Philip Roth American Literature Analysis

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Often called a psychological realist by literary critics, Roth uses a variety of techniques in his fiction that make it difficult to classify his work under only one category. His early stories and novels, including Goodbye, Columbus, Letting Go, and When She Was Good (1967), were heavily influenced by the great nineteenth century psychological realists such as Henry James and Gustave Flaubert and by later ones such as Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson. Portnoy’s Complaint, however, while drawing for its themes and structure upon therapeutic psychoanalysis, represents a breakthrough to new forms of fiction. Since then, Roth has written satire, such as Our Gang (Starring Tricky and His Friends) (1971), fantasy (The Great American Novel), Bildungsroman(the Zuckerman Bound trilogy, 1985), and other types of fiction that demonstrate his versatility and originality as a writer.

Roth has also been called a social critic, and he has definitely earned the title. Taking on the conservative Jewish establishment in both his fiction and nonfiction, he exposes the foibles, coarseness, hypocrisies, and materialism of middle-class Jewish families, as in his portrayal of the Patimkin clan in Goodbye, Columbus. At the same time, he shows the intensity, closeness, and warmth that are also part of their lives. Attacked for his story “Epstein,” in which a decent, hardworking Jewish businessman gets caught in the trammels of an adulterous relationship, Roth has defended himself against rabbis and others who feel he has defamed the Jewish people. He presents his views in essays such as “Writing About Jews” (1963) and “Imagining Jews” (1974), collected in Reading Myself and Others (1975), where he argues on the behalf of the writer’s freedom and the autonomy of the imagination against those who insist on greater discretion and diplomacy.

Where formerly he brilliantly portrayed middle-class Jewish life as it was in the neighborhoods where he grew up, Roth subsequently moved on to other aspects of Jewish life, as in his vivid descriptions of kibbutz life and the controversy over West Bank settlements in Israel in The Counterlife (1986) and the problems of anti-Semitism he encountered while living in England in Deception (1990).

Above all, Roth is an amusing and witty writer, with a good ear for the cadences and inflections of actual speech and a stand-up comedian’s sense of timing. His humor has been attributed to influences such as comedians Lenny Bruce and Henny Youngman, but Roth also acknowledges the influence of the “sit-down” comedy of Franz Kafka, about whom he writes in “’I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’: Or, Looking at Kafka” (collected in Reading Myself and Others). He modeled his novella The Breast (1972; revised, 1980) partly on Kafka’s story “Metamorphosis.” The humor and tall tales that grew out of the great American Southwest inform The Great American Novel, which also indulges in send-ups of famed American writers Ernest Hemingway, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and others.

In Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth has said, he tried to bring obscenity to the level of a subject. He may or may not have succeeded, but it is true that in that novel, as in his later works, he has taken full advantage of the current freedom to explore sexual involvements in an open and direct way. Yet, for all his apparent licentiousness, as in his stunning takeoff on Irving Howe as the pornography king, Milton Appel, in The Anatomy Lesson (1983), Roth remains what he always was, a serious writer with a strong moral strain that remains under even the wildest humor or most grotesque fantasy.

For all of his extravagant sexual exploits, Portnoy is a pathetic creature, a man desperately trying to become whole with the help of a psychiatrist. For all of his craziness in getting involved with Maureen Ketterer, Peter Tarnopol is someone who goes through countless agonies trying to determine the noblest courses of action he should take. The jokes are there in Roth’s novels, but it would be a mistake to read them for their humor alone. Like the best of the humorists who have preceded him, Roth writes with a more serious agenda underlying the comedic elements in his fiction.

Goodbye, Columbus

First published: 1959

Type of work: Novella

A young Newark man falls in love with a Radcliffe student from a nouveau riche Jewish family in suburban New Jersey and discovers how spoiled she is.

In Goodbye, Columbus, Neil Klugman meets and falls in love with Brenda Patimkin, the spoiled, attractive daughter of a middle-class Jewish family. The family has recently moved from Newark to the suburbs in Short Hills, New Jersey, where they have a large, comfortable home, typical of the nouveau riche class to which they belong. For Neil, however, Brenda and Short Hills represent an enticing version of a pastoral ideal. When he met her for the first time at a country club swimming pool, she was for him “like a sailor’s dream of a Polynesian maiden, albeit one with prescription sun glasses and the last name of Patimkin.” She has an older brother, Ron, a basketball star just graduating from Ohio State University, whose favorite record, “Goodbye, Columbus,” gives the story its title. She also has a kid sister, Julie, a younger version of Brenda, equally as smart and equally as spoiled.

By contrast, Neil’s more humble family consists of parents, permanently absent in Arizona because of their asthma, and his Aunt Gladys, with whom he lives and who cooks his meals as well as her husband’s, her daughter’s, and her own—all different and all served at different times. Aunt Gladys is modeled on the stereotyped Jewish mama and has a funny accent, but she also demonstrates the most common sense and genuine humanity of any of the characters in the novella.

