Review: Philip Roth – The Human Stain

The Human StainThe Human Stain by Philip Roth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the third part of Philip Roth’s American Trilogy. My review of the first part, American Pastoral, may be found here; my review of the second part, I Married a Communist, here.

Though the three works of Roth’s American Trilogy are only loosely connected, it’s worthwhile – perhaps even necessary – to consider this work in the light of its predecessors, if only in terms of its structure and the way in which Roth deals with his themes. Bear with me for a moment – I’ll get onto the work itself in a couple of paras.

Structurally, we again have the narrator telling the story of a particular individual. In the first work of the trilogy, American Pastoral, the narrator is a central character early on in the work itself, but primarily as an observer, a stagehand who sets out the scenery for themes that are to come, after which he largely absents himself. In the second, I Married a Communist, the narrator intrudes considerably more, often in an unsatisfying, even confusing fashion. This, perhaps more than anything, makes the second work marginally the worst of the trilogy. In the third, the narrator blends in far better. Though a friend of the main character, he is a friend to him only briefly. The narrator justifies his presence as the teller of the tale, but does not intrude himself upon the narrative.

Thematically, if American Pastoral focuses upon the Vietnam war and opposition to it, I Married a Communist the witch hunts of the McCarthy era, The Human Stain focuses upon sex and race. Race has no political event shadowing it bar occasional references, but sex is shadowed by the Clinton scandals. That said, it does only shadow the narrative and, unlike in the previous two works, has no direct impact upon it. The event that does is the Vietnam war once more. However, there are race and sex as subjects in the broader social arena throughout to provide the narrative with its conflict. As with the previous two works, society plays its role in in the work as a major protagonist.

Our central character this time around is one Coleman Silk. He is a former academic, highly respected in his university in his time, even feared. One day, at the start of a lecture, he wonders aloud whether two students on his list, always absent from class, may not be ‘spooks’. His meaning was that there was something ethereal about them in their presence on his list but absence from the class. However, it turns out that both students are black. A complaint is made citing the question as a racial slur. In an echo of the plight of the central character’s betrayal by all around him in I Married a Communist, no one wants to be besmirched by the stain of racism, and so no one – including black academics Silk had himself hired – comes to his defence. Rather than apologise for something he has not done, Silk resigns his post in disgust.

This established, Roth – through the narrator – throws us off completely. He goes back into Silk’s history, in which it is revealed that Silk himself is of mixed race, a coloured man, (and heaven knows in writing this I know Silk’s plight; please, people, if I get the terminology wrong, sorry, it’s not a racial slur, just I’m a Brit and I don’t know the current state of play with these things), a coloured man, then, who could pass as white and has, indeed, chosen to do so.

In his school days he established himself as a good boxer, but already we see something in this of a stereotype established. The fact that he, personally, happens to excel at it is undeniable, but it is, nonetheless, something which may be seen too readily as a role. At his father’s insistence, he goes on to higher education in an all-black establishment where at once he feels out of place given his skin colour and the blatancy of the ‘blackness’ of the institution while, on the other, for association with the university in a large metropolis, he is himself subjected to his first racial abuse from the white population in the area.

With his father’s death and his governance of the family lifted, Silk decides to leave the college and joins the army instead. When it comes to filling in his personal details in the enlistment foms, he ticks the box marked ‘White’.

After an attempt to introduce a girlfriend to his family goes awry – she believes him to be white, he does not prepare her for the truth – he decides to abandon his heritage altogether. If he is to marry, to have children, then his mother, his family will never know them. His brother, in anger, banishes him from the family altogether. He may now no longer even change his mind, not that we are given any reason to believe he may have done so.

When he does indeed marry and have children, he invents an entirely new background for himself to cover his history. His children are not even party to their own heritage and, as is pointed out, that is a dangerous game to play. Should his daughter marry, bear a child to a white husband, and her black heritage shows itself, then the ructions this could cause – a white wife of a white husband bearing a mixed-race child – are obvious. In any case, though it is not stated, Silk is not permitting his own children to make – or not to make – the decision for themselves as to how to deal with their own heritage. They are not living in denial; they are living in ignorance.

As it is, Silk becomes increasingly estranged from his children, now adult, through the ‘spooks’ incident, as his obsession with it proves so great a strain on his wife, (or so we may assume), that she dies with the stress of defending him. That, and his own deep-rooted obsession with the incident itself, leave his children with no avenue in on him as he isolates himself in his sense of being wronged.

This is a fascinating set-up. Throughout, we are driven to feel sympathy with Silk, and yet – in reality – does he deserve it? Is he truly a good man, a victim of political correctness, and that’s it? What of the way he treated his own mother in order to follow his own dream of being – effectively – colourless? What of his children? The narrator tells us these things, but rarely throws direct emphasis upon them. It is all too easy to see Coleman as the victim and not as someone, in his own way, ruthless. Then again, it is easy to luxuriate in the idea of his ruthlessness for those of us not born with such an artificial societal stigma. What may we ourselves do to escape it? The moral ambiguity here is immense, and Roth lays it out for us to resolve for ourselves. Perhaps the only way we can do so is to make the obvious pronouncement. It is a mess, and an unnecessary one. A foolish one. A mess that derives from an entirely false construct of race with no bearing upon reality save the reality that construct itself creates in the society which fosters it.

