Operation Shylock: A Confession

by Philip Roth
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 484

Operation Shylock is a very Jewish version of the use of the literary double. Roth establishes this theme in his two prefatory mottoes. The first translates Genesis 32:24: “So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” Roth suggests that the first split self in literature may have been the mysterious stranger, possibly the Angel of Death, who represents the fate Jacob fears at the hands of his vengeful brother, Esau. Could Pipik be an Esau, threatening Jacob-Philip?

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The second epigraph is from Søren Kierkegaard:

The whole content of my being shrieksin contradiction against itself.Existence is surely a debate. . . .

“Against itself” is Roth’s evaluation of his nature, his art, possibly his life. For this is a confessional and self-reflexive novel, pointedly exposing Roth’s own history and the text’s structure as fictive artifice. Like his Philip, Roth is a brainy, funny, self-consciously Jewish writer with affectionate memories of his boyhood in Newark, New Jersey, with a wife whose first name is Claire (the British actress Claire Bloom), with a farmhouse home in Connecticut, and with Appelfeld his good friend. Like his Philip, Roth attended John Demjanjuk’s trial. As he states in a final note, he used verbatim the minutes of one of the morning sessions to provide the courtroom exchanges in his ninth chapter. Thus Roth is not only preoccupied in this book with such issues as the course of Israel’s evolution, the grievances of displaced Palestinians, and Jewish self-affirmation in opposition to a resurgence of anti-Semitism. He is, above all, preoccupied by himself.

Roth’s first-person voice goes back to the youngest of his twenty books, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), and has informed almost all of them. He parades the fact that a writer’s life is his basic instrument of perception, possessing an authenticity and intimacy that can convey reader acceptance and conviction. He construes the double as the reinvention of the self for the purpose of fiction. Yet which self? The novel is one contentious self-on-self wrestling match. There is Philip, who is flattered by George Ziad as a model non-Israeli Jew, by Israeli students as an eminent, oracular author, by Jinx as a great lover and leader, by Smilesburger as both an outstanding writer and brilliant spy. Yet there is also Pipik, his Dostoyevskian Doppelgänger, zealous, paranoid, pathetic, both idealistic and mad. Then there is the manic part of Philip, or Roth himself, which has him impersonate Moishe and his Diasporist dementia as he plays at being Pipik for a credulous Ziad. “You just say everything,” Philip tells himself, as he mockingly compliments Irving Berlin for having turned both Christmas and Easter into nonreligious, schlocky occasions with his songs. “We have been intertwined for decades in a thousand different ways,” Pipik assures Philip. So, of course, have been the identities of John Demjanjuk and Ivan Marchenko. Moral ambiguity oozes through the book.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 169

In its broadest sense, the theme of Operation Shylock emerges as the struggle of a fictional character who agonizes over retaining his identity against an imposter who has literally torn it from him. That theme relates clearly to Roth's own conflicts with himself and his craft that came forth in Zuckerman Bound trilogy (1984) and The Counterlife (1987), both of which emphasize characters' critical self-examinations and reevaluations of themselves and their priorities. After all, the epigraph to the novel reads, "So Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until daybreak." Thus, a critical question relative to its theme develops as the narrative unfolds: Where does the real Philip Roth end and his imagination begin? On a purely political level, however, one can clearly discern Roth's attempt, in what John Updike labels a "Dostoyevskian phantasmagoria," to weave for the public a thematic mosaic of the various and ironic contradictions in the Mideast that resulted from the creation of the State of Israel and the displacement of the Palestinian Arabs.

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