As their affair progresses, Neil and Brenda spend more and more time together at her family’s home in Short Hills, where at the end of the summer Neil is invited to spend a week of his vacation. They have sex clandestinely in her room every night. The family is suddenly plunged into a frenzy of activity when Ron announces his engagement to Harriet, his Ohio State sweetheart, and they decide to get married over Labor Day weekend. In all the turmoil that ensues, Brenda gets Neil an extension on his visit as well as an invitation to Ron’s wedding.

Neil is not sure whether he feels more love or lust for Brenda, and he debates with himself whether to ask her to marry him. Fearing rejection, he proposes instead that she get a diaphragm. At first, she demurs, but Neil argues that their lovemaking will be not only safer but also more enjoyable, at least for him. Still she demurs, and it becomes a contest of wills, like many of the other games played in the story. Finally, under Neil’s insistence, Brenda capitulates, and they go to New York together for her to be fitted with the device. While she is in the doctor’s office, Neil enters St. Patrick’s cathedral and questions himself and his feelings. He recognizes his carnality, his acquisitiveness, and his foolishness in coveting all that Brenda is and represents: “Gold dinnerware, sporting-goods trees, nectarines, garbage disposal, bumpless noses”—and the list goes on.

Ron’s wedding is a typical Jewish celebration, with too much food and champagne. The occasion provides Roth with further opportunities for satire, as Neil meets the rest of the family and Ron’s college friends. He gets considerable free advice from Leo Patimkin, one of Brenda’s uncles, who tells Neil that he has a good thing going with Brenda and he should not louse things up. Actually, in demanding that she get the diaphragm to please him, he already has begun to louse things up.

The sad end of the story comes when Brenda asks Neil to come to Boston for the Jewish holidays in the fall. Although he is not an observant Jew and has difficulty getting time off from his work at the Newark Public Library, Neil goes to the hotel that Brenda has booked for them. When he arrives, however, Brenda is deeply distressed. She has foolishly left her diaphragm at home, where her mother has found it and thereby discovered the affair. Her parents each write separate letters to her, telling her in their different ways of their shame and unhappiness. When Neil learns all this, he is shocked at Brenda’s carelessness but then realizes that leaving the device where it could be found may have been the result of an unconscious desire on her part to end the affair. As she has invited Neil to Boston ostensibly to continue their lovemaking and insists that he make every effort to get there, she obviously has some ambivalence (or perhaps Roth does) toward Neil. He finds it impossible now to go on with her, and he takes the train back to Newark, where he arrives just in time to begin work on the Jewish New Year.

Neil Klugman, whose surname translated from Yiddish means “clever man,” is typical of Roth’s early heroes. Sophisticated, bright, and educated, he is nevertheless a schlemiel, a loser, someone who bungles golden opportunities that come his way. He is the prototype for Gabe Wallach in Letting Go, another loser, whose divided self prevents him from having satisfying and permanent relationships with others. Both have the knack, as Neil puts it, of turning winning into losing, so that the name “Klugman” comes to have an ironic implication. Nevertheless, Roth is hardly an advocate for the values represented by the Patimkin family, who are the principal and most obvious targets for his ridicule.

“Defender of the Faith”

First published: 1959 (collected in Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories, 1959)

Type of work: Short story

Sergeant Nathan Marx, a World War II combat veteran, struggles with his conscience over the favors demanded from him by a new Jewish recruit.

After the Allies are victorious in the battle against the Axis in Europe, Sergeant Nathan Marx, in “Defender of the Faith,” is rotated back to the States, to Camp Crowder, Missouri. A veteran and a war hero with medals to prove it, Sergeant Marx is modest enough—and totally unprepared for confrontations with Private Sheldon Grossbart from the Bronx, whom he is assigned to train along with other recruits for the continuing war against Japan. Quickly recognizing in Marx a “landsman”—that is, a fellow Jew from New York—Grossbart begins to play on the sergeant’s hidden sympathies. Although he is far from an observant Jew himself, Marx cannot bring himself to reject totally the pleas for special favors that Grossbart repeatedly brings to him, such as being excused from a “G.I. Party” (that is, a barracks cleaning) on Friday nights (the start of the Jewish Sabbath). Marx is uncomfortable about this, but Grossbart is persuasive, not only on his own behalf, but also on behalf of Fishbein and Halpern, two other Jewish men in the company.

One success leads to another, as Grossbart wheedles favor after favor from Marx. He apparently goes too far when he complains about the nonkosher food and writes a letter to his congressman over his father’s signature. When the commanding officer of his company finds out, he questions Grossbart in front of Marx, holding the sergeant up to him as a model. At this point, Grossbart backs off, and another letter arrives, again purportedly from Grossbart’s father to his congressman, praising Sergeant Marx for helping his son over the hurdles he has to face in the Army. In a note attached to the letter, passed down through the chain of Army command to Marx, the congressman also praises the sergeant as “a credit to the U.S. Army and the Jewish people.” After that, Grossbart seems to disappear from his life for a while, and Marx is relieved.

