Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King is a darkly comedic look at one man’s look for that thing most people of first world societies, despite being given all advantages in life, can’t seem to find. An answer to that call in the pit of the stomach that yells, “I want! I Want!” The thing that’s missing, that will finally make a life fulfilled. Of course, that thing has no concrete form, and Henderson never managed to find it in NEW YORK CITY! That’s right, New York City didn’t have the answer! So, if the answer isn’t found at the pinnacle representation of modern progression, where else could Henderson look for answers other than right in the heart of undeveloped, rural Africa?
So, Henderson buys a one way ticket to Africa. He travels with a friend and his wife, who are filming a documentary. He quickly realizes that these traveling companions are getting quite as far off the beaten path as he would like, so he hires a guide, the unbelievably faithful, devoted Romilayu, and promptly ditches his friends for the deep bush, all the while knowing the satiation of his eternal want will be found out there.
Of course, that isn’t quite what happens. Instead, Henderson goes on a path of both transcendental and existential destruction. His search for meaning, for an ultimate reason for his existence reveals his selfishness and disregard for the existence of others. The first half of the novel focuses on Henderson’s interaction with the Arnewi, a tribe deep in rural Africa. The tribe is having some issues with their water source, which is plagued by frogs. Herein lies the problem with Henderson’s search for meaning, and a look at Bellow’s issues with existentialism, or at least the abuse of existential thought.
Henderson, being so focused on his own meaning, and his own ways, doesn’t seem to recognize the importance of other people’s existence, or the importance of observing the differences of other cultures. Instead, he takes it upon himself to rid the Arnewi of their frog problem, why? Because fate, or God, or what have you, led him to this point to disrupt the Arnewi’s life, so that he can destroy the frogs. This, of course is his reason to live. And he screws up. Bad. And leaves the tribe to deal with the aftermath.
Henderson and Romilayu travel onward, forever searching for Henderson’s (never mind Romilayu’s) meaning in life. In their search, they are taken into captivity by members of another tribe, the Wariri. Through a series of progressively odd events, Henderson becomes the Rain King, or Sungo, of the Wariri. More specifically, he becomes a close friend of the Wariri king, Dahfu. But, Henderson’s selfish bent on existentialism continues with tragic results. And in the end? Henderson is arguably just as foolish for his struggle.