Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 870 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Human Stain Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
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...
(The entire section is 835 words.)