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The Human Stain (The American Trilogy, #3)
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message 1: by Kristel (last edited Aug 29, 2020 08:59AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kristel (kristelh) | 4143 comments Mod
Discussion for The Human Stain by Philip Roth
BOTM, popular vote September 2020.

Reviews go here; https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/...


Kristel (kristelh) | 4143 comments Mod
Philip Roth
In 1997 Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral.
In 1998 he received the National Medal of Arts at the White HOuse and in 2002 the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The Gold Medal in Fiction. He twice won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He won the Pen/Faulkner Award 3 times. In 2005, The Plot against America received the Society of American Historians Prize for outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003-2004. He won PENS most prestigious awards; The PEN/Nabokov Award and the PEN/Bellow Award. He was the 4th recipient of the Man Booker International Prize. He died in 2018.

Gail already gave us an intro to Philip Roth and it is without saying he was an award winning author.

1. Why does Roth Begin the novel by establishing the parallel story of the public scandal over Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky--a scandal that "revived the American's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure; The ecstasy of sanctimony" pg 2. How are Clinton's and Silk's stories similar? In what ways does this contect extend the novel's scope beyond one man's experience to a larger critique of late 20th century American culture?

2. What Causes Coleman Silk's downfall? What do we learn about Silk's past, that the colleagues have no knowledge? How does this change his disgrace? His Coleman responsible in any way for his own destruction?

3. What motives does Delphine Roux have for orchestrating the attack on Coleman Silk? Is she aware of her motivation? What discrepancies are revealed between the public position and her emotional struggles?

4. Why do Coleman's colleagues fail to defend him? Why do educated academics trained to weigh evidence and complex subtleties readily believe the absurd tales concocted to disgrace Coleman? Why does Ernestine describe Athena College as a hotbed of ignorance? pg 328.

5. What draws Coleman and Faunia together? What do they offer each other. How is their relationship different from what others imagine it to be? Why is Coleman able to reveal his secret to her?

6. Throughout the novel, characters are portrayed as caricatures through a set of preexisting and clichŽd stories--Coleman is the racist professor and lecherous old man who takes advantage of a woman half his age; Faunia Farley is the na•ve and helpless victim; Les Farley is the crazed, abusive husband. How does the real story of each of these characters defy or complicate these simplifications?

7. How are the characters (Coleman, Faunia, Les) controlled by the past?

8. After the funeral, pg 333; what is Roth saying about the limits of our ability really to know one another? At what points in the novel does this problem arise?

9. Why would Faunia feign illiteracy? Why this flaw? What are the implications of her secret?

10. In what way does The Human Stain resist this conventional need for closure? How does it alter the classical unities of beginning, middle, and end?

11. Les Farley, Vietnam vet is menacing, angry character, whose stream of consciousness rants reflect some of the most powerful writing in the book. What kind of mental and emotional damage has the war done to him? How has it changed who is? What are the implications of Les's being the instrument of Coleman's destruction?

12. Discuss the parable of the crow, Prince, who can't live among other crows. How does this explain the novel's title?

13. Coleman Silk is a professor ancient Greek and Roman Lit, the novel abounds in classical references. What do the allusions add to the novel. How are the Greek tragedy such as hubris, the hero's fall, retribution, and ritual cleansing relevant to the action of the novel?

14. In what sense is the entire novel about revealing and concealing secrets?

15. How does the novel tell the story of moral ethos of America at the end of the 20th century? What does the novel reveal about the complexities of issues such as race, sex, identity, and privacy?

16. Thoughts? Did you like it? Does it belong on the list. If you've read other Roths novels, what is your favorite?


George P. | 495 comments I'll just write a quick note now and hopefully post more later. I got an early start and finished The Human Stain in late August.
This was my 2rd P Roth novel, and I think my favorite of these. The others I've read were American Pastoral and Portnoy's complaint.
I thought the characters in Human Stain were the best-drawn and most realistic of the three novels, and the most complex. Coleman Silk is a particularly engaging and interesting character.
Roth was a terrific writer and his death a loss to literature.


message 4: by Diane (new) - added it

Diane Zwang | 1255 comments Mod
I am just starting this one. I hope I enjoy it as I loved American Pastoral.


message 5: by Gail (last edited Sep 14, 2020 12:40PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Gail (gailifer) | 1414 comments I appreciated this book much more than The Breast and my respect for Phillip Roth grew enormously with this book. I found I didn't really like any of the characters but I didn't think that was particularly important. Roth doesn't seem to like his characters either.

