Nathan Zuckerman had retreated to a two-room cottage in the Berkshires in 1993 to escape the entanglements of life and write in peace. Shortly afterward, he had surgery for prostate cancer, which left him impotent and incontinent and caused him to withdraw even further from other people. He has since regained his strength and accommodates himself to his condition the best he can. His solitude is interrupted one April afternoon in 1996 by a knock on his door. When he opens it, Coleman Silk barges into his life, demanding that Zuckerman write the story of how his own colleagues at Athena College had murdered his wife.
Silk had been dean of the faculty at Athena, a small liberal-arts college, for sixteen years before returning to the classroom in 1995. As dean he had been a powerful force, raising the standards and prestige of the college and leaving his share of bruised and disgruntled faculty egos along the way (including the ego of Delphine Roux, a young professor of French literature who has a love-hate relationship with Silk). In the spring of Silk’s second semester back in the classroom, his life and career are shattered by his new enemies and by identity politics, political correctness, and his own ego. After two students fail to appear in class by the end of the first several weeks of the semester, he asks the class whether the two really exist or whether they are “spooks.” The students, it turns out, are African Americans, and Silk is accused of insensitivity and racism.
After several months of student demonstrations and demands, false accusations, and an investigation encouraged by Roux—during which none of Silk’s colleagues defend him—his wife dies of a stroke, and he angrily resigns. Although Zuckerman tells Silk that he should write the book himself, they begin to spend time together and become friends. Silk works on the book for two years, but his rage increases rather than diminishes as he tries to write about what he remembers. One Saturday night, early in the summer of 1998, however, he seems to transform. As the radio plays songs from the 1940’s, Silk dances around on his porch (he even gets Zuckerman to waltz with him a bit), says that he has decided to abandon the book and move on, and tells Zuckerman that he has begun an affair with Faunia Farley, a part-time farmhand and janitor at the college, who is half his age.
It is the summer of the saga between U.S. president Bill Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, a time when “the persecuting spirit” of sanctimony is loose in the land. At Athena College, Silk’s affair is seen as every bit as scandalous as that of Clinton, because “everyone knows” (as an anonymous note to Silk claims) that Silk is sexually exploiting a vulnerable and ignorant young woman. However, Faunia, like Silk, is not who...
(The entire section is 1149 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Apparently inspired by the life and career of Anatole Broyard, the late, well-known literary critic of The New York Times, The Human Stain is the story of Coleman Silk, a Newark-born African American whose fair complexion allows him in his adult life to pass as a white man. Determined not to be held back by his black heritage, Coleman renounces his family after the disastrous occasion when he brings his blond sweetheart to meet his mother and she decides to break off their relationship. They had met at college in New York, where he is studying classics after serving in the Navy during World War II. Silk later marries Iris Gittelman, the daughter of atheistic Russian American Jews, and declares himself to be a secular Jew as well. Neither Iris nor any of their children ever learn the secret that Coleman harbors for the rest of his life.
While Silk manages to keep his secret from everyone else, Roth reveals it to the reader by chapter 2 as a means of developing some of the many ironies that pervade the novel. The most significant irony occurs when Silk is accused of bigotry: One day while lecturing, he quite innocently asks his class about the identity of two students who have never shown up, wondering if they are real or “spooks.” He does not know that the two students in question are black, and they accuse him of racism for using a derogatory term. Enraged by the accusation and even more by his colleagues’ refusal to support him against the charge, he resigns in high dudgeon. He is especially offended when one of his colleagues, himself an African American—the first one ever to be hired at Athena College and by none other than Coleman Silk when he became dean—refuses to stand by him. The turmoil that the controversy occasions becomes too much for Iris Silk, who soon dies of a heart attack, which Coleman blames on the college.
Two years later, Coleman Silk visits the writer Nathan Zuckerman, who lives and works nearby. They scarcely know each other but become close friends when Coleman asks...
(The entire section is 835 words.)
Critical Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
With its concluding phrase, “atop an arcadian mountain in America,” The Human Stain echoes the title of American Pastoral, the 1997 novel that began what has turned out to be a brilliant trilogy covering life in the United States during the last half of the twentieth century. American Pastoral examines the consequences of 1960’s radicalism for an ostensibly model American family, and I Married a Communist (1998) tells the story of a man undone by the political hysteria of the 1950’s. The final volume in Philip Roth’s trilogy, The Human Stain, links the tale of one man’s fall from grace to the orgy of sanctimony in which the nation indulged itself during the year that a president of the United States was being denounced and impeached for his human stains. It was, writes Roth, “the summer of an enormous piety binge” that claimed Coleman Silk, along with Bill Clinton, as victims.
However, beyond being an attempt to capture the Zeitgeist of postwar America, each of the volumes in Roth’s trilogy parallels the other two formally. Each book is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, the fictional novelist who first appeared as his author’s alter ego in My Life as a Man (1974). In that earlier work and in the volumes that constitute Roth’s previous trilogy—The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983)—plus the Epilogue: The Prague Orgy (1985), much of the plot derives from libidinous Zuckerman’s sexual intrigues. However, in the new trilogy, prostate surgery has rendered Zuckerman impotent and incontinent. Celibate and solitary in a two-room cabin on ten acres in rural western Massachusetts, Zuckerman, in his sixties, is no longer the protagonist of his novels. In each of these autumnal texts, Zuckerman undertakes to understand another man he has admired—Seymour “Swede” Levov in American Pastoral, Ira Ringold in I Married a Communist, and Coleman Silk in The Human Stain. In each, he encounters revelations that confound his expectations about each character and that undercut confidence in anyone’s ability to understand another human being. “For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out,” Zuckerman insists, “there really is no bottom to what is not known.” Like the previous two volumes in the trilogy, The Human Stain is a character study that proceeds from the Gnostic premise that the full complexity of character can never be fathomed.
Silk, the character whose life and death Zuckerman ponders throughout the novel, is a dynamic, urbane dean and professor of classics at Athena College, a small, insular institution in the bucolic Berkshires. Though the college is named for the Greek goddess of wisdom, genuine understanding eludes Roth’s Athenians. Silk’s illustrious career comes undone when, six weeks into the semester, he inquires about two students who have never attended class. “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” asks Silk, and the flippant question proves fatal. Though he is merely referring to the missing persons as phantoms, the word “spooks” is construed by political zealots as an abusive epithet, and the professor is accused of racism. In an atmosphere of ideological intimidation, no one dares rise to Silk’s defense, and, appalled by the preposterous charge, he resigns in disgust.
Silk blames the vicious crusade against him for the sudden death of his wife, Iris. When he then takes up with Faunia Farley, a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman, local gossip proliferates, adding misogyny to racism in the inventory of Silk’s presumed vices. What Nathaniel Hawthorne, the bard of tyrannical rectitude who lived near fictional Athena College and who is explicitly invoked by Zuckerman, called “the persecuting spirit” is unleashed against Silk. Frustrated in his attempts to tell his own story in a book he would call Spooks, Silk appeals to Zuckerman to write an account of the injustice done to him. The author declines the invitation until, intrigued by a series of astounding revelations, he begins to try to make sense of it all in a book that becomes The Human Stain.
One of the first important discoveries that Zuckerman makes about Silk, one that renders the “spooks” accusation even more grotesque,...
(The entire section is 1813 words.)