Philip Roth Short Fiction Analysis - Essay

Philip Roth Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Philip Roth’s most important collection of stories is the 1959 volume Goodbye, Columbus. Roth has produced other individual stories, however, which have been printed in such magazines as The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s Magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly. Additionally, portions of several of his novels were first released as short stories. The shorter fiction serves to introduce the reader both to Roth’s typical range of styles and to his complex themes. The author’s Newark-Jewish background lends a prominent urban-ethnic flavor to his early fiction, but read in the context of his later work, which sometimes deals less directly with “Jewish” matters, it becomes clear that the Jewish elements in his work are used to exemplify larger concerns endemic to American society as a whole.

Technically, Roth’s fiction runs the gamut from broad satire to somber realism to Kafkaesque surrealism. Beneath the wide range of styles, however, is the strain of social realism, which attempts to depict, often without overt judgment, the pressures brought to bear on the modern individual searching for (or trying to recover) moral, ethical, and cultural roots in a society that prides itself on the erasure of such differences in its attempt to achieve homogeneity. Implicit in many of the stories is the problem of the leveling down into a normalcy of behavior which, although perhaps a socially acceptable way of “getting along,” nevertheless mitigates against the retention of cultural eccentricities or personal individuality. While Roth’s Jewish milieu provided ample opportunity to observe this phenomenon, some of his later fiction explores these matters in non-Jewish settings.

“Eli, the Fanatic”

“Eli, the Fanatic” embodies many of Roth’s themes and techniques. Taking place in suburban America, the tale concerns a young, “secularized” Jewish lawyer, Eli Peck, who is retained to convince a European Jew, who operates a resident Jewish academy in the town (aptly and symbolically named Woodenton), to close his establishment. The town is embarrassed by the presence of the yeshiva, since it calls the largely gentile residents’ attention to the Jewishness of some of the inhabitants who wish to blend in peacefully with the rest of the population. Significantly, it is the Jews who hire Eli, and not the gentiles, Jews who believe all too literally in the “melting pot” theory of assimilation. Of particular annoyance is one resident of the yeshiva—a Hasidic Jew who wears the traditional long black coat and wide-brimmed hat and walks about the town shopping for supplies for the school.

When Eli confronts the headmaster, he is touched by the old man’s integrity and his fierce but philosophically stoical attachment to his cultural and religious roots—an attachment, however, which Eli cannot share. Eli realizes that the old man will never abandon his school and has no “respect” for the zoning laws which prohibit such establishments. Eli attempts a compromise. After soliciting reluctant approval from his clients, he tries to persuade the old man to insist that his Hasidic employee wear modern garb, in the hope that the visible manifestation of the enclave will be removed, thus mollifying the community. Eli is informed by the headmaster that, after the man’s escape from the Holocaust, the clothes he wears are “all he’s got.” Eli realizes that the remark is symbolic as well as literal—that the clothes are a symbol of the identity not even the Nazis could take away from the man. Nevertheless, Eli brings to the yeshiva two of his own suits in the hope that the man will adopt the inoffensive dress.

Although he does so, much to the temporary relief of Eli and the modern Jewish community, he also leaves his old clothes on Eli’s doorstep and parades about the town in Eli’s ill-fitting clothes as a kind of silent reproach to a town which would rob him of his identity. Only Eli senses the meaning of the man’s act. In what can only be termed a mystical transformation, Eli feels compelled to put on the Hasidic garb, and he begins to walk through the village, achieving a “conversion” to the values and sense of belonging that the man had represented. Moreover, as he literally “walks in the man’s shoes,” he defies the leveling and dehumanizing impetus represented by his role in enforcing the town’s desires. He finally visits the hospital where his wife has recently given birth to their first son and is berated by her and several of the town’s citizens and accused of having another of what has apparently been a series of nervous breakdowns. Eli realizes that this time he is totally sane and lucid; but at the close of the story he feels the prick of a hypodermic needle, and the reader knows that he will be tranquilized and psychoanalyzed back to “normalcy.”

The story illustrates the major concerns in Roth’s fiction. Eli is a normally nonaggressive hero who nevertheless is prodded to assert his individuality actively and thus assuage his own guilt. The pressures of society exert a counter force which annihilates this thrust toward individuality. The story is not really about conversion to an obscure form of Judaism so much as it is about the desire to resist the loss of cultural identity and personal individuality. In a world of diminished passions, the Rothian hero attempts to assert himself in the midst of the...

(The entire section is 2221 words.)