1. Why does Roth Begin the novel by establishing the parallel story of the public scandal over Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky--a scandal that "revived the American's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure; The ecstasy of sanctimony" pg 2. How are Clinton's and Silk's stories similar? In what ways does this contect extend the novel's scope beyond one man's experience to a larger critique of late 20th century American culture?

Silk makes a decision to stand outside of his societally prescribed identification and risks everything to do that including his own family. The parallel with an incredibly powerful world leader risking everything for mere minutes of sexual pleasure does tie the two stories together but more importantly, it sets a tone for the rest of the book regarding how personal decisions are made and in what context.

2. What Causes Coleman Silk's downfall? What do we learn about Silk's past, that the colleagues have no knowledge? How does this change his disgrace? His Coleman responsible in any way for his own destruction?

I believe that Roth believes that everyone is responsible for their own destruction and yet that no one has true control over their life. Silk makes a decision to live with a secret that will become his defining characteristic in his own mind. Even though Silk has narrowed his life down to a rather conservative life style, he is perpetually rewarded for his secret decision by the adrenaline and anxiety that comes with living with a secret. His downfall comes from his being an incredibly argumentative person who has stripped himself from using a fail proof argument. He could also have simply apologized, even though he believed himself in the right and lived with some "undeserved" shame but he could not bring himself to do that either possibly because, in a convoluted way, he did deserve the shame as he had denounced his own race.

3. What motives does Delphine Roux have for orchestrating the attack on Coleman Silk? Is she aware of her motivation? What discrepancies are revealed between the public position and her emotional struggles?

Delphine Roux is a caricature and although she fulfilled her purpose to the plot, I felt that Roth did not invest enough time into her to make her even remotely believable. Roth would have us believe that Roux is intrigued by Silk and finds him attractive or at least finds his mind attractive. She also is attempting to find an identity outside the one given to her by her parents and although she is living a self chosen life, it does not come with any intimacy and partnership.

4. Why do Coleman's colleagues fail to defend him? Why do educated academics trained to weigh evidence and complex subtleties readily believe the absurd tales concocted to disgrace Coleman? Why does Ernestine describe Athena College as a hotbed of ignorance? pg 328.

There are moments in personal histories and in larger political histories when people act out what is going to help them the most rather than what is the right thing to do. They may or may not have believed it but they needed to project that they were defending the right side rather than defending the "old white man". I found the rest of the story of one of the accusing students to be ugly and sad. Did Roth really have to make the African-American woman unable to cope with any academics and leave school?

5. What draws Coleman and Faunia together? What do they offer each other. How is their relationship different from what others imagine it to be? Why is Coleman able to reveal his secret to her?

We actually do not know if Coleman revealed his secret to Faunia. Nathan Zuckerman believes he did but he can not really know. Even though Faunia was a bit of a caricature also, I found her to be an intriguing character who was able to truly recognize Coleman. She could understand what was essential to his character, "the secret" because she herself kept a huge secret that defined her to the world. She was also in many ways his equal because she had chosen a life outside of all of society's prescriptions and was able to live without judgement. She would not have seen his secret as a betrayal. She would not have seen his secret as even particularly important in relationship to herself. It was only something important to his life. Coleman was not taking advantage of her as others believed but rather they simply "saw" each other in a unique way.

6. Throughout the novel, characters are portrayed as caricatures through a set of preexisting and clichŽd stories--Coleman is the racist professor and lecherous old man who takes advantage of a woman half his age; Faunia Farley is the na•ve and helpless victim; Les Farley is the crazed, abusive husband. How does the real story of each of these characters defy or complicate these simplifications?

