A Diving Rock on the Hudson Analysis

Henry Roth

A Diving Rock on the Hudson

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The title A DIVING ROCK ON THE HUDSON alludes to Ira Stigman’s temptation to end his despair by drowning himself in the Hudson River. He is going to be expelled from high school for petty thievery. He has far worse things on his conscience. He has regularly been committing incest with his sister. Although he hates himself, Ira cannot break off this relationship even after going through a nightmare of suspense when Minnie misses her period.

Roth, who was eighty-nine when this second volume was published, uses the fictional device of discussing creative difficulties with his word processor, which he calls Ecclesias. Talking to a machine emphasizes the isolation of a near-nonagenarian who has outlived his entire generation. The real plot holding the entire six-volume work together will have to do with a dying author’s struggle to complete it while telling bitter truths.

The reader cannot help but assume that Roth is confessing his own sins in thinly disguised fiction. Not expecting to live to see all six volumes in print, Roth seems indifferent to money and acclaim. His sporadic dialogues with Ecclesias suggest that he is motivated by a desire to exorcise guilty memories as well as a compulsion to fulfill his destiny as a writer after sixty years of self-imposed silence.

A DIVING ROCK ON THE HUDSON ends with a classic epiphany. Young Ira, plagued with feelings of guilt and inferiority, has an essay published in the New York City College literary quarterly, THE LAVENDER. This achievement transforms his life; he will devote his life to literature.

Although Roth’s story of adolescent relationships is mostly mundane, he writes with wisdom, candor, craftsmanship, and the “high seriousness” that Matthew Arnold called the distinguishing attribute of great writers. The final four volumes of MERCY OF A RUDE STREAM, finished but scheduled to be published one per year until the end of the twentieth century, will complete a unique achievement in American literature.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCI, December 15, 1994, p. 715.

Boston Globe. March 12, 1995, p. 38.

Chicago Tribune. February 19, 1995, XIV, p. 1.

Kirkus Reviews. LXII, December 1, 1994, p. 1570.

Library Journal. CXX, February 1, 1995, p. 100.

The New York Times Book Review. C, February 26, 1995, p. 5.

The Observer. April 2, 1995, p. 19.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, December 12, 1994, p. 50.

The Times Literary Supplement. April 14, 1995, p. 20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXV, February 5, 1995, p. 5.

A Diving Rock on the Hudson

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The title A Diving Rock on the Hudson alludes to the young protagonist’s thoughts of drowning himself in the Hudson River. He is in trouble at school, having gotten caught stealing fountain pens. He knows that his exposure will be heartbreaking for his doting mother and will confirm his father’s view of him as a schlemiel who should be earning money for the family rather than wasting time on such frivolities as high school. A Freudian might say that Ira Stigman has absorbed both his mother’s and his father’s opinions into his superego. His father’s influence makes him want to drown himself, but his mother’s faith makes him decide against it. He senses that there is something of value inside him that could prove his salvation if he could identify it, and that his best hope is through learning.

Ira has worse matters on his conscience than a few stolen pens: He has been regularly committing incest with his sister. It began with relatively innocuous rubbing and fondling when both parents were away but developed into actual sexual intercourse by the time Minnie was fourteen and Ira sixteen. Although Ira dreads the consequences of his parents’ discovery of what he and Minnie are doing instead of homework, he senses that some self-destructive element in his nature may cause him to betray his guilt.

Roth’s novel, published some months before his death in October, 1995, resembles James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy (1932-1935), a classic of American realism. The problem with pure realism is that it tends to be episodic and undramatic because real life is generally episodic and undramatic, especially when it concerns—as it so often does—the cramped lives of the lower class. Realism is no more “real” than romanticism; it is an illusion of reality created by deliberate avoidance of the sensational along with emphasis on the mundane matters that make up most lives.

When A Star Shines over Mt. Morris Park, the first volume of Mercy of a Rude Stream, was published in 1994, some critics complained that the story was dull. Roth promised that the second volume would be spicier because it would deal with adolescent sexual behavior. His descriptions of sex, however, remain doggedly realistic, as if he were incapable of writing any other way; he emphasizes the sordidness of the physical contacts and the sibling animosity that exists between Minnie and Ira even while they are experiencing mutual orgasms in their parents’ bed. Eventually young Ira compounds his guilt by initiating equally furtive sexual relations with his fourteen-year-old cousin Stella. He hates himself for what he is doing but enjoys it far too much to quit. In fact, the guilt and danger add to the spice of “snatching gratification out of baleful contingency.”

The reader cannot help but assume that Roth’s novel is thinly disguised autobiography—given that many of its details coincide with known facts in the author’s life—and, consequently, that Ira’s relationship with Minnie echoes a similar relationship in Roth’s own past. In one of Roth’s fictitious narrator’s dialogues with Ecclesias, the computer that resembles Hal in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the narrator reveals that he had previously written a draft of A Diving Rock on the Hudson without the incest motif but had felt compelled to rewrite the entire manuscript because it did not ring true. He tells his electronic muse that it would have been psychologically impossible to write the rest of his novel without bringing his guilty relationship with Minnie into the second volume.

The most striking feature of Roth’s writing has been his willingness to present himself in an unfavorable light in the interest of truth. He writes like a man who is too old to care about what people think of him. He is not interested in money or fame (“that last infirmity of noble minds”); it almost seems as if he has already departed this world and is writing with the dreadful candor that comes from the lips of the dead in Homer, Vergil, and Dante. What seems to have motivated Roth to write his long novel is the hope of exorcising painful memories through confession.

It would seem that the real incestuous experience in Roth’s life must have been what virtually sealed his lips for sixty years. Here is a possible explanation for the...

(The entire section is 1794 words.)