Indignation, Philip Roth’s twenty-ninth novel, shares with his other recent fictional efforts, Everyman (2006) and Exit Ghost (2007), a spare narrative structure and a thematic concern with human frailty. Unlike those astringent, wintry novels, however, Indignation concentrates on the experiences of a young man, nineteen-year-old Marcus Messner, as he leaves his hometown college in Newark and transfers to Winesburg College, a conservative Christian liberal arts institution in rural Ohio. (The school’s name alludes to Sherwood Anderson’s classic Winesburg, Ohio, with its assortment of smothered provincial lives offered as a gallery of “grotesques.”) Indeed, in this novel Roth seems to be going back to the period he mined so profitably in such earlier works as Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), both of which deal with the rites of passage undergone by a young Jewish man struggling to achieve independence from his overweening parents and to find his way among the Gentiles generally and shikses (WASP females) in particular. It was a period in the author’s life also treated in his autobiography, The Facts (1988), in a section titled “Joe College.”
It is instructive to compare the straightforward account of Roth’s separation and initiation experience as presented in the autobiography with his protagonist’s vicissitudes in Indignation. In The Facts Roth tells how he graduated from high school in 1950 at age sixteen, working for the next nine months as a stock clerk in a Newark department store, before enrolling at a downtown branch of Rutgers University while still living at home with his parents. Though an exemplary student, he felt increasingly “suffocated” by his father’s inclination to control his private life, and so he determined to get away from home. “I didn’t care where ’away’ wasone college would do as well as another.” As it happened, a neighborhood friend was then a student at Bucknell University, located in the small town of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and recommended it to Roth. A campus visit convinced himdespite the college’s location in a small rural town, its Baptist roots, its requirement of weekly chapel attendance for underclassmen, and its paucity of other Jewish studentsto enroll. Outwardly, these circumstances parallel those in which Marcus Messner finds himself in the novel. He, too, transfers from a state college in Newark after his freshman year in order to escape his father’s strictures. The latter are much enlarged upon in the novel, for Mr. Messner’s determination to keep a tight rein on his son’s every move derives from an irrational and increasingly obsessive fear that, left to his own devices, Marcus could be victimized or even killed at any moment, a fear greatly exacerbated by the Korean War, which looms over the entire story like a malevolent Fate. In addition, Marcus’s reasons for choosing the bucolic Winesburg College are more whimsical than Roth’s for choosing Bucknell. Marcus is attracted not only by the college’s distance from his home but also by its All-American, crew-cut and white-bucks image as depicted on promotional brochures, seemingly oblivious to the rigid restrictions and requirements that would later prove so troublesome.
Once they have matriculated at their new schools, Marcus’s and Roth’s careers follow different paths. For Roth, the college presented a series of opportunities to grow socially as well as academically. He pledged a fraternity (resigning from it after a year), formed close friendships with other students and several young faculty members, made the dean’s list for academic achievement, coedited a campus literary magazine, and had a steady girlfriend during his junior and senior years. An article he wrote attacking the campus newspaper earned him a browbeating by the dean of men and censure from a board overseeing student publications, but such clashes with authority only validated his growing independence and self-confidence. In Marcus’s case, the situation is far more desperate. From almost the beginning of the academic year he is effectively isolated, in short order rejecting two sets of roommates until finally securing a single room where he can study in peace. He spends most of his waking hours immersed in his studies, earning pocket money working part time as a waiter in a local watering hole (where he tries to ignore anti-Semitic slurs from fellow...
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