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A Perspective on Philip Roth’s ‘The Human Stain’ Essay

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Updated: Dec 8th, 2021

Amongst contemporary writers in America, Philip Roth perhaps rates as one of the most gifted and controversial figures. Roth’s The Human Stain has invoked a number of studies and inspired a Hollywood adaptation of his book. The writer’s treatment of human affairs encompasses a number of social and cultural issues, which can be discerned from a reading of the book. Nine years have passed since the publication of The Human Stain and the book is well on its way to being declared a modern American epic. This essay focuses specifically on Roth’s treatment of human frailty with special emphasis on its manifestation of exclusivism and dissimilar treatment of the minorities in America.

Roth uses the “first person voice of the writer Nathan Zuckerman to tell the story of Coleman Silk, a black man who passes for a Jew (Phelan and Rabinowitz 216)”, a professor of classics and dean of faculty at a fictitious Athena College. The story is set in 1990s New England society where cultural conflict and the Clinton-Lewinsky affair loomed as the centerpiece of the decade. Roth deftly uses the contemporary themes of the period to explore the hypocrisy of American society. Race issues figure prominently in Roth’s canvas which he adroitly tells through a series of flashbacks, unraveling Coleman Silk’s life who is in the initial pages accused of racism for calling two of his African American students as ‘spooks’ (Roth 6) for their absence from his classes. The term, ‘spooks’ is deemed racist enough for Silk to be castigated by the society and the college that ultimately leads him to resign from the college. After the death of his wife, Silk engages in an affair with a 34 year old janitor Faunia Farley, who has a Vietnam scarred war veteran for a husband named Les Farley. The flashback style slowly reveals a darker truth regarding Coleman Silk, his real identity. It turns out that Silk for over five decades had passed off as a white Jew when he actually was a black man. The irony of the situation, wherein, a black man stands accused of racism against other black men comes out loud and clear in Roth’s treatment of relativity of social values.

The charge of racism, led by an ambitious academic, Delphine Roux who uses Silk’s affair with Farley as a lynchpin to beat him with, reminds the readers of the efforts of Kenneth Starr whose zeal to get the President impeached shows his relative value system. The ‘dog-eat-dog’ cu throat competition of Middle Class America is starkly portrayed by Delphine Roux whose single-minded denouncement of Coleman Silk point to interests other than the noble defense of poor black men. By implication, Roth is accusing the academicians, the intellectuals and progressives who claim to be enlightened and egalitarian but actually carry deep seated prejudices and stereotypes that self perpetuate throughout the fabric of American society.

By portraying that Silk chooses to hide his identity as a black man, Roth attempts to relay a social message that racism is alive and well in America. Roth’s postulate is that despite civil rights and affirmative action, the Blacks of America continue to be marginalized and feel victimized. This feeling of victimization is so great that a black man is willing to hide his real identity to be accepted in mainstream America. Shostak holds that the central plot of the ‘Spooks’ with its racially charged meaning comes not by accident and that “our histories cause us to betray ourselves (259)”.Here the moral dimension of being yourself and not someone else is sought to be explained, albeit, through Roth’s dark depiction of human nature.

The main theme of racism is generously reinforced by Roth who reminds the readers of a not too distant past. Roth flashes back to the forties and the fifties to emphasize stories of segregation such as that “up until 1947, legally, constitutionally separate, segregated education was approved in New Jersey” (Roth 286). Roth uses the parable of crows to further drive home the point that acceptability of the black man in America was still a distant dream as the following excerpt indicates, “My status crow. Good name for a crow. Status. Good name for anything black and big. Goes with the strut. Status (Roth 168)”. The crow analogy becomes even harder hitting when Roth amplifies the crow story through a crow named Prince, befriended by Faunia, the janitor, lover of Silk encapsulated beautifully in the paragraph- “That’s what comes of being hand-raised,” said Faunia. “That’s what comes of hanging around all his life with people like us. The human stain, (Roth 241)”. The powerful implication, figuratively speaking is the reinforcement of the idea, black, and its relational value to being a human stain.

Others have ascribed Roth’s treatment of human aspirations to a wider canvas than just the narrow scope of racism.

