Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 613

From the beginning, Roth has been preoccupied with the useful and useless fictions people seem compelled to invent to get along. Sometimes seriously, sometimes hilariously, he has chronicled the wounds of the casualties strewn over the battlefield separating men’s and women’s actual and ideal selves—the battlefield where their fictions turn...

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From the beginning, Roth has been preoccupied with the useful and useless fictions people seem compelled to invent to get along. Sometimes seriously, sometimes hilariously, he has chronicled the wounds of the casualties strewn over the battlefield separating men’s and women’s actual and ideal selves—the battlefield where their fictions turn on them; where they are torn apart by the struggle between who they are, what they feel, and who they are supposed to be, what they are supposed to feel.

Beginning with My Life as a Man (1975), Roth has pursued his explorations of this struggle in the context of conflicts between life and art. In “Salad Days,” the first part of My Life as a Man, he introduced the character of Nathan Zuckerman. There, Nathan was a pampered Jewish son and a precocious undergraduate English major with literary ambitions, whose story ended with a warning that “he would begin to pay . . . for the contradictions: the stinging tongue and the tender hide, the spiritual aspirations and the lewd desires, the softy boyish needs and the manly, magisterial ambitions.” In “Courting Disaster (or Serious in the Fifties),” the second part of My Life as a Man, he was a University of Chicago graduate student and instructor so enamored of the challenging moral complexities of the Great Books, so caught up in his own contradictory impulses that he managed to trap himself into one of the most disastrous marriages in contemporary American fiction. In the final part of My Life as a Man, “My True Story,” Roth introduced another alter ego, Peter Tarnopol, the “author” of the two Zuckerman stories. Through Tarnopol’s true story—and the relationships between it and his “useful fictions”—Roth investigated the relationship between autobiography and fiction in a revealing and provocative new way.

In The Professor of Desire (1977), the emphasis shifts, but the relationship between the lives invented by writers (Chekhov, Kafka, Robert Musil) and the life the protagonist and title character is trying to live is at the heart of his struggles. In A Philip Roth Reader (1980), which Roth himself edited, this ongoing theme is summed up in the title for one group of his selections: “Literature Got Me into This and Literature Is Gonna Have to Get Me Out.”

The problem is that in the lives of Roth’s characters, literature invariably does the former and inevitably fails to do the latter. For the early and later versions of Nathan Zuckerman (as for Peter Tarnopol and David Kepesh, the protagonist of The Professor of Desire), the order and moral seriousness of art are as much temptation as vocation. Trying to live by fiction, each discovers that the world’s disorder is not subject to the artist’s control, that moral seriousness is easier to carry off in art than in life. Paradoxically, while their own lives and choices are shaped by books, Roth’s protagonists—modernists all—reject the pleas of those who tell them that images in books matter, that what they write may have real consequences for real people, including themselves.

Roth has described the subject of Zuckerman Bound as “the moral consequences of the literary career of Nathan Zuckerman,” or “the unintended consequences of art.” The consequences vary—for Zuckerman, for his family and his community, for E. I. and Hope Lonoff, for Zdenek and Olga Sisovsky—but in Zuckerman Bound, there are consequences that theories of “art for art’s sake” refuse to recognize. In this Bildungsroman, spanning twenty years, Nathan learns the hard way that this is true. This point is underlined by the fact that The Ghost Writer is narrated by Nathan in 1976—after he has returned from Prague.

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