Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1149
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 she seems.
Although she admits to being illiterate, Faunia was born into material privilege. Her stepfather, however, had sexually abused her, so she ran away from home, at age fourteen, and spent a dozen hard years on the road before she married Lester Farley, a local Vietnam War veteran. They had two children and tried to run a small farm, but Lester suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome and became increasingly violent, beating her and twice sending her to the hospital. One night, after Lester and Faunia had divorced, Faunia had been sitting in a pickup truck with her date. While she was outside, her apartment caught fire, killing her and Lester’s son and daughter. Lester blamed her for the tragedy, and she later tried to kill herself, twice. By the time she met Silk, she still had the ashes of her children in urns under her bed. Lester continued to stalk her. Silk and Faunia, now a couple, are stalked by Lester as well.
The return of sex so late in life is overwhelmingly powerful to Silk. Besides, as it now becomes clear, he is not the conventional man he had always seemed to be. In 1946, Silk had cut himself off from his African American family to cross the color line and pass as white and Jewish. For nearly fifty years he hid this secret from everyone in his life, including his wife and four children.
Zuckerman learns about Silk’s passing as white only after he meets Silk’s sister, Ernestine, at Silk’s funeral. Silk and Faunia’s car had been forced off a road one night in November, killing both of them. Although the police had ruled that the deaths were accidental, rumors spread through town that Silk and Faunia had had a murder-suicide pact, encouraged by a deranged Silk. Zuckerman, however, remains convinced that Lester must have forced them off the road. These and other unanswered questions lead Zuckerman to spend the next several years trying to make sense of Silk’s and Faunia’s deaths. Why did Silk choose to live his life as he did? Did he tell Faunia his secret in their last days together? What was going through her mind during their affair? Zuckerman’s questions lead to his writing a novel, The Human Stain.
Sources for Further Study
Halio, Jay L., and Ben Siegel, eds. Turning up the Flame: Philip Roth’s Later Novels. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005. This collection includes essays on the novels in Roth’s American trilogy, examining as well the issues of tragedy and race in The Human Stain.
Parrish, Timothy, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Philip Roth. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. A collection of eleven original scholarly essays that critique Roth’s fiction, examining themes such as sexuality and cultural identity. An excellent introduction to Roth’s works. Includes a chronology.
Posnock, Ross. Philip Roth’s Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006. An important study of Roth and his work that includes a chapter on The Human Stain.
Remnick, David. Reporting: Writings from “The New Yorker.” New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. This collection of articles published in The New Yorker includes a fine profile of Roth.
Royal, Derek Parker, ed. Philip Roth: New Perspectives on an American Author. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2005. A wide-ranging collection of “new perspectives” on Roth’s works that includes essays on The Human Stain. Also includes an extensive bibliography.
Safer, Elaine B. Mocking the Age: The Later Novels of Philip Roth. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006. Focuses on the connection between comedy and tragedy in Roth’s later novels.
Shechner, Mark. Up Society’s Ass, Copper: Rereading Philip Roth. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. A book based on thirty years of writing about Roth by one of his more provocative and consistently interesting critics.
Shostak, Debra. Philip Roth—Countertexts, Counterlives. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004. An outstanding thematic investigation of Roth’s works.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 835
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 Nathan to write the book about the affair that he has been unable to write himself. In the months that follow, they spend a good deal of time together, until Silk begins his affair with Faunia Farley, a thirty-four-year-old woman who works as a janitor at the college and pretends to be ignorant and illiterate. She is divorced from Les Farley, a half-crazed Vietnam veteran who haunts her and blames her for the death of their two small children when their house caught fire.
The passionate affair in which Coleman and Faunia engage is based firmly but not exclusively on sex, and it affronts not only Les Farley but the college community as well. It especially infuriates Delphine Roux, the young Frenchwoman and Yale Ph.D. who was Coleman’s department chair at the time of his resignation. An ardent feminist and an ambitious academic, Delphine nevertheless is lonely and wants a man. When she tries to write an ad for the personals in The New York Review of Books, she has problems with both her biography and the description of the kind of man she wants. She realizes only too late—after she accidentally hits the “send” key instead of the “delete” key on her computer—that the man whom she has been describing closely resembles none other than Coleman Silk, and that the message she has been composing has gone out to her entire department and eventually to the entire community.
In this manner, Roth manages to inject some farce into what is otherwise a very serious novel that attacks the kinds of political correctness that had taken over college campuses and much else in American life in the 1990’s, when many Americans seem to be obsessed with the scandal caused by Monica Lewinsky’s affair with President Clinton. The “stain” in the title may, in fact, allude to the notorious stain on Lewinsky’s blue dress, although it has deeper significance—alluding for example, among other possible interpretations, to the stain of racism that marks human nature.
Only after Silk is killed together with Faunia, deliberately driven off the road by Les Farley in his pickup truck, does Nathan learn the secret that his friend has so carefully guarded all those years. Only then, too, is he able to begin writing the book that Coleman had earlier asked him to write. In the process, he portrays both the racial intolerance that led Coleman Silk to pass as a white man and the pious hypocrisies that culminated in President Clinton’s impeachment. Throughout the novel, which brings to a fitting conclusion Roth’s “American Trilogy” of American Pastoral, I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain, Roth offers a portrait of post-World War II life, with a startling mixture of successes and failures that encourages readers to examine closely who and what the United States truly has become.