Philip Roth Long Fiction Analysis

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While his early works clearly show the influence of his literary idols—Henry James, Leo Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert, Thomas Wolfe, and Theodore Dreiser—Philip Roth came into his own as a novelist beginning with Portnoy’s Complaint, which reveals a unique voice in American literature. His subsequent development parallels his growing interest in other Continental writers, such as Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevski, and particularly contemporary writers such as Milan Kundera, whom Roth assisted in getting his works published in the United States. Roth’s first novels are set squarely in his native land: in Newark, where he was born and reared; in the great Midwest, where he went to graduate school; and in New York and Philadelphia, where he lived, wrote, and taught literature at several universities. Theprotagonists of his later fiction travel abroad to Western and Eastern Europe and as far as Hong Kong. Roth’s development as a novelist is thus the development, in part, of a growing cosmopolitanism along with a deepening interest in basic human concerns and predicaments.

Chief among those predicaments is the endless struggle between the id and the superego, or, in less Freudian terms, between the drive for sensual gratification and the drive for moral uprightness. On one hand, pulling at his protagonists (most of whom are men) is the powerful desire for sexual conquest; on the other is the almost equally powerful desire to lead a morally self-fulfilling and decent life. These drives, conflicting at almost every turn, nearly tear his protagonists apart. Even when, as at the end of The Professor of Desire, a protagonist believes that he has at least achieved a reasonable equilibrium and found peace, a nagging unease enters the picture, upsetting his contentment and providing a presentiment of doom.

Indeed, Roth’s heroes, if one can apply that term to such unlikely characters, all seem doomed in one way or another. Their pervasive sense of disaster, however, does not destroy Roth’s comedy; it deepens it. A sense of the absurd, of the incongruities of human experience, also pervades Roth’s novels and is the source of much rich humor. Moreover, his protagonists usually are fully self-aware; they understand their predicaments with uncommon self-perception, even if (more often than not) they are utterly baffled in trying to find a solution to or resolution of their dilemmas. Again, their awareness and frustration combine to make the reader laugh, though the reader must be careful not to let the laughter obscure or nullify the compassion that is also the character’s due.

Letting Go

Roth’s first full-length novel, Letting Go, sets out all these themes and influences. The principal character, Gabe Wallach, is the educated, sophisticated young son of well-off middle-aged easterners. After a brief stint in the Army, Gabe pursues graduate studies in the Midwest. His mother has recently died, leaving her son with a heavy moral burden: not to interfere in the lives of others as she, regretfully, has done. It is a legacy Gabe finds almost impossible to live up to, until the very end, after he has nearly ruined the lives of several people close to him. Before that, he succeeds, however, in remaining aloof from his widower father, who is lonely and adrift and tries to persuade Gabe to return home. This is Gabe’s only success, however, as eventually his father meets and marries a widow who helps him rediscover life’s pleasures.

Meanwhile, Gabe has his affairs, none of which works out happily, and his friendships, especially with Paul and Libby Herz, whom he meets during graduate school in Iowa. Paul is a hardworking, highly principled young man who married Libby while they were still undergraduates at Cornell. Their mixed marriage—Paul is Jewish, Libby Catholic—is mainly the result of Paul’s misguided sense of devotion and responsibility. Although the passion has long since gone out of their relationship, owing to Libby’s poor health and neurotic disposition, Paul remains loyal. Together, they struggle with financial and other problems, including opposition from both sets of parents.

Gabe’s life and the life of the Herzes intersect at various points, invariably with well-intentioned but almost disastrous consequences. At Iowa, Gabe tries to befriend the couple, offers various forms of assistance to them, and finds an unusual attractiveness in Libby, which culminates in little more than a kiss. Their affair, such as it is, focuses partly on Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady (1881), which Gabe lends to Paul; Libby reads the book and finds tucked into its pages the last letter Gabe’s mother had written him when she lay dying. Both the novel and the letter help to form a bond between Gabe and Libby that endures. Later, when Gabe is teaching at the University of Chicago, their relationship resumes when Gabe helps Paul get a job in his department.