The reprieve, however, is short-lived. Grossbart turns up one day in Marx’s office with two matters on his mind. The first concerns their eventual assignment; Marx surmises, rightly, that it will probably be in the Pacific region. Grossbart hopes it might be New York so he could be near his immigrant parents. The other matter concerns a pass for Passover dinner with relatives in St. Louis. Marx reminds him that passes are not possible during basic training, but Grossbart perseveres, using a variety of ploys and tactics, until he gets passes for himself and his two friends as well. When they return from St. Louis, they bring Marx a gift—Chinese egg rolls, not Passover fare.

Marx is disgusted, and his fury mounts; he calls Grossbart a liar, a schemer, and a crook. When he discovers soon afterward that Grossbart has manipulated another Jewish noncommissioned officer in order to get himself sent to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, instead of the Pacific with the rest of the company, Marx decides to use Grossbart’s tactics against him. He asks a friend in Classification and Assignment to alter the orders, sending another man to Fort Monmouth in place of Grossbart. He invents a story about Grossbart’s longing to fight against the enemy because his brother was killed and he would feel like a coward staying stateside. Marx explains that Grossbart is Jewish and that he would like to do him this favor.

A final confrontation ends the story, as Grossbart accuses Marx of anti-Semitism, of really wanting to see him dead. At first, Marx ignores him, but a bitter, fruitless argument ensues. Both of them know, however, that Grossbart will be all right, and so will Fishbein and Halpern, as long as Grossbart can continue to find ways to use them for his own advantage. Weeping, Grossbart eventually accepts his fate, as Marx accepts his, rejecting the strong impulse to turn and ask Grossbart’s pardon for his vindictiveness.

The story shows Roth’s ability early in his career to develop vivid and convincing characters and use themes not designed to be popular with Jewish audiences. Other stories in the collection Goodbye, Columbus, such as “The Conversion of the Jews” and “Eli the Fanatic,” develop similar themes and characters with the kind of irony that Roth uses here. In those stories, Roth shows realistically what makes people behave in the ways they do—self-interest may be an irresistible motive, as it is in Grossbart’s case. The motives are not always admirable and, as Marx demonstrates, not always simple. When conflict occurs, resolution is seldom easy, and it always comes at a cost.

Portnoy’s Complaint

First published: 1969

Type of work: Novel

A man seeks help from his psychiatrist for the anxieties and other difficulties he attributes to the conflict between his Jewish upbringing and his strong sexual urges.

Portnoy’s Complaint is not only the title of this novel, it is also the illness defined in an epigraph that precedes the book: “A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.” Alexander Portnoy, after whom the disease is named, is a young Jewish professional, the Assistant Commissioner for Human Opportunity in New York City. After a recent trip to Israel in which he discovers, to his dismay, that he has become impotent, he seeks the help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Otto Spielvogel. The novel, in fact, is in the form of a long monologue, or a series of psychiatric sessions, in which Portnoy describes his past life, beginning with his earliest years, growing up in Newark as the son of Sophie and Jack Portnoy, to his present life as an important official in the New York bureaucracy. The monologue is punctuated by much dialogue, as he recalls conversations, quarrels, and arguments with his family and a number of lovers, culminating in his disastrous sexual experience in Israel.

The dominant figure in his early life is his mother, whose behavior as a stereotyped Jewish mother is the subject of much satire and humor. Little Alex is astonished at her omnipotence and her apparent omnipresence. A good little boy, he is nevertheless punished at times for faults he cannot understand how—or if—he committed. His rebellions are futile, and his perplexity is immense. His mother’s threats puzzle him, as does his poor, constipated father’s reluctance to stop her. As Alex enters puberty, he finds solace in masturbation, which, like everything else in this novel, becomes excessive. In a whimsical allusion to the amoral protagonist of Dostoevski’s Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886), Portnoy calls himself at one point the Raskolnikov of “whacking off.”

Ashamed of his parents and, to some extent, of his Jewishness, Portnoy yearns for a more typical American family life. From an early age he tries to woo Gentile girls, disguising himself when he can as a non-Jew. His nose is his greatest impediment, he believes; hence, he imagines excuses and explanations for it and for his name (saying that it is from the French, porte-noir). A hilarious episode occurs when he joins two of his friends to visit the notorious Bubbles Girardi, known to have sex with boys, and he wins the chance to be the only one on that occasion whom she will see. Like so much else in his life, however, the event turns into disaster. At first he cannot even get an erection, and later he climaxes too quickly and ejaculates directly into his own eye. Thinking he has gone blind, he fantasizes returning home with a seeing-eye dog, much to the horror of his parents—especially his mother, who becomes upset because she has just cleaned the house and her son has brought home a dog.

