sunday evening while this stocky man, buttoned to the chin in a Burberry coat and walking in his preposterous gait–feet turned outward–was going toward the subway, he fell into a peculiar state.“A Father-To-Be”, Saul Bellow
‘Passable’ takes on a different meaning now, doesn’t it? The word didn’t mean then what it (also) means now. But through a contemporary genderqueer lens, Rogin understands that although he doesn’t feel like a man, he passes as one. His ‘preposterous’ gait turns him into a comical caricature, but does he really walk like this? It seems to me he codes his own perfectly ordinary, but masculine gait, as preposterous precisely because he must try so hard to maintain it. When trans women seek facial feminisation surgery, or when drag queens hyper-feminise their faces with make-up artistry, they are seeking to change the exact parts of the face that the narrator mentions here: a smaller forehead, larger eyes. (Courtney Act describes her make-up routine in detail in her autobiography.)
The narrator of “A Father-To-Be” (filtered through Rogins’ brain) ‘just so happens to’ describe the most masculine parts of Rogin’s face, the very parts changed by testosterone during a typically male puberty.
Let’s return briefly to Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters. In that brilliant novel, you will happen across the trans in-joke in which trans women meet each other and ask, tongue-in-cheek, “So, are you a sex worker, an aesthetician or a computer programmer?” It wouldn’t be funny if it weren’t somewhat true. What’s the 1950s equivalent of a computer programmer? I mean, if you had a brain perfectly wired for programming but computers still existed only in nascent form, what would you do for a career if programming weren’t an option for you? I put it to you, reader: You would become a research chemist. And if you were a trans woman research scientist, you would be an unusually thoughtful, poetic and observant research chemist, as Rogin is here. Whereas Bordas and Treisman find Rogin’s career a little preposterous, I find it entirely inline with a trans femme reading.
Extrapolating from that… I don’t believe Rogin has really invented such preposterous things. I believe Rogin considers her job preposterous, because he, himself (she, herself) finds her entire masculine life preposterous.
Most preposterous of all: The prospect of becoming a father. In the 1950s, men became Real Men (TM) first by getting married (check, almost, though I wonder how long Rogin has been engaged for), next by becoming fathers. To become a father for a trans woman can be another highly dysphoric experience. Ergo, if we read Rogin as a trans woman, or non-binary (I should’ve said that earlier), or even just a little bit genderqueer, meaning they still identify as a man, but not really? If we read Rogin like that, then this discomfort around being The Male Provider makes perfect sense.
You know what else makes perfect sense? The cognitive dissonance Rogin feels around pressure to provide versus the male privilege she will increasingly experience first as a married man who provides for ‘his’ wife, then as a father who provides for ‘his’ children. Of any demographic living through 1950s USA, trans women who became fathers would have understood best that balance between male privilege and the burden of masking who you really are.
What do you think happens with Rogin after the story ends?
“If the story continues two minutes later he’s again angry about something.”Camille Bordas
I see two long-term possibilities for Rogin, depending on the depths of her gender dysphoria. She may continue as she is now, with sex and gender in a permanently discordant state, skirting around the edges of her feelings, never getting to the truth while living with the hermeneutical injustice of not having words, let alone a concept, for ‘trans woman’.
Perhaps she has a crisis, perhaps imminent, perhaps in middle age, after the burdens of fatherhood prove too much.
At this point she will either tell Joan, or she will find likeminded queers elsewhere. Or both. I hope she found both.