Philip Roth Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

What aspects of Philip Roth’s early fiction could have caused such a vigorous opposition to it by the conservative Jewish community?

Is the charge against Roth of being a self-hating Jew credible?

What is the basis for much of Philip Roth’s humor?

How accurate is Roth’s portrayal of the United States in the post-World War II period in his “American Trilogy”?

In some of his novels, Roth introduces himself as a character. How effective is this device?

Roth has sometimes been criticized as an antifeminist because of his portraits of women. Is the charge justified? If so, how?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Philip Roth has published a number of novels, many of which were excerpted as self-contained short stories in various magazines. He has written essays of literary criticism and social commentary, dramatic works for stage and screen, and book-length works of autobiography. He also served as general editor of the Penguin series “Writers from the Other Europe” (1975-1989).


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Philip Roth is first and foremost a consummate storyteller. Whether the genre is short fiction, novel, or autobiography, and whether the subject matter is serious, comic, or somewhere in between, Roth’s great narrative power entertains readers. This ability to spellbind his audience stems from Roth’s seemingly effortless command of the English language and his remarkable agility of mind as he maintains a rapid pace of invention, action, and ideas. These talents have been recognized by numerous critics. In addition to his 1959 National Book Award for Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories, Roth has won the Paris Review’s Aga Khan Award (1958) for “Epstein,” a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant (1959), a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship (1959), the Daroff Award, offered by the Jewish Book Council of America (1960; also for Goodbye, Columbus and Five Other Stories), and an O. Henry second-prize award (1960) for “Defender of the Faith.” He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1969. Both The Counterlife (1986) and Patrimony: A True Story (1991) won the National Book Critics Circle Award (1987 and 1992, respectively), and in 1991 Roth was awarded the National Arts Club Medal of Honor for Literature. Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993) won the PEN/Faulkner Award, Sabbath’s Theater (1995) won the National Book Award, and American Pastoral (1997) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. He has been awarded honorary doctorates by Dartmouth College, Brandeis University, Columbia University, Rutgers University, and other universities.

Roth has also been heavily criticized over the years. Critics accuse him of wasting his talent on a limited, self-absorbed vision of the world, having a sexist attitude toward women, portraying Jews in an unflattering light, and being needlessly pessimistic. While these charges may or may not have validity, no one doubts Roth’s skills as a wordsmith. Moreover, the continuing appeal of Roth’s work indicates that his apparent aimlessness and moral anguish reflect deeply felt trends in contemporary life.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Five of Philip Roth’s short stories are collected along with his novella Goodbye, Columbus in a volume bearing that title (1959). A number of his essays, interviews, and autobiographical pieces appear in Reading Myself and Others (1975). Roth’s unproduced screenplay The Great American Pastime was anthologized in 1968, and several of his works, including Goodbye, Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, and The Human Stain, have been adapted to film by others. In 1975, Roth began editing a series called Writers from the Other Europe for Penguin Books, to which he contributed several introductions. The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography appeared in 1988, and Patrimony: A True Story, a memoir of his father’s life, was published in 1991. In 2001, Roth published Shop Talk: A Writer and His Colleagues and Their Work; seven of the ten chapters in this work are conversations that Roth had with other important authors, such as Primo Levi, Aharon Appelfeld, Milan Kundera, and Mary McCarthy.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Philip Roth emerged as a leading Jewish American writer when his first published book, Goodbye, Columbus, won the National Book Award in 1960. Many of his subsequent works have involved Jewish characters and specifically Jewish American dilemmas; novels such as Portnoy’s Complaint, The Counterlife, and Operation Shylock, in particular, involve characters struggling to reconcile their desires to be fully American during the age of American triumphalism with their deeply ingrained sense of separateness. More than a touch of local color, Roth’s depictions of Jewish communities form a base from which to spin—and unspin—national and personal narratives. Along with contemporary writers such as John Barth and Norman Rush, Roth has created some of American literature’s most memorable and most self-conscious storytellers: the angst-ridden Alexander Portnoy, the irrepressible Nathan Zuckerman, and the outwardly controlled, inwardly crumbling Swede Levov.

Roth’s special concern in his work is the relationship between writer and subject, which is often closely drawn from his own personal life. His fictional accounts of smothering Jewish mothers, harried Jewish fathers, and illicit love affairs involving Jews in his early work made him notorious among the conservative Jewish establishment during the 1970’s. Subsequent depictions of family relationships bearing a close resemblance to his own drew fire from his ex-wife Claire Bloom, among others. In his later work, Roth has brilliantly presented the...

(The entire section is 635 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Baumgarten, Murray, and Barbara Gottfried. Understanding Philip Roth. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. Interpretation and discussion of Roth’s fiction. Includes a bibliography and index.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Philip Roth. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. A good study of Roth’s fiction. Includes a bibliography and index.

Cooper, Alan. Philip Roth and the Jews. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996. A carefully researched examination and consideration of Roth’s work, his biography, and Roth’s political views which are evident in his writing.


(The entire section is 758 words.)