Other sexual escapades include the romance with his college sweetheart, Kay Campbell, nicknamed “The Pumpkin,” who invites him to spend Thanksgiving in Iowa with her and her family. He is amazed at his reception and the civility he witnesses; it is so different from the outlandish melodramas that daily characterize his family life. The romance cools when, half-jokingly, Alex suggests her conversion to Judaism after they are married, and Kay responds indifferently. Another Gentile lover several years later is “The Pilgrim,” Sarah Abbott Maulsby, the daughter of a New England family. Alex realizes that his desire for her is fueled as much by his determination to wreak vengeance against her family, typical of those anti-Semites who discriminate against his hardworking father, as by any other appeal she may have for him.

Portnoy apparently finds everything his hedonistic heart desires in Mary Jane Reed, “The Monkey,” a sexually adept sometime model, who is trying to overcome her hillbilly childhood. Mary Jane does everything that Portnoy wants, but unfortunately in the process falls in love with him—unfortunately because he is far from ready to accept marriage with anyone, least of all her. Another shiksa (non-Jewish woman), she has too checkered a career, although for a brief moment while they impersonate a married couple on a weekend holiday in Connecticut, he almost believes that it might be possible. Portnoy’s sexual adventures end in Israel where, after abandoning Mary Jane in Greece, he meets his match in Naomi, a six-foot-tall Israeli woman whom he tries to seduce and even rape, only to discover that he is unable to get an erection.

Throughout the novel, Portnoy’s “extreme sexual longings” conflict with his “ethical and altruistic impulses,” invariably to comic effect. For example, he wants to educate The Monkey and tries hard to do so, with ludicrous results. He complains to his psychiatrist that he is the Jewish son in a Jewish joke and wants to find a way out of it, because to him it is not funny; it “hoits.” His expression is funny, however, partly through its excessive diction, his inherited tendency to melodrama, and the ridiculous plight that he himself describes. He concludes his monologue with what amounts to a long primal scream, after which Dr. Spielvogel delivers his famous punch line: “So. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”

My Life as a Man

First published: 1974

Type of work: Novel

Peter Tarnopol struggles to write a novel about his traumatic marriage, introducing fictitious character Nathan Zuckerman as his alter ego.

In My Life as a Man, Roth invents a fictitious character, Peter Tarnopol, whose life closely parallels his own, just as the life of Tarnopol’s fictitious character, Nathan Zuckerman, closely parallels his. The result is what Roth calls a “useful fiction.” Such fictions help the writer explore alternative ideas of one’s fate—in this instance, alternative versions of Roth’s early years and particularly of his marriage to Margaret Martinson.

The novel begins with two such “useful fictions.” The first, “Salad Days,” recounts Zuckerman’s early childhood, not unlike Portnoy’s, although here it is the father who dominates rather than the mother. Lighthearted and funny, especially in Zuckerman’s seduction of Sharon Shatzky, it is different in tone from the darker humor of “Courting Disaster,” the “useful fiction” that follows it, in which Tarnopol describes his strange courtship and unhappy marriage to Maureen Ketterer.

In “My True Story,” Tarnopol drops his alter ego, Zuckerman, and attempts to tell what really happened. He writes while secluded in Quahsay, an artists’ colony similar to Yaddo, Roth’s favorite retreat. He describes meeting Maureen while an instructor at the University of Chicago. Not her beauty so much as her prior experience, especially with men who had mistreated and abused her, is her main attraction. Eventually, although their affair has been anything but tranquil, Maureen tricks Tarnopol into marrying her, and when the marriage proves to be bad, she will not let him go. She is determined, she says, to make a man of him, to force him to accept his responsibilities. Several years later, Tarnopol gets a legal separation and flees to New York City to try to develop his career as a writer.

Maureen follows and even attempts to compete with him as a writer. Meanwhile, Tarnopol meets and falls in love with Susan Seabury McCall, a charming, rich, and devoted young woman. From the storms and stresses of his marriage to Maureen, Susan provides a calm and welcome shelter. Tarnopol eventually gives her up, however, knowing that she wants children and believes she should have them; he does not want marriage and a family. She attempts suicide. Tempted to return to her, Tarnopol resists the urge. Meanwhile, he has sought help from a therapist, none other than Dr. Otto Spielvogel, and Maureen is killed in an automobile wreck.

The novel ends where it began, with nothing resolved, except that Tarnopol is now freed at last from his marriage. He has also been able to write the story of his life with Maureen—the novel with which Roth struggled for years after his own wife’s death in a similar accident. After five years, he has given up therapy, partly as the result of an article Spielvogel wrote, titled “Creativity: The Narcissism of the Artist,” in which Tarnopol appears, very thinly disguised as an Italian American poet. Like Portnoy’s Complaint, My Life as a Man uses interesting and original fictive devices and techniques, eschewing straight linear narrative for more discursive, nonchronological accounts that are not, however, at all confusing. On the contrary, Roth’s juxtapositions are witty and meaningful, pointing up many aspects of the absurdity of human existence.

