The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In his family and educational background as well as his career as a novelist, Nathan Zuckerman is clearly Philip Roth’s self-confessed “front man,” alter ego, and all round ventriloquist’s dummy. Rejecting the role of “family id,” Zuckerman is perhaps most like Roth in the sense that Roth described himself in a 1984 interview as being “like somebody who is trying vividly to transform himself out of himself and into his vividly transforming heroes. I am like somebody who spends all day writing.” What makes it especially difficult, even risky, to discuss Nathan or indeed any of the The Counterlife’s characters with any degree of certainty is that they exist in several ontological and narrative states consecutively and at times concurrently. They are in a sense at once real (if the reader follows Coleridge’s advice and suspends disbelief, as most novels allow and require) and doubly fictitious (insofar as they are both Zuckerman’s and Roth’s creations). Although no less “real” or compelling than the characters in the novels of Jane Austen that Maria’s mother, Mrs. Freshfield, admires, they are far more elusive and problematic, for it is impossible to determine just where the facts of their lives leave off and Zuckerman’s as well as their own fictions begin. Henry, for example, seems entirely in character when he defends himself as one who lives with the facts, unlike Nathan who, fearing real life, spends his life trying to alter...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

The Counterlife Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Nathan Zuckerman

Nathan Zuckerman, a Jewish writer based to some extent on the author. A tall, dark man in his mid-forties, he is the supposed author of the novel as well as a character in it. In the second of five chapters, he goes to Israel at the request of Carol, Henry’s wife, who wants Nathan to convince Henry to return home. In chapter 4, he is impotent as a result of cardiac drugs, the same condition ascribed to Henry in chapter 1. The events of chapter 4 are background to earlier chapters. In chapter 4, Nathan meets Maria, who moves into his building with her husband and small daughter, Phoebe. Soon, they are engaged in an affair of sorts, with him giving her sexual satisfaction. He says that he wants to have a child with her, and she says that he desires this only because it is impossible. He turned down the chance to have children with his three former wives, all shiksas, like Maria. In this version of events, he has a coronary bypass operation and dies, like Henry did in chapter 1. In the concluding chapter, he is married to Maria, who is pregnant with his child; it is not clear whether he ever was impotent or had the operation. He has just returned from seeing Henry in Israel. He says that he married Maria because he wanted to break away from his old life and his own examination of it. After arguing with Maria about anti-Semitism and Jewish identity, he realizes that living in England with her has made him more of a Jew.

Henry Zuckerman

Henry Zuckerman, Nathan’s thirty-nine-year-old brother, a dentist. He is tall, with an athletic physique, and has dark good looks but is shy. The first chapter describes him as being impotent as a side effect of drugs he takes for a coronary condition. Years earlier, he had a brief affair with a woman named Maria, who returned to her home in Switzerland. He decides to have a coronary bypass operation so that he can stop taking the drugs and resume a sexual relationship with Wendy, his dental assistant. He dies during the operation. In chapter 2, Henry survives the operation and goes to Israel because he now feels his Jewish identity and believes that his life in New Jersey smothered it. He calls himself Hanoch and has become a follower of Mordecai Lippman, an Israeli extremist. In later chapters, Henry denies the events of chapter 1, and in chapter 4, it is Nathan who has the operation and dies. In...

(The entire section is 980 words.)

The Counterlife Characters

The novel's principal character is Nathan Zuckerman, an accomplished novelist, famous — or infamous — for his fourth novel,...

(The entire section is 261 words.)