Study Guide

Letting Go

by Philip Roth

Letting Go Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Letting Go is a book about literature, filled with literary references. The characters in the novel partially define themselves by the books that they have read. The novel focuses on the young academic crowd of the decade of the 1950’s—particularly on three characters: Gabe Wallach, a young instructor in the humanities, and his friends Paul and Libby Herz.

Apparently, Philip Roth intended Gabe to be a Jamesian hero: the man with an independent income, living a good life, with a career that he cares about, but always wrestling with a vague guilt. The story of Gabe’s tribulations with his family and friends is complex and compassionate, but the telling often is bogged down in excessive detail. Roth displays here, as he would again and again throughout his career, his infallible ear for American and Jewish-American dialogue. Too much of a good thing, however, can weigh down the best-conceived story.

Much of the story is told in flashbacks, as the reader learns how the characters reached the points where the narrative picks them up. The lives of these characters have not been easy. The Herzes, particularly, have been disaster-prone. A mixed marriage (Paul is Jewish, Libby, Catholic) has built-in stresses, but these are part of a larger pattern: The Herzes struggle endlessly with every aspect of their lives. Although Libby is Catholic, when she becomes pregnant she has to have an abortion because of their economic situation and her own precarious health. Roth treats this episode at great length and with a Dreiserian relentlessness that would surprise readers who know him only by his later fiction.

Indeed, Roth has a remarkable gift for representing the nightmarish disasters that befall those who leave themselves defenseless by living with what he considers complete sincerity. The book is often powerful, as well as brilliantly perceptive. At the end, however, the reader is not certain whether Roth likes his characters—or even if he likes humanity very much. Although the reader follows Gabe and his friends from Iowa, where they were graduate students, to Chicago and New York, and learns about all the sordid details of their lives, they remain somewhat unconvincing as human beings.

Letting Go Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Cooper, Alan. Philip Roth and the Jews. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. Cooper explores the spectrum of Roth’s writing, including his early works, the “post-Portnoy seventies,” and the Zuckerman novels. An excellent overall critical view.

Gentry, Marshall B. “Ventriloquists’ Conversations: The Struggle for Gender Dialogue in E. L. Doctorow and Philip Roth.” Contemporary Literature 34 (Fall, 1993): 512-537. Gentry contends that both Doctorow and Roth are different from other Jewish authors because of their incorporation of feminist thought into traditionally patriarchal Jewish literature. He notes that their reconciliation of feminism and Judaism could alienate them from both groups, but he commends their attempt.

Greenberg, Robert M. “Transgression in the Fiction of Philip Roth.” Twentieth Century Literature 43 (Winter, 1997): 487-506. Greenberg argues that the theme of transgression pervades Roth’s novels and allows the author to penetrate places where he feels socially and psychologically excluded. An intriguing assessment of Roth’s work.

Halio, Jay L. Philip Roth Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. Halio offers a brief biographical sketch of Roth as well as in-depth discussions of his works. Includes a chapter entitled “Letting Go: Varieties of Deadly Farce.” Also includes helpful notes and a selected bibliography for further reading.

Halkin, Hillel. “How to Read Philip Roth.” Commentary 97 (February, 1994): 43-48. Offering critical analyses of several of Roth’s books, Halkin explores Roth’s personal view of Jewishness, as well as other biographical elements in his works.

Podhoretz, Norman. “The Adventure of Philip Roth.” Commentary 106 (October, 1998): 25-36. Podhoretz discusses the Jewish motifs in Roth’s writing and compares Roth’s work with that of other Jewish authors, including Saul Bellow and Herman Wouk. He also voices his disappointment concerning Roth’s preoccupation with growing old as expressed in his later novels.

Rodgers, Bernard F., Jr. Philip Roth. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Rodgers provides a critical and interpretive study of Roth, with a close reading of his major works, a solid bibliography, and complete notes and references.