Zuckerman Bound

First published: The Ghost Writer, 1979; Zuckerman Unbound, 1981; The Anatomy Lesson, 1983; Epilogue: The Prague Orgy, 1985

Type of work: Novels

The series of novels traces the development of Nathan Zuckerman as a young writer through the successful publication of his notorious novel, “Carnovsky,” and its aftermath.

The Ghost Writer opens as young Nathan Zuckerman comes to visit the distinguished stylist E. I. Lonoff at his home in the Berkshires. Zuckerman is filled with admiration and awe for the older writer, with whom he enjoys discussing literature. He is struck, moreover, by the young woman, Amy Bellette, a former student of Lonoff, who is helping Lonoff assemble his papers for deposit in the Harvard library where she works. He is also struck by Lonoff’s wife, Hope, the descendant of New England families different from Lonoff’s Russian-Jewish heritage. At several points, she expresses extreme frustration with the life her husband leads and asks him to “chuck her out” in favor of Amy Bellette, who is obviously in love with him. Lonoff has no intentions of doing any such thing; although he recognizes the young woman’s attractions and devotion to him, he is loyal to his wife and rejects all of her exhortations to the contrary.

Amazed by the situation he finds, but flattered by Lonoff’s praise of his work so far—four published short stories—Zuckerman is easily persuaded to spend the night on a daybed in Lonoff’s study. While trying to write a letter to his father, he finds and reads The Middle Years by Henry James. Lonoff has excerpted an intriguing passage from it about the “madness of art” and pinned it to a bulletin board near his desk. Later, after Amy returns for the evening, Zuckerman hears an argument in the bedroom above him, in which Amy tries to persuade Lonoff to leave Hope and go off with her to a villa in Florence. Lonoff refuses, and afterward Zuckerman has a long fantasy in which he imagines that Amy Bellette is in reality Anne Frank, miraculously saved from the Nazi death camps.

The next morning, all illusions disappear after another scene between Lonoff and Hope, when Zuckerman can find no trace of a tattooed number on Amy’s forearm. As he returns to the artists’ colony at Quahsay, Zuckerman receives some words of advice from Lonoff, who also anticipates with interest what Zuckerman will make in his fiction of everything he has seen and heard during his visit.

In Zuckerman Unbound, Nathan is no longer a young, somewhat callow writer, anxious about making his way in the world, but an accomplished novelist whose fourth book, Carnovsky, has become notorious (just as Portnoy’s Complaint became notorious in Roth’s own life and career). By this time it is apparent that the trilogy is a Bildungsroman, or portrait novel, based, like My Life as a Man, on Roth’s own experiences. It thus presents another “idea of one’s fate,” but without the mediation of Peter Tarnopol. The reader must be constantly careful, however, not to draw exact equivalences between Roth and his surrogates. For example, Zuckerman’s father becomes very upset by his treatment of the family in Carnovsky, quite unlike Roth’s own father, who took pride in everything his son wrote. Roth fictionalizes his experiences to see how they might otherwise have come out, to explore alternative, imaginative versions of them, and thereby gain further insights.

In Zuckerman Unbound, Nathan is beset by people, such as Alvin Pepler, the Jewish Marine, who recognizes him as the author of Carnovsky and believes that the book is autobiographical. A mysterious caller telephones and tries to extort money from him, threatening to kidnap his mother in Miami if he does not pay up. When Zuckerman gets a message from his aunt in Florida, be is sure that his mother has been abducted, but it is his father who is in trouble. He has had a serious heart attack, which proves fatal soon after Zuckerman arrives with his brother Henry.

His father’s last word is ambiguous. Nathan believes that he said “bastard,” but Henry reassures him on the flight home after the funeral that he said “batter,” referring to the days when they all played baseball together. When they get to the Newark airport, after exchanging some further confidences on the plane, Henry suddenly turns on Nathan, and they become estranged. Nathan is left to drive alone through the neighborhood he once knew so well but which has now changed drastically. He feels like he is no one—no man’s son, no woman’s husband, no longer his brother’s brother. He does not come from anywhere any longer, either. He is utterly alone.

He is not quite alone, however, in The Anatomy Lesson. Afflicted by a strange pain in the neck and back that no doctor has been able to diagnose, let alone treat successfully, Zuckerman is attended by four women who look after his various needs, including his sexual needs. Among them are his financial adviser’s wife, the most sexually adroit of them all; a young college student from nearby Finch College, who also works as his secretary; another young woman who lives in Vermont and occasionally comes to town to visit and encourage Zuckerman to come and live in the mountains with her; and finally, Jaga, the Polish émigré who works at the trichologist’s clinic where Zuckerman goes to have his increasing baldness treated.

