With its concluding phrase, “atop an arcadian mountain in America,” The Human Stain echoes the title of American Pastoral, the 1997 novel that began what has turned out to be a brilliant trilogy covering life in the United States during the last half of the twentieth century. American Pastoral examines the consequences of 1960’s radicalism for an ostensibly model American family, and I Married a Communist (1998) tells the story of a man undone by the political hysteria of the 1950’s. The final volume in Philip Roth’s trilogy, The Human Stain, links the tale of one man’s fall from grace to the orgy of sanctimony in which the nation indulged itself during the year that a president of the United States was being denounced and impeached for his human stains. It was, writes Roth, “the summer of an enormous piety binge” that claimed Coleman Silk, along with Bill Clinton, as victims.
However, beyond being an attempt to capture the Zeitgeist of postwar America, each of the volumes in Roth’s trilogy parallels the other two formally. Each book is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, the fictional novelist who first appeared as his author’s alter ego in My Life as a Man (1974). In that earlier work and in the volumes that constitute Roth’s previous trilogy—The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983)—plus the Epilogue: The Prague Orgy (1985), much of the plot derives from libidinous Zuckerman’s sexual intrigues. However, in the new trilogy, prostate surgery has rendered Zuckerman impotent and incontinent. Celibate and solitary in a two-room cabin on ten acres in rural western Massachusetts, Zuckerman, in his sixties, is no longer the protagonist of his novels. In each of these autumnal texts, Zuckerman undertakes to understand another man he has admired—Seymour “Swede” Levov in American Pastoral, Ira Ringold in I Married a Communist, and Coleman Silk in The Human Stain. In each, he encounters revelations that confound his expectations about each character and that undercut confidence in anyone’s ability to understand another human being. “For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out,” Zuckerman insists, “there really is no bottom to what is not known.” Like the previous two volumes in the trilogy, The Human Stain is a character study that proceeds from the Gnostic premise that the full complexity of character can never be fathomed.
Silk, the character whose life and death Zuckerman ponders throughout the novel, is a dynamic, urbane dean and professor of classics at Athena College, a small, insular institution in the bucolic Berkshires. Though the college is named for the Greek goddess of wisdom, genuine understanding eludes Roth’s Athenians. Silk’s illustrious career comes undone when, six weeks into the semester, he inquires about two students who have never attended class. “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” asks Silk, and the flippant question proves fatal. Though he is merely referring to the missing persons as phantoms, the word “spooks” is construed by political zealots as an abusive epithet, and the professor is accused of racism. In an atmosphere of ideological intimidation, no one dares rise to Silk’s defense, and, appalled by the preposterous charge, he resigns in disgust.
Silk blames the vicious crusade against him for the sudden death of his wife, Iris. When he then takes up with Faunia Farley, a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman, local gossip proliferates, adding misogyny to racism in the inventory of Silk’s presumed vices. What Nathaniel Hawthorne, the bard of tyrannical rectitude who lived near fictional Athena College and who is explicitly invoked by Zuckerman, called “the persecuting spirit” is unleashed against Silk. Frustrated in his attempts to tell his own story in a book he would call Spooks, Silk appeals to Zuckerman to write an account of the injustice done to him. The author declines the invitation until, intrigued by a series of astounding revelations, he begins to try to make sense of it all in a book that becomes The Human Stain.
One of the first important discoveries that Zuckerman makes about Silk, one that renders the “spooks” accusation even more grotesque,...
(The entire section is 1813 words.)