Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth

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Sabbath's Theater Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Sabbath’s Theater is a story about a man at the end of his rope, a man for whom life is a punishment. He is shown in the last stages of that life, when he has to decide whether he will continue to live or whether he should commit suicide. Morris (Mickey) Sabbath is a sixty-four-year-old former puppeteer and a sexual deviant consumed by lust. His life revolves around one aberrant sexual exploit after another. In the 1950’s, he runs a puppet theater opposite the gates of Columbia University in New York City. He uses his fingers as puppets and as a vehicle for fondling young girls in his audience. He is caught, and an indecency charge is filed against him. Sometime soon after, his first wife Nikki disappears without a trace. Disconsolate, he leaves New York with his lover Roseanna for the quiet and simplicity of a small Massachusetts town.

Sabbath, however, is incapable of leading a simple life. Very quickly, he finds a way to complicate it. Although he secures a job directing theater at a local college, his career is cut short when he is forced to resign over a scandal with a coed. During these years in Massachusetts, Roseanna, now his wife, becomes an alcoholic. Living with Sabbath is too much for her. He destroys her sense of well-being and confidence and makes her life a hell. She becomes the target of his frustration and despair. Even when she is recovering, he goads her mercilessly.

When he finds his home life no longer appealing, Sabbath becomes involved in an adulterous affair with an exotic and powerful Croatian American woman, Drenka Balich, who with her husband owns the local inn. With Sabbath’s encouragement, she develops erotic needs that know no bounds. She is not only promiscuous but also unquenchable. Sabbath encourages her to have affairs with other men and then to describe them in detail to him. Much of Sabbath’s sexual pleasure comes from listening to these descriptions. However, the book takes a tragic turn when Drenka develops cancer. Her slow and painful death leaves him a desperate man capable of anything, including suicide.

The plot unfolds in a series of powerful flashbacks to various moments in his life that deal with major personal losses. The first of those is an experience from Sabbath’s years as a teenager. His beloved older brother Morty enlisted during World War II, became a pilot, and was shot down and killed by the Japanese in 1944. Morty’s death...

(The entire section is 641 words.)