Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

From the beginning, Roth has been preoccupied with the useful and useless fictions people seem compelled to invent to get along. Sometimes seriously, sometimes hilariously, he has chronicled the wounds of the casualties strewn over the battlefield separating men’s and women’s actual and ideal selves—the battlefield where their fictions turn on them; where they are torn apart by the struggle between who they are, what they feel, and who they are supposed to be, what they are supposed to feel.

Beginning with My Life as a Man (1975), Roth has pursued his explorations of this struggle in the context of conflicts between life and art. In “Salad Days,” the first part of My Life as a Man, he introduced the character of Nathan Zuckerman. There, Nathan was a pampered Jewish son and a precocious undergraduate English major with literary ambitions, whose story ended with a warning that “he would begin to pay . . . for the contradictions: the stinging tongue and the tender hide, the spiritual aspirations and the lewd desires, the softy boyish needs and the manly, magisterial ambitions.” In “Courting Disaster (or Serious in the Fifties),” the second part of My Life as a Man, he was a University of Chicago graduate student and instructor so enamored of the challenging moral complexities of the Great Books, so caught up in his own contradictory impulses that he managed to trap himself into one of the most disastrous marriages in contemporary...

(The entire section is 613 words.)