According to Hansen, “Roth speaks suggestively to the challenge social ascription poses to modern subjectivity (40)”. Thus the problems faced by Coleman are required to be studied through the wider ambit of social ambivalence as well as the psychological dimensions of disaggregation of the human personality. Hanson further adds that energy and cruelty are Roth’s operative themes; cruelty because exchanging identities entails sundering hearts” (41). The need to prove one’s self, the need to be accepted thus finds its expression as the ‘other’, a person who does not exist, a person who requires to be created so that Coleman can live his version of the ‘American Dream’. According to Shechner, Roth brutally moulds the character of Coleman Silk as “ a reflex of his history, a man devoted to mainly denying, reversing, projecting, sublimating, blaming, erupting and general amnesia. (Shechner 190)”. The psychopathology of living in America is vividly described by Roth when he narrates Coleman’s thoughts- “he was a nigger and nothing else and he was a Negro and nothing else. No. No. He saw the fate awaiting him, and he wasn’t having it. (Roth 108)”. In the end, the confusion of not being able to maintain a fixed identity eventually overcomes Coleman (Halio and Siegel 172). This recurrent theme drives home the reality of race relations and racial perceptions in America. It is precisely this brutal depiction and overtly exaggerated personalities that abound The Human Stain that make it an object of immense controversy. Reading Roth, a newcomer to America might presume it to be dangerous, fascist country where only the White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPs) are welcome. Here Roth does disservice to the country as the language is harsh and the overall slant of the novel steeped in pessimism and shades of nihilism.

The novel also gives the reader a feeling that in the ‘pursuit of happiness’, Americans, and especially the blacks are willing to go to any lengths including having their black mothers to disown them (Roth 138). This perhaps is one of the most painful and disturbing part of Roth’s narration that one can rationalize as over exaggeration, a Shakespearean drama gone horribly wrong. However, the disturbing imagery makes one think and analyze why Roth chose to pen such a dark portrait. The author of this essay believes that Roth did so to do precisely that, shake people up out of their humdrum existence and take a fresh look at their own society. An admirable ‘shock and awe’ tactic that continues its effect right to the end of the book where Zuckerman leaves the crazed husband of Fiona Farley, Les Farley fishing on a frozen lake that Roth intended to symbolize America. The image of Farley poised over the crack in the ice “with a rod dangling in the unsettled black waters, that in the context of the story, are representative of Black America and its smothered simmering history (Morley 84)” is a riveting conclusion. Roth rounds off by alluding to a ‘secret spot’ which “you don’t tell anybody about e’m, you learn not to say anything” (Roth 348). The allusion here is that every man is vulnerable and in America, vulnerabilities need to be hidden to survive.

In conclusion, it can be reiterated that The Human Stain serves to excite, enrage, and titillate human sensibilities. Roth chooses a wide canvas of human condition which though set in America can be applicable to almost any human society or country as prejudice knows no nationality. The Human Stain could be studied from a variety of different angles. The author of this essay has chosen to focus on the issue of racism and its multifarious social, psychological and cultural dimensions that Roth so vividly portrays in his book. Reading The Human Stain one cannot but help draw a conclusion that racism and dissimilar treatment of the minorities is very much alive and kicking in America. That this exclusivist narrative exists and persists despite affirmative action and administrative reforms is a sad commentary of our times where the words of Rousseau that “man is born free, everywhere he is in chains (Bertram 42)” still hold true not as a socialist mantra but as an object of reality.

Works Cited

Bertram, Christopher. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Rousseau and The Social Contract. Florence, KY: Routledge, 2004.

Halio, JL and Ben Siegel. Turning Up the Flame: Philip Roth’s Later Novels. Delaware: University of Delaware Press, 2005.

Hansen, Jonathan M. The Lost Promise of Patriotism. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Morley, Catherine. The Quest for Epic in Contemporary American Fiction. London: Taylor & Francis, 2008.

Phelan, James and Peter J Rabinowitz. A Companion to Narrative Theory. Singapore: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005.

Roth, Philip. The Human Stain. NY: Vintage International, 2001.

Shechner, Mark. Up Society’s Ass Copper; Rereading Philip Roth. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.

Shostak, Debra B. Philip Roth – Countertext, Counterlives. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

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