Nothing works, so Zuckerman decides to give up writing, which he has not been able to do anyway, and return to the University of Chicago, his alma mater, and become a doctor. His college friend, Bobby Freytag, now a prominent anesthesiologist, tries to talk him out of it, but disaster strikes from an unexpected direction. Zuckerman takes Bobby’s father to the cemetery where his wife has recently been buried, and while there Zuckerman goes berserk. Having taken too much Percodan and drunk too much vodka for the pain in his neck, and feeling antagonized by the old man’s sentimentalism, he attacks him, then falls on a tombstone and fractures his jaw. Learning what pain is really like now, in the hospital after surgery, Zuckerman spends his days recuperating and helping patients more unfortunate than he is.

The theme of fathers and sons, pervasive in the trilogy, takes a different twist in The Prague Orgy, which forms the epilogue. Zuckerman is persuaded by a Czech émigré and writer to rescue his father’s short stories, written in Yiddish, from the writer’s sex-crazy wife. In Prague, Zuckerman meets other writers and intellectuals, as well as Olga Sisovsky, who finally turns over the stories to him. Although well known as the author of Carnovsky to some who admire his work, he is not allowed to leave the country with the stories, which are confiscated. Instead, he is escorted to the airport by Novak, the minister of culture, who delivers a lecture to him on the values of socialism, particularly as they pertain to cultural deviance and filial respect. The patriotism of Novak’s father, however, is little more than political expediency, and the cultural deviance is simply a code word for divergence from the party line. Zuckerman realizes this and realizes, too, that it apparently was not his fate to become a “cultural eminence” or hero by performing extraordinary literary deeds such as rescuing the Sisovsky manuscripts.

The Counterlife

First published: 1986

Type of work: Novel

In a series of contrasting episodes, Nathan and Henry Zuckerman trade places as victims of serious heart disease, ending in their deaths.

In The Counterlife, Roth more forthrightly and ingeniously than ever before exploits the technique of developing alternative versions of one’s fate. Thus, in the first section, “Basel,” Henry Zuckerman, a successful dentist, husband, and father of three children, suffers from a serious heart ailment that is properly treated by use of a beta-blocker, which renders him impotent. Finding his sex life reduced to nothing and desperate to resume an extramarital affair with his dental assistant, he decides to undergo surgery, and dies. Before the surgery, feeling the need to talk to someone, he confides in his brother, Nathan, from whom he has been long estranged. At Henry’s funeral, however, Nathan is unable to deliver the eulogy, as the three thousand words he has written are hardly suitable for the occasion. Always the novelist, he knows that they are more suitable to his craft than for his brother’s funeral.

In the next section, “Judea,” Henry has not died but is alive and well and living in Israel. The surgery, while successful, left him deeply depressed, and he experiences a kind of ethnic conversion during a visit to the Orthodox quarter in Jerusalem. His wife asks Nathan, now married to an Englishwoman, Maria, and living in London, to find Henry and try to get him to come home to his family. More interested in what has happened to his brother than in actually returning him to New Jersey, Nathan agrees. He finds Henry in a kibbutz on the West Bank under the influence of an extreme right-winger, Mordecai Lippman. During his visit, Nathan is several times put on the spot, not only by Henry but also by others, who question his politics, his loyalty to Israel, and his Jewishness.

In “Aloft,” he returns to London without Henry and becomes comically implicated in an abortive hijack attempt by a crazy young man from West Orange, New Jersey.

The fourth section, “Gloucestershire,” is the most complex. Now Nathan is afflicted with the heart ailment and wants to get off the beta-blocker so that he can marry Maria and have children. She is his upstairs neighbor, married to a man who fails to appreciate her. She tries to talk Nathan out of the operation, but he goes ahead with it, and he dies. At his funeral, Henry is unable to give the eulogy, which is delivered by Nathan’s editor and is mostly about Carnovsky and the role of the novelist. Henry is outraged by everything he says. When he goes to Nathan’s apartment, he finds “Draft #2,” including chapters of The Counterlife that the reader has read as well as an additional chapter, “Christendom,” which follows. Henry is further outraged by his brother’s fictionalizing—his “lies.” Henry has never had an affair with his dental assistant or gone to Israel. To avoid any possible embarrassment to himself or his family, he takes 250 pages of the manuscript and destroys them on his way home.

Maria also enters the apartment and finds “Christendom,” which she criticizes, as Henry had done the earlier chapters. She does not destroy the manuscript, however compromising it appears (it includes passages about their love affair); instead she determines to brazen her way out of whatever problems may arise with her husband. When the reader comes to “Christendom,” he or she finds that it is about Nathan and Maria’s imagined married life together, their happiness (Maria is pregnant), and their problems (Maria is from an anti-Semitic family). The novel ends with a quarrel over English attitudes toward Jews, and Nathan imagines a farewell letter that Maria has written to him.

