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 of insensitivity and racism.
After several months of student demonstrations and demands, false accusations, and an investigation encouraged by Roux—during which none of Silk’s colleagues defend him—his wife dies of a stroke, and he angrily resigns. Although Zuckerman tells Silk that he should write the book himself, they begin to spend time together and become friends. Silk works on the book for two years, but his rage increases rather than diminishes as he tries to write about what he remembers. One Saturday night, early in the summer of 1998, however, he seems to transform. As the radio plays songs from the 1940’s, Silk dances around on his porch (he even gets Zuckerman to waltz with him a bit), says that he has decided to abandon the book and move on, and tells Zuckerman that he has begun an affair with Faunia Farley, a part-time farmhand and janitor at the college, who is half his age.
It is the summer of the saga between U.S. president Bill Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, a time when “the persecuting spirit” of sanctimony is loose in the land. At Athena College, Silk’s affair is seen as every bit as scandalous as that of Clinton, because “everyone knows” (as an anonymous note to Silk claims) that Silk is sexually exploiting a vulnerable and ignorant young woman. However, Faunia, like Silk, is not who...
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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 against the charge, he resigns in high dudgeon. He is especially offended when one of his colleagues, himself an African American—the first one ever to be hired at Athena College and by none other than Coleman Silk when he became dean—refuses to stand by him. The turmoil that the controversy occasions becomes too much for Iris Silk, who soon dies of a heart attack, which Coleman blames on the college.
Two years later, Coleman Silk visits the writer Nathan Zuckerman, who lives and works nearby. They scarcely know each other but become close friends when Coleman asks...
(The entire section is 835 words.)