Darcy's Reviews > The Human Stain

The Human Stain by Philip Roth
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Sep 25, 07

bookshelves: twentieth-century-novels

[warning: spoiler!]

The thing that attracts me about this novel is quite simply how it is told. The narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, is also a character (albeit a relatively minor one although he grows in importance as the story continues). He is not, therefore, omniscient, although this becomes easy to forget. The novel is written as though he were omniscient, and then draws attention to this gap repeatedly at moments where Zuckerman explains who told him what, how he knows certain bits of information, and when he found out about specific details. This slippage isn't accidental. Roth handles the narrative very delicately, repeatedly setting the readers up to prejudge a character before we met him or her. As a result, we find ourselves constantly reevaluating the various people in the novel--attempting to decide over and over again what type of people they are. This is, of course, Roth's point about Coleman Silk--he lives his life as a white man (which is how the reader meets him) only for us to discover that he is black. And we are suddenly forced to rethink our first assessment of him and of our own prejudices and definitions of race and racial identity.

Silk is the most prominent figure in the novel and the one who absorbs most of the reader's focus. When we first meet him he rages constantly about his unfair treatment at the college. As Dean Silk, Coleman was responsible for culling the faculty--getting rid of the deadwood professors and bringing in new staff to reignite the college. He's tough, but respectable. He's a classy guy--adept at making ancient Greek literature seem alive and resonant, even for bored undergraduates. Then he is unfairly accused of being racist and Coleman Silk finds himself friendless and alone.

Much later in the novel, we get the same events, retold through the perspective of Delphine Roux, one of Silk's former colleagues. A Yale graduate, Delphine arrives at Athena College only reluctantly, seeing it as a stepping stone to launch her into a position at one of the ivy leagues. Needless to say, she and Coleman don't get along. They disagree on just about everything, including how literature should be taught and discussed. It is from Delphine's perspective that we learn Silk has little patience for some of his students. When a female student complains that the plays he assigns are degrading to women, Silk responds to Delphine:

"Providing the most naive of readers with a feminist perspective on Euripides is one of the best ways you could devise to close down their thinking before it's even had a chance to begin to demolish a single one of their brainless 'likes'."

This type of switch occurs endlessly in the novel--our expectations of one character are torn away as we switch perspectives and see through the eyes of another. The result is a novel that seemingly lacks a core--a clear narrative thread upon which we can depend. Here, even Nathan Zuckerman's voice is suspect (or perhaps his voice is the most suspect)--there is no authority, there is no single narrative, and there is no reliable account of events. This is a narrative that constantly tempts us, as readers, to draw metaphorical lines in the sand--he's wrong, she's right (Silk is a bastard, Silk is misunderstood)--and yet repeatedly makes this impossible.

For me Roth seems to be questioning, at the very least, what we want out of our literature--characters who are cut and dried, good or bad, about whom it is easy to make a judgment and easy to decide if they've acted correctly or incorrectly. A perfect counterweight here would be Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Or, perhaps another way of thinking about it--Roth is forcing us to question why we read literature--do we want that authorial narrative voice that we lack in our daily lives?
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