Through Martha Reganhart, with whom Gabe has begun to live, Gabe finds someone who is willing to let her unborn baby be adopted by the Herzes. Paul and Libby have wanted a child and nearly had one, but poverty-stricken as they were, Paul persuaded Libby to have an abortion. The incidents surrounding that event are both comical and dreadful. Afterward, Libby’s health never becomes robust enough for her to risk conceiving another child; hence, they hope to adopt one. The circumstances of trying to adopt a baby involve episodes best referred to as “deadly farce,” including several in which Gabe intervenes on the couple’s behalf. At the same time, Gabe’s relationship with Martha, a divorcée with two young children, deepens and then falls apart, largely the result of his inability to make a full and lasting commitment.

Gabe and Paul thus represent contrasting studies in personality. At the end, Gabe finally learns to “let go,” the lesson his mother tried to teach him from her deathbed, but letting go for him means abandoning lover, friends, family, and career to become a wanderer in Europe, whence he writes Libby a final letter. Forwarded many times, an invitation to her adopted daughter’s first birthday party arrives with no other message in it. This Gabe takes as “an invitation to be forgiven” for his nearly catastrophic interference in their lives. Gabe, however, feels unable to accept forgiveness—not yet, anyway. He is not “off the hook,” he says, and does not want to be let off it, not until he can make some sense of the “larger hook” he feels he is still on.

Portnoy’s Complaint

The larger hook on which Roth’s later protagonists wriggle is precisely the dilemma between commitment and freedom that they all experience. Thus, Alexander Portnoy of Portnoy’s Complaint finds himself torn between his desire to maintain his position as New York’s assistant commissioner for human opportunity, a job of considerable responsibility as well as prestige, and his desire to enjoy the full sexual freedoms heralded by the 1960’s. For a while he seems to manage both, until his affair with Mary Jane Reed develops into something else—Mary Jane’s wish to get married. Her sexual adroitness—she is called “the Monkey”—has kept them together for more than a year, but this demand for full commitment proves too much for Alex, who abandons her in Athens during a trip to Europe in which they have experienced the ultimate of their sexual adventures. Alex flees to Israel, the land of his forefathers, only to find that when he tries to make love there he is impotent. The experience drives him to seek help from Dr. Otto Spielvogel, a New York psychiatrist.

The novel, in fact, is told as a series of confessions, or therapy sessions, and derives its title from the name Dr. Spielvogel gives to his patient’s illness. “Portnoy’s Complaint” is “a disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.” The symptoms of the illness, Spielvogel believes, can be traced to the mother-child relationship, and indeed Portnoy’s boyhood has been fraught with problems, often hilarious ones as he recounts them, occasioned by his stereotypical Jewish mother. Sophie Portnoy is a domineering, overprotective mother who frequently drives her young son to distraction as he tries in vain to understand her demands on him and her suffocating affection. Jack Portnoy, his father, long-suffering (mostly from constipation) and hardworking, seems unable to mitigate the family relationship, exacerbating Alex’s quandary. No wonder he grows up as he does, afflicted with the dilemma, or the condition, that Dr. Spielvogel describes. By the end of the novel, after the long unfolding of his tales of woe, all Alex hears from his therapist is, “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”

My Life as a Man

In a sense, that is just the beginning. Roth tried hard to progress further in his next “family” novel, My Life as a Man, which took him years to write. Meanwhile, he wrote the pre-Watergate Nixon satire Our Gang and the satirical burlesque of American culture The Great American Novel, which takes the great American pastime, baseball, as its focus and its vehicle. Yet it was the fictionalized account of his marriage—or rather, the affair that turned into marriage through a masterful trick—that really preoccupied Roth in the years following Portnoy’s Complaint. In My Life as a Man, Roth invents not one fictional surrogate but two: Peter Tarnopol, a writer, and Tarnopol’s own fictional surrogate, Nathan Zuckerman. The two “useful fictions” that precede “My True Story,” or the novel proper, are Roth’s early experiments with “counterlives,” which he developed at greater length and complexity in his later novel, The Counterlife. They provide alternative, “possible” accounts of Peter Tarnopol’s early life—and, through Tarnopol’s, Roth’s.