Roth leaves us largely alone to disentangle from this the moral questions that arise, and there are many. For example, may Silk’s decision itself be regarded as a racist act, albeit one motivated by the desire simply to be rid of the issue altogether? Is it for us to lay an obligation upon him to stand up for what he truly is, or are we to permit him to make his decision to simply lead the life he wants to lead without the intrusion of prejudice, to make what he can of himself as himself, and not as a man of mixed heritage? If we conclude his to be a racist decision in implicitly regarding his own heritage negatively, is the accusation made against him later ironic justice? Or is it merely a sign of yet another malaise itself not to be applauded as political correctness stigmatises an innocent man in what, at times, can itself become a witch hunt?

As an aside, I have had to deal with this issue myself in a recently completed short story in which a homosexual attempts to lead a normal life, not in the manner of Silk by denying his sexuality, but simply by being open about who he is without campaigning, fighting, arguing, or debating it; simply getting on with things. His failure to succeed in doing so in the face of the bigotry that inevitably arises raises a parallel question; does being the victim of prejudice pretty-much oblige the victim to fight whether he or she chooses to do so or not?

Relief from Silk’s self-torture comes through sex. Now in his early-seventies, he meets Faunia, a woman in her mid-thirties. Through her, he loses the isolationism he has built up around himself, begins to live again, but in opening that door, more comes in than just Faunia. She brings with her a lot of baggage. A woman from a good home originally, she ran away from it before completing her education while in her teens given her stepfather’s abuse. What followed was a squalid life involving prostitution and, later, marriage to a violent vet from the Vietnam war suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. When she abandoned him and took the children with her, the children died in a house fire while she was outside having sex with a man in his van. The vet, Farley, who had been stalking her, rushes into the building to save the children and, inevitably, in his grief at their death, he blames Faunia, and his obsession with her and her lovers, and his stalking of her, intensifies.

Meanwhile, an erstwhile colleague of Silk’s particularly resentful of him – the suggestion being that she, herself, was interested in him sexually – hears about the affair and uses it to further blacken his name.

In spite of all this, overall, Silk is happier than he has been for some time with Faunia until Farley plans an accident for Silk and Faunia both, running their car off the road late one night when the couple had been out for the evening.

The story does not end there. Roth cleverly ties the work up with two revisited characters. The first is Silk’s sister whom he meets at Silk’s funeral, and through her we are reminded of the family’s sacrifice in Silk’s decision to deny his heritage in the first place. Roth does not lay this on thickly, the narrator still finds his sympathies lying primarily with Silk himself, but he – unwittingly, it seems – takes us back to that fact and makes it stark for us.

It is with the second encounter, though, that we are reminded of something the narrator states and re-states throughout the work. So much of what he’s writing, as in the other two works of the trilogy, is conjectural in the portrait of the central character. We are confused as to what is true, what is conjecture throughout with constant reminders that the narrator truly doesn’t know what he’s talking about, in this final work more than in its predecessors where it is rarely so blatantly stated. This is sharply underlined in this second encounter, where the person truly does, in so many ways, seem to differ from the one presented in the work, and where so much of the narrator’s response to him appears to derive from the narrator’s own imagination.

The second is Farley. The narrator is driving out to Silk’s sister in order to meet the brother who forbad Silk any further contact with is family. It is a strange section of narrative, but perfectly judged. The reader believes he or she is about to be taken still further into the Silk mystery, the Silk history, but not a bit of it. The narrator does not recount the meeting, though we may be confident it took place. Instead, he is distracted by seeing the van Farley drives parked by a deserted road and goes out into the snow to investigate. He finds Farley out in the countryside, in an area of unspoiled nature, ice-fishing in a lake. There is some cat-and-mouse between Farley and the narrator. The narrator is in an anxious position with this man given that Farley may well know him for a friend of Silk’s and they are out here in the wilderness, alone. It is, however, in the portrait Farley paints of himself, of the natural world around him, that Roth present’s the work’s summation. Farley has isolated himself, as the narrator has isolated himself, as Silk, for a while, isolated himself, living apart from society as much as he is able, living in pristine nature when he can, alone. There is something here of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy in his choice. Man, kept separate from nature by the artifice of society, is no longer able to be himself. His own nature lies within the natural world as surely as does that of an animal in a zoo. He has been displaced and taken from himself by modern society. It is easy to see in Falrey and the things he says Rousseau’s ideal and, perhaps, the ideal of Roth in the story throughout.

However, that would not appear to be correct in considering the work more deeply. This is not about society and societal ills. This is about being human, The Human Stain. It is not isolating oneself away from society that provides the answer and getting back to nature but, rather, isolation from people themselves. However primitive the society, there are pressures that will pervert us away from our true selves. Those pressures come from other people. We become what we become through other people and their actions, whether it be personal relationships or societal pressures, and through them, in defining ourselves, we lose our true natures.

And yet, what is that true nature? The narrator himself, by the end of the work, decides to eschew his own isolationism as he realises it is not the solution, though he doesn’t state why. What I believe Roth underlines here is the fact that we define ourselves in relation to others and society’s construction of us and that takes us away from ourselves, yes; but without those others, what is there to define? Man is a social animal. How is it possible, then, for someone to be himself or herself while walking away from society any more than it was possible for Silk to be himself by becoming white when that involved walking away from his own family, his own roots, and denying his new family their own identity?

This, then, is the human stain.

This is a pessimistic work in so many ways. It is also an immensely realistic work insofar as, like life, it gives us so much to think about while offering no solutions.

An excellent work.

2 thoughts on “Review: Philip Roth – The Human Stain

  1. Pingback: Review: Philip Roth – American Pastoral | Pete Marchetto

  2. Pingback: Review: Philip Roth – I Married a Communist | Pete Marchetto

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