Philip Roth’s The Human Stain

I mentioned yesterday that I thought this was a magnificent book and I’ve been looking forward to reviewing it here but, you know what? This one was pretty testing for me. It is such a rich, layered, enigmatic book that it’s hard to know where to begin, and to do it a least a semblance of justice I have to give away one of its secrets. It’s a secret that’s revealed within the narrative by page 85, so I don’t think I’d spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the novel, but you should know that this is going to happen.

So, the story concerns Coleman Silk, the powerful Classics professor and Dean of Athena College, a man on the verge of retirement who has made a significant reputation for himself by entirely reinvigorating the university, and who has always been prepared to act when others would merely stand by. This powerful and respected man one day takes the register in a class for which two students have consistently failed to show up, and he asks, ‘Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?’ When it transpires that the students in question are black, Coleman finds himself up against a ludicrous but tenacious charge of racism. He is accused, judged, dishonoured and in an act of furious frustration, he resigns. His wife suffers a fatal heart attack, brought on Coleman believes, by the stress of the incident, and after her death he approaches the narrator of this tale, a writer living in solitary splendour locally, Nathan Zuckerman, to write the story of his wholly unjust dismissal. This is the narrative that we are reading, only Zuckerman’s brief undergoes a radical change. The two men become friends but then Zuckerman finds himself strangely dropped. This coincides with an extraordinary love affair that Coleman embarks upon with a damaged but resilient 34-year old woman, Faunia Farley, a cleaner at the college and farmhand at a local cooperative who is rebuilding her life after a disastrous marriage to an ex-Vietnam vet. I found the story of Les Farley and his endless (failed) attempts to live a normal, sane life following on from his experiences in the war to be a fairly devastating read, and in his failure to reintegrate within society or master his murderous impulses, he is a constant, shadowy menace within the story. He will eventually be a major catalyst in the final catastrophe.

Roth is not kind to the America of 1998 when this tale is set, when Bill Clinton is being disgraced also in the White House; ‘if you haven’t lived through 1998 you don’t know what sanctimony is,’ Zuckerman tells us, and the self-righteous moral indignation that condemns Coleman for a racial crime he didn’t commit, is about to strike once again at his relationship with an illiterate, much younger, piece of trailer trash (Coleman is 71). But prejudice, narrow-mindedness and intolerance have played a far greater role in Coleman’s life than even these two incidents suggest, for he has a secret which he has been keeping since early adulthood, and that is, extraordinarily, that he is black. Of course to say he’s black is a corporeal inaccuracy if a racial certainty. He is sufficiently light-skinned to pass for a white man, and after a bruising experience at a black college and the death of his father, Coleman decides to reinvent himself by joining the Navy as white. It’s a lie that will eventually lead him to repudiate his much loved family and make a questionable choice of marriage partner. Roth is brilliant at explaining everything to us and at the same time repeatedly questioning and undermining the cleverly written meditations on motivation that he gives us. Having Nathan Zuckerman as our narrator cunningly distances us from the sense of certainty we might have experienced had Coleman been the narrator. Instead we think we understand his reasons, only to be reminded that Zuckerman is reconstructing his past. This sense of considering people’s behaviour from the outside is extremely important and one of the main preoccupations of the story, so hold that thought, I’ll be coming back to it. Anyhow, this life-altering decision to deny his race is presented to us as a desperate need for freedom from identity constraints:

‘he went off to Washington and, in the first month, 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. Grasped it intuitively and recoiled spontaneously. You can’t let the big they impose its bigotry on you any more than you can let the little they become a we and impose its ethics on you. […] Never for him the tyranny of the we that is dying to suck you in, the coercive, inclusive, historical, inescapable moral we with its insidious E pluribus unum.’

Ouch – Roth never flinches from the harshest of language to tell his story, nor from the cruelest of insights. Coleman sacrifices his family and his roots for his dream of an ideal self, freed from the shackles of prejudice, only to find himself smack up against it at the end of his illustrious life, only to find intolerance destroying that life purposefully and comprehensively. As I said yesterday, his nemesis is the supercharged, neurotic French intellectual, Delphine Roux, whose grasp of postmodernism may be sure, but her relationship to sexuality disastrous. Roux is aware of her own qualities and wants a partner to be her equal; yet she is over-conscious of how her mental brilliance might well be horribly intimidating. Running from the shadow of an overachieving mother, she has isolated herself in America, a culture she doesn’t understand and that doesn’t properly appreciate her. Her relationship to Coleman is fraught and frustrating as it is based, on her side at least, by an underlying sexual tension that, because it cannot be translated into action, becomes distorted into a sense of male threat. Coleman’s refusal to acknowledge feminism (or any ism), and his dislike of Delphine give her the kind of easy, unthinking axe to grind that this story is out to expose as a serious danger to society. When she hears of his relationship to Faunia Farley, Delphine is outraged: ‘when she read of the illiteracy that limited Faunia to performing only the most menial of janitorial tasks, she understood that Coleman Silk had managed to unearth no less than a misogynist’s heart’s desire […] the perfect woman to crush. For whoever at Athena had ever dared to affront his preposterous sense of prerogative, Faunia Farley would now be made to answer.’ Whilst we can follow Delphine’s reasoning we can also watch her make her big mistake. Those who point the finger, those who imagine the worst of others, those quick to see fire when there is only smoke, are simply revealing the unpleasant contents of their own minds. If we were in any doubt of this, Delphine follows this up with a foolish and vindictive anonymous letter: ‘Everyone knows you’re sexually exploiting an abused, illiterate woman half your age.’

