Indignation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1840

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...

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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 students). When approached by Sonny Cottler, a prominent member of the one Jewish fraternity at Winesburg, and encouraged to pledge, Marcus firmly rebuffs him. As this behavior suggests, Marcus’s isolation is to a large extent self-imposed. To get straight A’s and eventually become class valedictorian, to enroll in the campus ROTC program so as to enter the Army as an officer after graduation, to earn enough to lessen the financial burden on his familythese are his only goals and, with one exception, he doggedly refuses to consider various opportunities for personal growth made available by college life. His unwillingness to compromise his goals, which creates conflicts between Marcus and his roommates and the fraternity members, amounts to the kind of unconventional behavior that attracts attention from the bastions of conformity empowered to protect the status quo in a small college, especially in the 1950’s.

The single exception to Marcus’s willed isolation is his brief affair with an attractive coed, Olivia Hutton, whom he meets in American history class. On their first date, she startles him by her readiness to perform oral sex on him, an act so far beyond anything Marcus has before experienced that he is even more bewildered than he is inflamed with erotic desire. While his attraction to her is enhanced by her being a shikse, the long scar on her left wrist and revelations about a troubled pastincluding alcoholic binges, sexual promiscuity, a broken home, and a psychological breakdownsoon present Marcus with complications with which he is clearly ill prepared to deal. In effect, though she appears genuinely attracted to Marcus, her pathology and his tunnel vision are such that there is no real chance for them to establish an enduring relationship. When Marcus is hospitalized after an emergency appendectomy, Olivia visits his room and again provides sexual satisfaction. Instead of feeling transported by pleasure, however, he is burdened by guilt and confusion, and these are only compounded by a visit from his mother and her resolute opposition to Olivia as Marcus’s girl. For her part, Olivia abruptly disappears from the college and from the novel, apparently after suffering another breakdown. Marcus never hears from her again.

He learns of Olivia’s departure from the dean of men, Hawes D. Caudwell, who has been monitoring Marcus’s behavior and twice calls Marcus into his office for accusatory talks. In the first meeting, the dean takes Marcus to task for changing roommates and refusing to pledge a fraternity or to try out for the baseball team, acts that go against the grain of college “tradition.” Made increasingly angry by what seem to him trivial criticisms, Marcus takes the opportunity to voice his fervent objections to the mandatory chapel rule, which only makes him seem even more rebellious in the dean’s eyes. Their second meeting takes place after Caudwell learns of Marcus’s affair with Olivia (a nurse had walked in on them in the hospital room). He is only too willing to presume that the boy is responsible for her pregnancy, which precipitated the breakdown, though the reader knows he is not. Added to the “case” against Marcus is Caudwell’s knowledge that Marcus has paid another student to take his place in chapel and forge his signature on the attendance sheet. These confrontations provide the dramatic fulcrum of the novel, resulting in Marcus’s dismissal from the college for violating the student code of conduct. His understandable indignation at this climactic injustice elicits the emotion that gives the novel its title.

Marcus’s encounter with the dean occurs on the same day as another kind of confrontation, a panty raid that quickly turns into a near riot. Though Marcus does not participate in this collective eruption of aggression, eighteen of his fellow students are dismissed afterward. The juxtaposition of these scenes carries the implication that both are somehow the result of the suppression of youthful energies characteristic of the period. To reinforce this suggestion, Roth appends a “Historical Note” in which he updates the picture of Winesburg College, pointing out that after student demonstrations of the 1960’s, culminating in the week-long occupation of the dean’s office, “the chapel requirement was abolished along with virtually all the strictures and parietal rules regulating student conduct that had been in force there for more than a hundred years. . . .” On a global level, the violent unleashing of pent-up urges is expressed in the ongoing war in Korea, which claimed the lives of some 54,000 Americans.

One of the book’s biggest surprises is the offhand revelation, about fifty pages in, that Marcus, the narrator, believes he is dead. In “Out from Under,” the brief final chapter narrated in the third person rather than by Marcus himself, the reader learns that Private Messner has indeed been mortally wounded“bayonet wounds . . . had all but severed one leg from his torso and hacked his intestines and genitals to bits”on the battlefield in Korea, some four months after his abrupt departure from Winesburg. The narrative preceding this disclosure, entitled “Under Morphine,” is the drug-induced dream of his life, a fact that necessarily casts doubt on its veracity.

Such narrative legerdemain is typical of Roth’s fiction, which is now grouped into the novels of Nathan Zuckerman, David Kepesh (both fictional alter egos of the author), Philip Roth, and “others.” Whether the “postmortem” device succeeds in Indignation is an open question. The novel has received mixed reviews, some praising its narrative economy in rendering the protagonist’s inexorable doom, others faulting it for sketchy characterization and thematic contrivance. Critical consensus may ultimately depend on whether readers recognize that Indignation is not intended as a fully represented fictional action, which would entail a cast of three-dimensional characters and a complex, “realistic” plot. Rather, it is most fruitfully read as a kind of moral fable or apologue, in which the fictional material is scrupulously selected and organized so as to convey, as powerfully as possible, a central truth. In this case that truth, which is formulated several times and repeated in the book’s final lines, ironically confirms the basis of Mr. Messner’s fears for his son’s life: “the terrible, the incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.” Or, as the father warns his son at another point, “It’s about life, where the tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences.” Marcus’s story embodies this perception with maximum force, inducing indignation in the reader as well as in Marcus. Indeed, indignation (“the most beautiful word in the English language,” Roth calls it) is at once the cause and the consequence of Marcus’s fate. Mutatis mutandis, it is a state of mind that animates virtually all of the author’s literary output.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 71

The Atlantic Monthly 302, no. 3 (October, 2008): 111-114.

Booklist 104, no. 17 (May 1, 2008): 6.

The Boston Globe, September 14, 2008, p. 5D.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 11 (June 1, 2008): 12.

Los Angeles Times, September 16, 2008, p. A7.

The New Republic 239, no. 7 (October 22, 2008): 32-35.

New Statesman 137 (September 22, 2008): 86-88.

The New York Review of Books 55, no. 15 (October 9, 2008): 4-8.

The New York Times Book Review, September 21, 2008, p. 1.

The New Yorker 84, no. 30 (September 29, 2008): 91.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 19 (May 12, 2008): 37.

Time 172, no. 18 (November 3, 2008): 75-79.

The Washington Post, September 14, 2008, p. T6.

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