Peter’s problem is trying to discover how he ever got involved with Maureen, his wife of ten years, from whom he is finally separated but who refuses to grant him a divorce. Related to this problem is the current one he experiences with his beautiful and dutiful lover, Susan Seabury McCall, a young widow who provides Peter with apparently everything he wants; however, she is essentially too submissive, too dull. One part of Tarnopol misses the excitement—no, the frenzy—that Maureen brought into his life, while another part hates it. Though it does not follow a strict chronological sequence, the novel becomes an account of Peter’s experience first with Maureen, then with Susan, whom he finally also leaves and determines to give up, despite her attempted suicide. Writing the novel in guarded solitude at an artist’s colony called Quahsay, Tarnopol retrospectively tries to understand his plight.

The Breast

The Breast is another novel written during this period when Roth was trying to compose My Life as a Man. This book is the sequel to The Professor of Desire, written a few years later. Like Portnoy, Zuckerman, and Tarnopol, David Kepesh is a nice young Jewish man, brought up by caring parents in a sheltered Jewish environment, who early in life experiences the pleasures of emancipation and of the flesh, first as a Fulbright scholar living in London, then as a graduate student at Stanford University. Like Tarnopol, he becomes the victim of a femme fatale, a woman who, like Maureen, has “lived.” Helen Baird is a striking beauty, but more than her beauty, her experience living abroad as the lover of a Hong Kong millionaire attracts Kepesh. They become lovers and later, disastrously, husband and wife. Gradually, Kepesh sinks into the condition of becoming Helen’s servant, if not slave, until she flees once more to Hong Kong, hoping to reunite with her erstwhile lover. He will not have her, and David must rescue her, but in the process he becomes aware that their life together is over, and they get divorced.

David now moves back to New York, where he gets a job teaching comparative literature, meets Claire, a young schoolteacher, and falls in love with her. During this period he undergoes psychotherapy to “demythologize” his marriage to Helen; Dr. Klinger becomes Claire’s advocate against David’s brooding over Helen. During this period also, David’s mother dies, and like Gabe Wallach in Letting Go, Kepesh has a widowed father on his hands. The elder Mr. Kepesh is by no means as demanding as Dr. Wallach, however; on the contrary, he is delighted with his son’s liaison with Claire (as he was not with the marriage to Helen) and hopes that they will marry. The novel ends as the young couple, along with the elder Mr. Kepesh and a friend of his, a concentration camp survivor, spend a weekend in a bungalow in the Catskills, not far from where David grew up and where he now ponders his future. He seems to have everything he wants or needs, but somehow he feels dissatisfied, anxious, afraid that ennui will set in and destroy everything or that some other disaster will overtake him.

It does, but the disaster is hardly anything that David could anticipate. About a year later, as his lovemaking with Claire has almost ceased, he turns into a six-foot, 155-pound breast. In The Breast, Roth partly follows Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (1915; The Metamorphosis, 1936), an obvious, but not exact, source for this novella. Unlike Kafka, Roth tells the story from Kepesh’s point of view, using the first-person narrator to convey something of the real anguish Kepesh feels and his amazement at his condition. If he was beset by a dilemma at the end of The Professor of Desire, his bafflement there is nothing to what he experiences now. Despite the aid and comfort that everyone—Claire, his father, Dr. Klinger—tries to give him, he remains at the end as bitterly confused and disturbed as ever, thoroughly unreconciled to his lot except as he vainly tries to persuade everyone that what has happened has not happened, that it is all a bad dream from which eventually he will awake, or that he has simply gone mad.

The Ghost Writer

Roth’s next novels form a trilogy to which he has appended an epilogue, all under the title of Zuckerman Bound. Again, Roth borrows from autobiography to write his fiction, his own “counterlife.” In The Ghost Writer, the first of the series that make up this portrait novel, Nathan Zuckerman is at the beginning of a promising career as a writer. He has published a few short stories and is now staying at an artist’s colony (Quahsay again), trying to write more. Since he is not far from the home of E. I. Lonoff, a writer he much admires, he visits and is welcomed by the older writer and his wife. Zuckerman is surprised by them in many ways: first by Lonoff’s austere life as a writer, spent endlessly turning his sentences around, and then by Hope Lonoff’s conviction that her husband would be better off without her. By birth and upbringing far different from her husband—she is a New England Yankee as opposed to his immigrant origins—she is temperamentally unsuited to the kind of life they have led for many years. She is convinced, moreover, that Lonoff would be better off living with a younger woman, like Amy Bellette, a former student from the nearby women’s college where Lonoff teaches, who obviously adores him. Lonoff refuses, however, to entertain any such thoughts of abandoning Hope or realizing his fantasy of living abroad in a villa in Italy with a younger woman.

