The Anatomy Lesson

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

Since The Anatomy Lesson is Philip Roth’s third novel in which Nathan Zuckerman is the central character, a few words of background may be helpful to place Zuckerman’s current fictional dilemma in perspective. Zuckerman was first introduced in My Life as a Man (1974) as the fictional creation of Roth’s fictional creation, Peter Tarnopol, in two stories by Tarnopol entitled “Salad Days” and “Courting Disaster.” In 1979, Zuckerman emerged as the central figure in his own right of Roth’s short novel The Ghost Writer (1979). In that first-person narrative, Zuckerman recounts his visit as a promising young writer of twenty-three to the country home of E. I. Lonoff, an older writer whom he greatly admires. Witness to Lonoff’s Jamesian disengagement for the sake of his art, Zuckerman ends the novel fairly clear about the kind of books he wants to write but less clear about the kind of life he wants to lead.

Roth’s 1981 novel Zuckerman Unbound picks up its title character at the age of thirty-six, following the publication of Zuckerman’s best-selling novel, Carnovsky (clearly the equivalent of Portnoy’s Complaint—which, like the fictitious Carnovsky, was published in 1969). Here, Zuckerman must cope with fame and fortune and ponder his brother’s accusation that he caused the death of his father with his autobiographical and anti-Jewish novel. At the end of Zuckerman Unbound, Nathan is left feeling that he has lost his father, his wife, his brother, and his heritage. One would think that with all of these ghosts exorcised, Nathan would finally be free—or at least that Roth would be free of Zuckerman. As this new Roth novel makes clear, however, such is emphatically not the case.

What began in My Life as a Man as an interesting experiment with the problematical relationship between fiction and reality becomes in The Anatomy Lesson forced and tedious. The basic trope that Roth uses to unify this new Zuckerman misadventure is a mysterious and undiagnosable back ailment which renders Zuckerman immobile, reduced to lying on his back on a child’s play mat—an ailment that, although Zuckerman denies it, seems clearly a psychosomatic illness brought on by the guilt he feels for Carnovsky. The further and most obvious irony is that the ailment represents the generalized Jewish guilt which Zuckerman both writes about and denies in his infamous novel itself; as Roth says of his persona, “He hadn’t spent 20 years writing about irrational guilt to wind up irrationally guilty.” The key to the central trope of physical pain is given in a prefatory quotation from a textbook of orthopedic medicine: “The chief obstacle to correct diagnosis in painful conditions is the fact that the symptom is often felt at a distance from its source.”

Much of the first chapter of the book presents extensive excruciating detail about the pain itself, for if the novelist cannot analyze the cause of the pain (which, after all, is the job for the critic), he can at least graphically describe its symptoms. Lying on his play mat, unable to move his neck and looking at the world around him through grotesque prism glasses, Nathan welcomes both the companionship and the sexual favors of the four women who visit him and play the roles of lost mother and lost wives. Although Nathan denies the diagnosis a psychoanalyst offers him—that he is “the ineradicable infant, the atoning penitent, the guilty pariah”—it seems clear that the book depends on the reader’s perceiving Nathan in just this way. To interpret his pain in any other way is to see it as the unmotivated and thematically uninteresting cause of his loss of his subject, to see it as a mere contingency of fate that makes him unable, either physically or morally, to find a posture for his writing. On the other hand, however, to see the pain as the objectification of Nathan’s guilt is likewise to see it as the thematically motivated creation of Roth and thus to see it as stereotypical and banal.

Although the previous Zuckerman novels deprive Nathan of his father, his brother, and his birthplace, The Anatomy Lesson must take away still more and thus begins with the loss of his mother, his health, his hair, and—most important, according to the fictitious critic Milton Appel—his talent. It is indeed this final father figure (at least the reader can hope that Appel is the final one) who must be dealt with before Nathan can finally be free to live his life and Roth can be free to write of something else besides his own ghosts. Appel, who in 1959 had called Zuckerman a “wunderkind” for his early stories (an appellation lavished on Roth himself after the publication...

(The entire section is 1949 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

America. CL, March 10, 1984, p. 179.

Commentary. LXXVII, January, 1984, p. 63.

Hudson Review. XXVII, Spring, 1984, p. 152.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 13, 1983, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, October 30, 1983, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIV, October 7, 1983, p. 89.

Saturday Review. IX, December, 1983, p. 57.