The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Nathan Zuckerman is clearly Philip Roth’s alter ego, and the major events in Zuckerman’s career—a Newark youth, study at the University of Chicago, early stories that elicited high praise from literary critics and outrage from Jewish leaders, several serious and stylistically restrained novels focused on Jamesian moral dilemmas, then a notorious and sexually explicit novel of growing up Jewish that made its author a public figure in 1969, and later an interest in Franz Kafka, a visit to Prague, and ties with “Writers from the Other Europe”—certainly reflect those in Roth’s.

Yet autobiography is finally not the point. In Zuckerman, Roth found the perfect vehicle for exploring the conflicts that have plagued all of his characters since Goodbye, Columbus (1959). Those conflicts—between conformity and rebellion, ethnic solidarity and personal identity, public image and private desires, ethical and artistic ideals and mundane realities—underlie each part of the trilogy and determine its overall movement.

Nathan is as complex a character as Roth has ever created, and his complexity lies in both his emotional reaction to these conflicts and his being able to see, even sympathize with, opposing attitudes. Nathan’s father, Doc Zuckerman, for example, is presented with an unfailing sympathy that is almost totally alien to the satiric spirit of much of Roth’s early work. Even Nathan’s most severe critics—Judge Wapter and Milton...

(The entire section is 605 words.)