Nathan is persuaded to stay the night, especially after he meets Amy Bellette, who is also staying there on a brief visit. Nathan has his own fantasy that evening, that Amy is really Anne Frank, author of the famous diary, who has miraculously survived the Nazi death camps. They fall in love, get married, and thus show his parents and other relatives that, despite what they may think from some of his stories, he is a good Jewish man, the worthy husband of the famous Jewish heroine. As a tribute to Roth’s skill as a writer, the account of Amy’s survival is quite credible; moreover, it shows Roth’s understanding of compassion for the suffering in the death camps. At the same time, it supports Nathan Zuckerman’s qualifications as a writer, justifying Lonoff’s praise and encouragement of the young man.

Zuckerman Unbound

Lonoff’s belief in Nathan is borne out in Zuckerman Unbound, the second novel in the trilogy. By now Zuckerman is the author of several novels, including the notorious Carnovsky. This novel is to Zuckerman what Portnoy’s Complaint is to Philip Roth, and Zuckerman Unbound recounts experiences similar to those Roth must have had, such as the notoriety that involved outsiders’ mistaking his fictional characters for his real mother and father. Zuckerman is accosted in the streets, on the telephone, and apparently everywhere he goes by people who think they know him because they mistake his confessional novel for actual autobiography. Fiction and autobiography are at best distant relatives, however; for example, unlike Zuckerman’s father, who is extremely upset by his son’s novel and turns on him at his death, Roth’s parents remained proud of their son’s accomplishments and never took offense at what he wrote, notwithstanding the uproar in the Jewish community.

Zuckerman is beset by would-be hangers-on such as Alvin Pepler, the Jewish Marine, once a quiz-show winner but deprived of full fame by a scam reminiscent of the Charles Van Doren scandal. Zuckerman’s brief affair (actually no more than a one-night stand) with the Irish actor Caesara O’Shea is a comic treatment of the adventures attributed to Roth by columnists such as Leonard Lyons, who insisted he was romantically involved with Barbra Streisand, though actually Roth at that time had not so much as met her. Finally, Zuckerman’s trip to Miami with his brother, Henry, which ends with their estrangement on the way home after their father dies of a stroke, is totally different from actual events in Roth’s life. All these incidents are, after all, “counterlives,” imaginative renderings of what might have or could have happened, not what did.

The Anatomy Lesson

Similarly, in The Anatomy Lesson, the third novel in the series, Roth borrows from incidents in his own life but fictionalizes them so that no one-to-one equivalence can be made. Now, some years later, Zuckerman is afflicted with a strange ailment that causes him intense pain, from which he gets temporary relief only from vodka or Percodan. He can no longer write, but four different women tend to his other needs, including his sexual ones. Among them are a young Finch College student who also works as his secretary, his financial adviser’s wife, an artist in Vermont who occasionally descends from her mountaintop to visit, and a Polish émigré whom Zuckerman meets at a trichological clinic (in addition to everything else, Zuckerman is losing his hair).

In despair of his life and his calling, Zuckerman decides to give up writing and become a doctor. He flies to Chicago, where he hopes his old friend and classmate Bobby Freytag will help him get admitted to medical school. En route on the plane and later from the airport, Zuckerman impersonates Milton Appel, a literary critic modeled on Irving Howe, who early praised Roth’s work and then turned against it. In this impersonation, however, Zuckerman pretends that Appel is a pornography king, editor and publisher of Lickety Split, and an impresario of houses of pleasure. The impersonation is triggered by Appel’s appeal, delivered through an intermediary, to Zuckerman to write an op-ed article on behalf of Israel.