And this is where the narrative grips its characters by the throat and gives them a good shaking. ‘Everyone knows…. How what happens the way it does? What underlies the anarchy of the train of events, the uncertainties, the mishaps, the disunity, the shocking irregularities that define human affairs? Nobody knows, Professor Roux. “Everyone knows” is the invocation of cliché and the beginning of the banalization of experience, and it’s the solemnity and the sense of authority that people have in voicing the cliché that’s so insufferable. What we know is that, in an unclichéd way, nobody knows anything.’

So here is where we reach the tangled nexus of this intricate, clever, desperate novel. Coleman Silk’s reputation is destroyed, his happiness threatened, his livelihood taken away from him for the most ridiculous of charges. Then his relationship with a woman, because it is unconventional, is treated to the full blast of cultural Puritanism, again without grounds. But underlying these unreasonable attacks on his character, beneath these stupid, brainless accusations of acts he did not commit, is an unthinkable, and incomprehensible act: the renunciation of family, race, roots. Why did he do it? The narrative presents us with a wholly plausible explanation, and a sympathetic one, but for all that Nathan Zuckerman will fight to have Silk’s name cleared and to restore his reputation, his retelling of Coleman Silk’s life is a fiction the same as any other.

All that remains incontrovertible is the ‘human stain’ of the title, the bodily traces we cannot deny, the tiny details about Coleman that mean he is thrown out of the brothel as a black man in his early Navy days, the blood that Faunia Farley cannot scrub clean from a house where a man has committed suicide, the urine that Nathan notices, unhappily, has seeped from his incontinence pad after cancer treatment has taken this little dignity from him: ‘we leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint. Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen – there’s no other way to be here. Nothing to do with disobedience. Nothing to do with grace or salvation or redemption. It’s in everyone. Indwelling. Inherent. Defining. The stain that is there before its mark. Without the sign it is there. The stain so intrinsic it doesn’t require a mark. The stain that precedes disobedience, that encompasses disobedience and perplexes all explanation and understanding.’ Oh Mr Roth how you play with me with your tantalizing and complex statements, but if I’m reading him right, then this whole book is a vehement protest against this obsession we have with whether we are pure or impure, and with the aggressive policies our society creates to attach irrelevant moral stances to the notion of purity. How can we possibly subscribe to this system of value when a moment’s thought will assure us that we are irrevocably impure, always already stained in any number of ways, at any number of levels? Human beings are hopelessly flawed from the very outset, so why this ludicrous insistence on segregation and judgment, on accusation and sanctimony, when at the same time wars like Vietnam get fought, whose truly ghastly consequences it seems expedient for society to overlook.

And yet, at the same time, everything we do does leave a trace behind, and from these traces, we interpret and reconstruct, and build the immense scaffolding of knowledge that sometimes provides us with pleasure and mastery, and is sometimes nothing but damaging lies. Roth is far too smart, far too insightful to shy away from the inherent ambiguity of his own thinking. He shows us how Nathan Zuckerman’s fiction is a kind of reconstruction from the traces that we prefer because it is compassionate, and intelligent and sympathetic. But it springs from the same impulses as Delphine Roux’s face-saving accusations and the thoughtless condemnation of Coleman’s colleagues. It is impossible to disentangle judgment from interpretation, but the latter we need and rely on, whilst the former we abuse and discredit. Oh this is a magnificent book with hard, negative implications for our vacuous and ignorant society, and for all his playing with the instability of interpretation, Roth doesn’t say a word that isn’t the truth. Now this is the kind of book they really ought to be reading in school.


11 thoughts on “Philip Roth’s The Human Stain

  1. Litlove, this is an extraordinary commentary on an extraordinary novel. It makes me want to reread it and of course I only recently did read it. How many threads there are which I was suddenly reminded of by you. I was intrigued by how society requires certain immense sacrifices for which the individual pays the price, Les, his wife, Coleman, all his family, while the powerful, like Clinton, seem able to escape. It all depends on the vested interests of the judging group at the time. I also liked how he rooted this novel in the very originating stories of Western tradition. The story of Coleman, Faunia and Les is clearly linked to Homer’s ‘Illiad’ at the start and Coleman’s father uses the names from classical Rome, via Shakespeare, for his children, Coleman being Brutus I think, ‘the noblest Roman of them all’? Of course, this recourse to classic tradition, Homer and Shakespeare, serves one of Roth’s views on literature if we take it he’s in Coleman’s camp. As you say, we aren’t spared about the human condition, and the lustful centrality beneath everything underpinning Homer’s narrative in Coleman’s telling, sex, power and prestige, is still there. That’s another point he seems to be making and another link to the tradition and the traditional way of reading it. As you say it is an immensely rich read on all fronts and thanks for your clear and thought-provoking account.

  2. Dorothy – that’s good news as I’m certainly planning on reading more Roth! Bookboxed – no, thank you so much for the recommendation. It was just a fantastic book. You’ve raised several issues in your comment that I hadn’t thought about enough – the difference between Clinton and the general run of humanity, and in particular that intertextual play with the classics, which is a brilliant point that I hadn’t paid attention to at all. Thank you for enriching my reading! Kelly – thankyou and welcome to the site! Booksplease – I’d love to know what you think of it if you do read it.

  3. Wow, now I am really going to have to read this book. Didn’t it get made into a movie a few years ago? It would be interesting to see what they did with it compared to the book.

  4. Thanks for the essay. It has drawn my attention to some points I didn’t realize during readin the novel. It is important to me so I will make some citations from it in my Master Thesis about Roth.

  5. Yes, the movie stars Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman back in 2003. I’ve passed by the DVD many times but for some reasons, didn’t pick it up all these year. I guess reading it should be more intriguing than watching the film, from what you’ve described here. I’ve read several of Roth’s works, and found him, as you said, “… never flinches from the harshest of language to tell his story…” Thanks for a thorough review!

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