Philip Roth Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2221

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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 society which inhibits him. Unlike the “activist” heroes of much of American fiction who “light out for the territory,” or who “make a separate peace,” Roth’s activists stand their ground and attempt to triumph over, or at least to survive within, the society—often without success.

“Epstein”

Not all of Roth’s heroes are activists—many become passive victims to these societal forces. “Epstein,” an early story which appeared in the Paris Review and was incorporated into Goodbye, Columbus, illustrates this second pattern. The central character, Lou Epstein, is a financially and socially successful owner of a paper-bag company. An immigrant to America as a child, he has achieved apparent success by subscribing to the essentially Protestant work ethic of his adopted country.

Epstein’s life, however, has not been happy. A son died at age eleven, and he broods about his company falling into the hands of a stranger. His wife, Goldie, a compulsive housekeeper, is aging rapidly and unattractively, and while Epstein is not young, he feels youthful sexual drives which do not tally with his wife’s rejection of him or her diminished appeal. His only daughter has become fat, and her fiancé is a “chinless, lazy smart aleck.” Epstein is, in short, going through a midlife crisis, surrounded by signs of unfulfilled goals and waning capacities and opportunities.

Jealous of the “zipping and unzipping” which accompany midnight teenage assignations in his living room, thus heightening the frustrations of his airless marriage, he begins an affair with the recently widowed mother of his brother’s son’s girlfriend. The woman represents all that his life lacks and all that his wife is not—sensuousness, lust, adventure. The “Calvinist” gods are not mocked, however, because Epstein contracts a suspicious rash that his wife discovers to her horror, resulting in a hilarious but apocalyptic battle waged by the naked pair over the bed sheets, which Goldie seeks to burn. The next day, Epstein, seeking to confront his amour, collapses in the street with a heart attack; at the close of the story, his wife, riding in the ambulance with Epstein, assures him that he will be all right. “All he’s got to do,” the doctor tells her, “is live a normal life, normal for sixty.” Goldie pleads, “Lou, you’ll live normal, won’t you? Won’t you?

Normal means a return to the external success and internal misery of his life before the liberating affair. The issue is not the morality of the situation but the desperate attempt to control one’s life consciously and seize experience. Epstein laments,When they start taking things away from you, you reach out, you grab—maybe like a pig even, but you grab. And right, wrong, who knows! With tears in your eyes, who can even see the difference!

Epstein is returned unwillingly to the world of “normalcy.” He is trapped—even biologically trapped—by a society which has adopted essentially Protestant-Calvinist values that distrust appetites, roots, and eccentric behavior, and which inculcates a sense of moral guilt, which is essentially the same as so-called Jewish guilt.

“Defender of the Faith”

Sergeant Nathan Marx, the Jewish protagonist of “Defender of the Faith,” another story collected in Goodbye, Columbus, has achieved assimilated normalcy by serving honorably in World War II. After the war’s end in Europe, he finds himself in charge of new soldiers in Camp Crowder, Missouri. One of his charges, Sheldon Grossbart, tries to use their shared Jewishness to gain special privileges. While his interactions with Grossbart cause Marx to rediscover his Jewish identity, Marx also increasingly refuses to do Grossbart favors. The story’s crisis occurs as Grossbart manages to have himself assigned to service in New Jersey rather than in the Pacific, where the war still rages. When Marx breaks the rules to see that Grossbart is reassigned to the Pacific, Marx considers himself a defender of American values, military values, and Jewish values, but Marx also knows that his vindictive violation of his own principles leaves him cut off from all the communities of which he longs to be a member. The story’s ending leaves Marx in a richly paradoxical situation of a very Rothian sort. The story’s various discussions of how lies relate to truth also raise issues of how a professional writer, as a professional teller of lies, can be a good American or a good Jew.

“Novotny’s Pain”

In another early story (with no Jewish characters) entitled “Novotny’s Pain,” the title character, conscripted into the army as a willing, if frightened, recruit, suffers unspecified and clearly psychosomatic lower back pain which Novotny endures in the hope that it will eventually go away. He clearly is not a “gold-bricker.” He is engaged to be married, and when out on pass, he and his girlfriend enjoy a rich and acrobatic sex life despite occasional back pain.

Novotny, in desperate discomfort and moral unease, seeks medical help, but tests reveal nothing pathologically wrong. The young man admits that he fears going into battle but also sincerely asserts that if the root of the pain can be removed he will be more than willing to do his duty. The army authorities regard him, however, as a mental case, or worse, and eventually he is given a dishonorable discharge. Novotny wonders if he is being punished for all the ecstatic sex and happiness he has had with his fiancé, which his back has not prevented him from experiencing; even after he marries her, although threats that the discharge will destroy his civilian prospects turn out to be groundless, Novotny still suffers twinges of pain that correspond to his twinges of guilt. At the end, Novotny asks himself a central question: “What good was it, being good?” All of Roth’s heroes try to deal with the concept of “goodness” but are impaled on the varying definitions of the term: goodness arising out of socially acceptable conformity or goodness coming from an existential attempt to define one’s self satisfactorily in terms of needs, roots, and desires.

“‘I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’”

In a later story, “‘I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’: Or, Looking at Kafka,” Roth first relates and then rewrites the last part of the life of one of Roth’s favorite writers in order to examine what creates “goodness” in a writer. In Roth’s biographical analysis, Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis at the happiest point of his life, and Roth notes signs in Kafka’s late story “The Burrow” that Kafka was achieving progress toward love and toward understanding and accepting himself. Yet Kafka’s greatness as a writer might have never been known if Kafka had lived and been able to decide for himself whether to publish the works for which he became famous. As if to prove that advantages for others can be disadvantages for writers, the final section fancifully reimagines Kafka’s life, allows him to survive until age seventy and even escape to America. Kafka becomes the nine-year-old Roth’s teacher in Hebrew school in New Jersey, suffers through a romance with Roth’s Aunt Rhoda—a romance that fails despite the absence of several impediments Kafka faced in real life—and finally dies unpublished. Roth concludes that one must maintain a high level of discomfort in one’s society and in one’s family, and one must be very lucky, to become known as a good writer.

The acerbity of Roth’s vision, his honesty in portraying the deficiencies in American culture and values, and his refusal to prescribe overt solutions have led to critical charges of anti-Semitism and defeatism. His characters’ valiant, if often thwarted, attempts to achieve some identity and sense of placement, however, belie the latter charge, and the honest, if not always affectionate, portrayal of both Jewish and non-Jewish characters in similar situations negates the former accusation.

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