Zuckerman as the porn king Appel provides plenty of material for those who like to see Roth as antifeminist but who thereby miss the point of his fiction. It is a tour de force, a persona adopting a persona—miles away from the real Roth. At his office in the hospital, Bobby Freytag reminisces with Zuckerman for a bit and then tries to talk him out of his scheme. Only the next day, when, under the influence of too much Percodan and vodka, Zuckerman falls and fractures his jaw does the healing begin, in soul as well as body. Zuckerman learns what real pain and loss are as he walks the corridors of the hospital watched over by his friend, who also weans him from his drug addiction. At the end, Zuckerman is a chastened and more altruistic individual, though still deluded into thinking he could change into a radically different person.

The Prague Orgy

The epilogue, The Prague Orgy, shows Zuckerman not as a doctor but as a famous novelist undertaking an altruistic mission on behalf of an émigré Czech writer whose father had written some excellent, unpublished stories in Yiddish. Unfortunately, the Czech’s estranged wife holds the stories but will not release them. Zuckerman manages to fetch them without having to sleep with her, despite her pleas, but the stories are immediately confiscated by the police, who then escort him out of the country (this is pre-1989 Czechoslovakia). Zuckerman thus learns to accept his limitations and to become reconciled to them. He accepts that he will not become “transformed into a cultural eminence elevated by the literary deeds he performs.”

The Counterlife and Deception

In The Counterlife, Nathan Zuckerman and his brother are briefly reunited, mainly so that Roth can explore alternative versions of a fate that first befalls one and then the other. The plot thus doubles back on itself more than once and is too complex for summary treatment. Despite its complexity, the novel is not difficult to follow and is full of surprises that intellectually stimulate as they also amuse the reader. Particularly interesting are the episodes in Israel, where Henry has fled to start a new life, bringing Nathan after him to discover what is going on. Much is going on, including a considerable amount of discussion from characters on the left and right of the political spectrum, with Nathan clearly in the middle. The latter part of the novel finds Nathan in London, married to an English divorcée with a child and trying to come to grips with British anti-Semitism, including some in his wife’s family. Throughout the novel, Roth implicitly and sometimes explicitly raises questions about the nature of fiction and the characters that inhabit it.

He does so, too, in Deception, though in that novel, written almost entirely in dialogue, the experiment takes on a different form. Here, Roth drops his surrogate, Nathan Zuckerman; his main character, present in all the dialogue, is called Philip, who also happens to be a novelist who has written about a character named Zuckerman. Thus Roth seems here to speak in his own voice, though of course he does not, quite: He merely makes the partition separating him from his characters that much thinner, almost to the point of transparency, as when he takes on the critics who claim that when he writes fiction, he does autobiography, and vice versa. The novel is filled with discussions between “Philip” and his lover, who proves to be the woman Nathan married in The Counterlife; thus, much of the talk is naturally about fiction.

Sabbath’s Theater

Roth turned away briefly from his various author personas to write the wickedly funny Sabbath’s Theater, a novel about an aging pornographic puppeteer obsessed with death and socially proscribed forms of sex. Mickey Sabbath’s perverse confessions and the absurd situations Sabbath creates for himself may remind some of Roth’s early novel Portnoy’s Complaint, but whereas Alexander Portnoy was tortured by his conflicting desires to be a model American and to satisfy his sexual longings, there is no such conflict in Sabbath. He revels in his capacity to break bourgeois mores, becoming a cause célèbre for defenders of the First Amendment in the 1950’s, when running his randy street theater resulted in his arrest.

Since that time, he has lived in a small New England town, teaching college drama, until he is forced to resign for sexually harassing female students. Now he is locked in an acrimonious marriage with his wife Roseanna, a recovering alcoholic, and mourning the death of his sexually adventurous mistress Drenka. If Portnoy’s Complaint revolves around Portnoy’s confessions, Sabbath’s Theater revolves around Sabbath’s unapologetic reveling in nastiness. Through Sabbath’s repellent diatribes against the Japanese, women, and self-help groups, Roth draws a figure for whom readers will find little sympathy. Because Sabbath himself seems so thoroughly jaded, many critics have decried the novel’s sentimental turn toward Sabbath’s past, into the death of his much-admired brother in World War II and the resulting demise of his mother, to contextualize Sabbath’s bitterness.