The Counterlife is a postmodernist tour de force. Despite the convolutions of its plot and the ways the novel loops back upon itself and alters events, characters, and impressions, the reader is never confused for long as to what is happening. Roth exercises to the fullest his novelistic imagination, juxtaposing counterlives upon counterlives with wit, humor, and excellent technical skills.

Operation Shylock: A Confession

First published: 1993

Type of work: Novel

The author learns that someone in Israel is posing as Philip Roth, so he goes there to confront him and attend the Demjanjuk trial.

Over his English wife’s objections, Philip Roth goes to Israel in 1988 ostensibly to interview his friend Israeli novelist Aharon Appelfeld and to attend the trial of John Demjanjuk, the man accused of being one of the sadistic guards at Treblinka, a Nazi death camp during World War II. Roth interviews Appelfeld and attends the trial, but he is even more interested in a man who is posing as him, calling himself Philip Roth. He not only looks like Roth but also dresses exactly like him. He goes around arguing for a reverse diaspora—that is, for all the Ashkenazi Jews in Israel to leave the country in order to avoid what he is sure will become another Holocaust if they remain. He calls his project “Diasporism.” This, along with everything else that the man represents—including his organization called Anti-Semites Anonymous—infuriates the real Philip Roth, who nicknames his imposter “Moishe Pipik.”

While in Israel, Roth not only meets Appelfeld, who gives him his views on current Israeli politics, but also meets another old friend, George Ziad, a wealthy Palestinian who has espoused Diasporism because of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and the Israelis’ treatment of his people. Roth listens to his friends as they engage in lengthy monologues, much as Nathan Zuckerman does in The Counterlife. The major incident occurs in the novel, however, when Roth is abducted by Mossad agents under the direction of one Smilesburger, who wants Roth to engage as a spy in some espionage on behalf of Israel. Under considerable duress, Roth agrees to engage in what is then called Operation Shylock (hence the book’s title). It involves a secret mission in Athens, but what that mission is, readers never learn. Roth says that he wrote it up in “Chapter Eleven” of this book, but under Smilesburger’s persuasion, he has deleted it. No “Chapter Eleven” appears in the book; instead, Roth presents himself and a now retired Smilesburger having brunch together in New York, where Smilesburger offers some comments on the book that he has just read and prevailed on Roth to allow him to censor.

When Operation Shylock first appeared, Roth wrote articles for The New York Times insisting that everything in the book was true, that it all really happened. This was a piece of “Jewish mischief,” he later admitted, for the novel is pure fiction, except for the trial of Demjanjuk and the interview with Appelfeld, which actually occurred.

American Pastoral

First published: 1997

Type of work: Novel

In the 1960’s, a successful businessman married to a former Miss New Jersey seems to have it made, but then his world comes crashing down.

Seymour “Swede” Levov, the older brother of Nathan Zuckerman’s classmate at Weequahic High School, embodies the American Dream. An outstanding Jewish athlete, he becomes a U.S. Marine and a graduate of Upsala College, where he meets and falls in love with Mary Dawn Dwyer, Miss New Jersey of 1949 and a contestant in the Miss America Pageant. Although her beauty, talent, and intelligence did not win her the crown, she does manage to win some concessions from Swede’s father, who reluctantly agrees to his son’s wedding to this daughter of an Irish American working-class family.

From then on, one success seems to lead to another, as Swede takes over his father’s flourishing glove-making business in the 1960’s; settles his wife and daughter, Meredith (“Merry”), in a 150-year-old house in suburban Morris County; and helps his wife get started raising cattle. The only cloud on their horizon is Merry’s terrible stutter, which defies the best efforts of her therapist, Sheila Salzman. Whatever it is that underlies Merry’s stutter apparently also motivates her rebellious teenage behavior, which culminates in 1968 when she bombs the village store and post office. A much-loved physician, Dr. Fred Conlon, dies as a result of the bombing, and Meredith becomes a fugitive, going underground for five years.

During this period, Merry is responsible for more bombings and the deaths of three more people, as she tells her shocked and disconsolate father when he finally finds her living in a derelict section of Newark. By now, she has become a Jain, wearing a stocking veil over her face, eating little, and washing never. Meanwhile, the idyllic life that Swede had tried to establish for his family is further shattered by his wife’s breakdowns, the infidelities of which both she and Swede are guilty, the sale of the cattle business, and Dawn’s desire to move into a new house that her lover, Orcutt, the scion of a family dating from colonial days, has designed for her. Much of this information Swede learns when he finds Merry, who refuses to return home with him, where he and Dawn are having a dinner party for Swede’s aged parents, the Orcutts, and two other couples. While Swede is racked with questions about what he should have done or should do now, the dinner conversation turns to the decline of American morality, as evidenced by the acclaim that Linda Lovelace has won for her performance in the pornographic film Deep Throat.

