Eugene Henderson is a troubled middle-aged man. Despite his riches, high social status, and physical prowess, he feels restless and unfulfilled, and harbors a spiritual void that manifests itself as an inner voice crying out I want, I want, I want. Hoping to discover what the voice wants, Henderson goes to Africa.
Upon reaching Africa, Henderson splits with his original group and hires a native guide, Romilayu. Romilayu leads Henderson to the village of the Arnewi, where Henderson befriends the leaders of the village. He learns that the cistern from which the Arnewi get their drinking water is plagued by frogs, thus rendering the water “unclean” according to local taboos. Henderson attempts to save the Arnewi by ridding them of the frogs, but his enthusiastic scheme ends in disaster.
Henderson and Romilayu travel on to the village of the Wariri. Here, Henderson impulsively performs a feat of strength and unwittingly becomes Wariri Rain King. He quickly develops a friendship with the native-born but western-educated Chief, King Dahfu, with whom he engages in a series of far-reaching philosophical discussions.
The elders send Dahfu to find a lion, which is supposedly the reincarnation of the late king, Dahfu’s father. The lion hunt fails and the lion mortally wounds the king. Henderson learns shortly before Dahfu’s death that the Rain King is the next person in the line of succession for the throne. Fearing the elders would rather see him dead than lead the Wariri, Henderson flees the Wariri village.
Although it is unclear whether Henderson has truly found spiritual contentment, the novel ends on an optimistic and uplifting note.
A week before the novel appeared in book stores, Saul Bellow published an article in the New York Times entitled “The Search for Symbols, a Writer Warns, Misses All the Fun and Fact of the Story.” . Here, Bellow warns readers against looking too deeply for symbols in literature. This has led to much discussion among critics as to why Bellow warned his readers against searching for symbolism just before the symbol-packed Rain King hit the shelves.
The ongoing philosophical discussions and ramblings between Henderson and the natives, and inside Henderson’s own head, prefigure elements of Bellow’s next novel, Herzog (1964), which includes many such inquiries into life and meaning.
As in all Bellow’s novels, death figures prominently in HRK. Also, the novel manifests a few common character types that run through Bellow’s literary works. One type is the Bellovian Hero, often described as a schlemiel. Eugene Henderson, in company with most of Bellow’s main characters, can be given this description. Another is what Bellow calls the “Reality-Instructor”; in HRK, King Dahfu fills this role. In Seize the Day, the instructor is played by Dr. Tamkin, while in Humboldt’s Gift, Humboldt von Fleisher takes the part.
 Pulitzer Prize
In 1960 the Pulitzer Prize committee for fiction recommended Henderson the Rain King be awarded the prize for that year. The Pulitzer board, which have final say over the awarding of the prize, overrode their recommendation and chose Advise and Consent by Allen Drury instead.