American Pastoral

Roth portrays another bitter and obsessed character in American Pastoral, but in this novel the stakes are higher and the perspective a degree removed. Merry Levov is the stuttering teenage daughter of a beauty queen and a successful assimilated American Jew. She grows up in a prosperous New Jersey suburb in a loving home, the center of her father Swede’s ideal, his “American pastoral.” Then life changes. Merry’s protests against the Vietnam War turn into ever more violent, clichéd complaints against American imperialism, capitalism, bourgeois complacency, and, finally, her family’s own success story. She bombs the town’s post office, killing a well-loved doctor and challenging her father’s understanding of his life and his country. The story is told through her father’s tortured pursuit of both his daughter and the reasons for her rage.

Roth deftly weaves social criticism into this compelling story for an insightful depiction of an entire generation blindsided by the great upheavals of the 1960’s. Zuckerman reappears to interpret Swede Levov’s story as an epic clash between the American innocent pursuing upward mobility and the return of the repressed violence inherent in that American Dream. Merry Levov, Zuckerman says, “transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral—into the indigenous American berserk.”

I Married a Communist

Just as ambitious as American Pastoral, Roth’s next book, I Married a Communist, takes the 1950’s as its historical backdrop. Nathan Zuckerman again acts partly as interpreter and partly as scribe, this time to his former high school teacher, Murray Ringold. Murray tells the story of his brother Ira, a radio actor who was blacklisted during the era of McCarthyism. Ira becomes a populist hero to many, including young Nathan, until his actor wife, exasperated by Ira’s repeated betrayals with other women, exposes him by publishing a tell-all book, I Married a Communist. The book destroys not only Ira’s heroic profile but also his career, for he becomes blacklisted.

The plot of this novel once again alludes to events in Roth’s own life, particularly to his divorce from Claire Bloom. Like the character Eve Frame, Bloom had a talented teenage daughter from an earlier marriage who caused friction in the marriage. Also like Eve Frame, Bloom published a memoir in which she, like Roth in several of his novels, exposed intimate details of their personal life. Ira’s unthinking acceptance of the Communist Party and his subsequent devolution into an angry, bitter cynic give this political novel a decidedly conservative overtone.

The Human Stain

The Human Stain is the final work in the group of novels known as Roth’s American trilogy, which includes American Pastoral and I Married a Communist. Coleman Silk, an African American who passes for white, loses his job as dean at Athena College when he asks the students in his class whether two students who do not attend his class are “spooks.” The two students, who are African American, accuse Silk of having made a racist remark. Nathan Zuckerman, narrator of the tale, befriends Silk and guesses the secret of his true identity. Silk has a much younger mistress, Faunia Farley, whose husband kills both Faunia and Silk by forcing their car off an icy road. At Silk’s funeral, faculty members who earlier distanced themselves from Silk finally speak in his defense. Zuckerman recognizes Silk’s sister at the funeral and from her learns that many of his guesses about Silk’s identity and about the irony of the accusations of racism are correct.

The Dying Animal

The narrator of The Dying Animal is David Kepesh, who also appears in The Professor of Desire and The Breast. Each year, David gets one student in the classes he teaches to become his mistress. Consuela Castillo is one of those mistresses. Years later, she returns to him and says that she faces a partial mastectomy. At the book’s end, she calls him two weeks before she is scheduled for surgery and tells him the doctors have decided that they must remove the entire breast. She is alone and cannot eat. She needs David. At this point, the nameless person to whom David tells his tale advises David not to go. The reader does not know whether David goes. In this book, Roth challenges Kepesh’s emphasis on the body alone while at the same time attacking what he considers to be American prudery.

The Plot Against America

In The Plot Against America, Roth rewrites history, having Charles A. Lindbergh, the famous aviator and American hero, win the office of the U.S. presidency over Franklin D. Roosevelt in the election of 1940. The book focuses on seven-year-old Philip Roth and his family as they react to national events. An older Roth tells of the comfort he feels being an American Jew in Newark, New Jersey, and of the way that feeling changes to discomfort and fear as Lindbergh campaigns and wins the presidency.