Roth narrates Levov’s story through his favorite alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, who encounters Swede’s brother Jerry at a high school reunion. The story that Nathan tells is largely his imagined reconstruction of events. At the same time, it is a political satire, as the ironic title of the book suggests. How and why could the events of Swede’s life have happened? he asks at the end of the novel. What insidious disease so infected the American middle-class culture—of which the Levov family tragedy is representative—that it could cause such terrible destruction? Roth provides no answers to these questions, although some critics suggest that Vietnam and Watergate destroyed the spirit engendered by the victory over fascism. Others see Swede’s story as a parallel to the biblical story of Job. Still others see American Pastoral as Roth’s further attempt to portray the problems of being a Jew and raising a family in a predominantly gentile America.

The Human Stain

First published: 2000

Type of work: Novel

Coleman Silk, a fair-skinned African American, rejects his family, marries, and becomes a professor of classics at Athena College, until his use of an unintended ambiguity ruins everything.

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.

The Plot Against America

First published: 2004

Type of work: Novel

Roth reimagines American history in the early 1940’s, with Charles A. Lindbergh running against Franklin D. Roosevelt and winning the election, depriving the latter of an unprecedented third term.

In the 1940 of Philip Roth’s reimagined history, many Americans are so afraid that President Franklin D. Roosevelt is leading the country into the war in Europe that the Republican Party nominates not Wendell Wilkie but Charles A. Lindbergh, the hero who was the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean solo. To the great consternation of American Jews, Lindbergh wins the election. Jews are concerned because Lindbergh not only has admired the German Luftwaffe but also has accepted a medal from Adolf Hitler himself, a clear sign of his pro-German sympathies.

As nine-year-old Philip Roth narrates events, the Roth family—including Philip’s father and mother, Herman and Besse, and his older brother, Sandy—and their friends in the Jewish section of Newark, New Jersey, are terribly upset by this turn of events and fear the worst. They suspect that the kinds of anti-Semitism that Hitler has propounded and is rapidly carrying out in Germany and in the parts of Europe that he has conquered will, under Lindbergh’s administration, begin to happen in the United States. The first experience that they have of this intolerance comes during a trip to Washington, D.C., where they are expelled from their hotel despite their confirmed reservations. This outrage is followed by a scene in a cafeteria where the family experiences anti-Semitic slurs. Worse events are still to follow.

Not all Jews believe as Herman Roth believes. A rabbi, Lionel Bengelsdorf, supports the new administration and soon becomes head of the Office of American Absorption. This new office is established to promote Lindbergh’s plan to disperse Jews from enclaves, such as the one in which the Roths live in Newark, to other parts of the country, thereby promoting their assimilation into the American mainstream. After years of working for an insurance company, Herman Roth is reassigned to Louisville under this plan, but rather than accept the assignment, he resigns and goes to work instead for his brother’s produce business. Sandy Roth, meanwhile, is enticed into a program called “Just Folks,” another attempt to foster Jewish assimilation, and spends the summer on a farm in Kentucky with a typical “American” family. He comes back with a southern accent and views quite opposed to those of his father. A neighbor’s family, the Wishnows, is forced to accept the reassignment and goes to Danville, Kentucky, a town near Louisville. Later, Mrs. Wishnow is killed in a violent attack against Jews as she tries to drive home one night.

Roth brings in many historical characters: Father Coughlin, the extremist Catholic priest who fulminates against Jews; Walter Winchell, the Jewish newspaper reporter whose Sunday night radio broadcasts the Roth family and their friends dutifully listen to each week, and who at one point runs for president against Lindbergh, only to be assassinated for his efforts; the German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, who is honored by a state dinner at the White House by President and Mrs. Lindbergh; Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York City, who is an eloquent spokesperson and a champion of civil rights; and many others. The picture of the United States under the Lindbergh administration is a very grim, even terrifying one. Although Roth insists he intended no allusion to politics in the twenty-first century, his novel clearly posts a warning for what might happen should American civil liberties suffer increased depredations, using the Iraq War as a pretext or an excuse.

Roth even brings into The Plot Against America the notorious kidnapping case of the 1930’s, in which the Lindberghs’ infant son was stolen. In this imagined reconstruction of events, the baby is not killed (as he was in actual fact) but taken by the Nazis and brought up in Germany as a good member of the Hitler Jugend. Events at the end of the novel culminate with the disappearance of Lindbergh himself and subsequent anti-Jewish riots in many cities across the United States in which 122 Jews lose their lives. Lindbergh, however, has not been kidnapped but has fled to Germany, using the Spirit of St. Louis for his escape, and is never seen again. Eventually, law and order are restored (thanks in part to the efforts of Mrs. Lindbergh), the Democrats take over Congress, and Roosevelt wins his unprecedented third term as president.


Philip Roth Short Fiction Analysis