During the 1930’s, the historical Lindbergh sympathized with the Nazis, finding their air force especially admirable. While in Germany, he dined with Hermann Göring, Adolf Hitler’s air marshal, who bestowed on Lindbergh the Commander Cross of the Order of the German Eagle. In Roth’s novel, the Lindbergh administration has close ties to Nazi Germany. Even though Lindbergh has as one of his advisers Philip’s uncle by marriage, his mother’s sister’s husband, who is a rabbi and insists that Lindbergh means no harm to the Jews, Lindbergh institutes several anti-Semitic programs. One such program is intended to spread Jews throughout the country in order to dilute their voting power; another is to put Jewish children to work on farms, to make them more like other American children. Philip’s brother Sandy goes to a farm and becomes a supporter of and spokesperson for the program. Philip’s family comes further apart when his cousin Alvin, who lost a leg fighting for the Canadians against the Nazis, and Philip’s father get into a fight because Alvin says he no longer has any concern for the Jews. Philip’s parents are the real heroes of the novel. They protect and provide for their family, give love, and always try to do what they consider best and right in the face of tremendous chaos and evil.

Many critics have insisted that The Plot Against America is Roth’s comment on the presidency of George W. Bush. Roth has denied this, but many critics have refused to accept what Roth says. In any case, Roth seems to have done his homework well. It is fact that in 1940 groups of Americans tried to get Lindbergh to oppose Roosevelt for the presidency, and Lindbergh did more than just flirt with Nazism and anti-Semitism. For many readers, however, the most horrifying fact of the book is not its historical background but that the events are related by a young child who reacts with immaturity and often terror to what is going on around him.


The nameless narrator of Everyman tells of a nameless protagonist who faces the deterioration of his body. This novel is loosely based on a fifteenth century English morality play also called Everyman, in which Death unexpectedly comes to call on Everyman. All worldly things desert him; only Good Deeds will accompany him beyond the grave. Similarly, Roth’s nameless protagonist, who is largely dedicated to serving carnal lust, dies when he least expects it, apparently taking nothing with him beyond the grave.

Over the course of the novel, the protagonist inherits a store that he names Everyman’s Jewelry Store. He marries three times; each of the second two times he marries the woman with whom he has been having an affair while still married to the previous wife. After separating from his third wife, he moves to a retirement home on the New Jersey shore, where he is lonely; he is estranged from his children, except for his daughter who lives in New York. He dies of cardiac arrest during what was supposed to be a minor, safe operation—an operation about which he did not inform his daughter. The book ends without the promise of the possibility of immortality and salvation offered by the medieval play.

Exit Ghost

The title of Exit Ghost echoes stage directions in William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601). The words refer to the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who was murdered by Hamlet’s uncle. The ghost demands that Hamlet avenge the murder. Similarly, in Roth’s book, ghosts from Nathan Zuckerman’s past demand that he avenge the attempt of Richard Kliman to write a biography of one of Zuckerman’s favorite authors, E. I. Lonoff, in which Kliman will expose to the world Lonoff’s supposed incest with his half sister. The title also refers to Zuckerman himself, who is a kind of ghost. Having separated himself from the rest of the world by living in isolation in the Berkshires in Massachusetts and having hardly any relationship with the rest of humankind, he returns to New York for a procedure designed to end his incontinence from a prostate operation that has also rendered him impotent. At the book’s end, he exits Manhattan to return to his rural retreat. The title also refers to Roth’s earlier book The Ghost Writer, in which Zuckerman tells about a visit to Lonoff’s house and his fantasy that Amy Bellette is really Anne Frank, the author of the famous diary.

Zuckerman, now a famous writer, meets a much older Amy Bellette, who is dying from a brain tumor. Zuckerman decides to protect her and the now-deceased Lonoff from Kliman but appears unable to succeed. He also meets Jamie Logon and Billy Davidoff, a married couple who know Kliman. In college, Jamie was Kliman’s mistress, and Zuckerman fantasizes that she still is. Zuckerman finds her tremendously attractive but knows he is physically unable to do anything about his attraction. Finally, he invites Jamie to come to his hotel room, but she refuses. He then flees from New York—the final exit of a ghost from the novel.

Surveying the corpus of Roth’s long fiction, one may conclude that he is a novelist who rarely repeats himself, even as he reworks ideas, issues, and dilemmas and reintroduces characters and locales. This is the essence of the “counterlife” motif that has been present in Roth’s work from the start but became explicit only later on.


Philip Roth Short Fiction Analysis


Roth, Philip (Milton) (Contemporary Literary Criticism)