I would say that the real story is richer and gives a layer of complication. It does not remove all cliche. Coleman really is twice Faunia's age for example. I have discussed a bit about Coleman and Fauna above. Les Farley is something else again. We do not have revealed to us that he is NOT a crazed and abusive husband. Rather we have revealed to us that he is crazed and abusive but with some good cause and that he is not always under the influence of his PTSD.

7. How are the characters (Coleman, Faunia, Les) controlled by the past?

Coleman made choices that he believes he can not undo and it controls much of his anxiety for the rest of his life. Faunia and Les had violent choices made for them and are attempting to make lives that can exist with some dignity and some self control given what the world has done to them.

8. After the funeral, pg 333; what is Roth saying about the limits of our ability really to know one another? At what points in the novel does this problem arise?

Well really, the novels starts with this issue given the form the novel takes in which we do not hear the character's stories chronologically. We are prepared from the get go to question what we know about the characters. Nathan thinking it through is simply a very fine articulation of the issue. We do not always know ourselves, we certainly can not understand the nuances of other people's motivations and we do not know all there is to know about anyone. Mark is an interesting case of this. I assumed he was voicing a constant fury that his father kept a hidden secret from him....not that he knew that his father had a secret but that he knew his father was not sharing everything. On the other hand, he could have been furiously angry simply because he learned to be angry from his father.

9. Why would Faunia feign illiteracy? Why this flaw? What are the implications of her secret?

By defining herself as an illiterate, she places herself in a very prescribed situation where very little is demanded of her. She is very intelligent and yet does not have to listen to NPR or allow Coleman to read her news she can not handle, or find a job that allows her to use her skills....she just needs to survive and listen to the crows. It is a brilliant lie for someone who just wants to be a crow.

10. In what way does The Human Stain resist this conventional need for closure? How does it alter the classical unities of beginning, middle, and end?

The form is very loose and many of the reveals are foreshadowed well ahead of time so the reader is prepared. We do have a rather great closure in terms of Nathan telling us why he is writing this particular book but other than that, the events do not need to be in order.

11. Les Farley, Vietnam vet is menacing, angry character, whose stream of consciousness rants reflect some of the most powerful writing in the book. What kind of mental and emotional damage has the war done to him? How has it changed who is? What are the implications of Les's being the instrument of Coleman's destruction?

Les was utterly destroyed by the war and he is not able to work through his PTSD to return. He manages a mere surface activity of living at times but largely is always spinning and as he sees it, already dead. He is a good contrast to Delphine, Coleman and Fauna as he is desperately pretending to be normal while they act out their new identities as "normal" attempting not to pretend. Although he kills Faunia for her betrayal when she allows their children to die, and Coleman for being an ugly old Jew that does not deserve his wife, really he is doing the deed for "Kenny", it is a death for a death. In Les' mind he is righting the world in some way.

12. Discuss the parable of the crow, Prince, who can't live among other crows. How does this explain the novel's title?

This was a truly great little interlude I thought. Prince can not communicate with other crows. He can not signal that he is one of them vocally. Faunia goes on to articulate impurity, that the stain precedes all action and informs all manner of understanding. We are all stained with our history and our past choices but we are also stained with
something even more core than that. We are human and come flawed.

15. How does the novel tell the story of moral ethos of America at the end of the 20th century? What does the novel reveal about the complexities of issues such as race, sex, identity, and privacy?

Although you would think that the novel has a lot to say about racial and gender identity, it really moves around the issue of knowing oneself and making choices within that knowledge. The story deals a lot with shame of one's given identify and the building of another identity that may or may not fit one's purposes. In this way, the complexity of human emotions and motives complicates the 20th century moral standards. Nathan is a brilliant device to articulate the lessons learned.

16. Thoughts? Did you like it? Does it belong on the list. If you've read other Roths novels, what is your favorite?

I have not read Roth's greatest hits. I have read Nemesis, The Dying Animal, The Plot against American and now The Breast. None of these are counted as his best. I would have to say that The Human Stain was better than any of the other Roth I have read and I do believe it well deserves to be on the list.


Book Wormy | 2009 comments Mod
1. For me what linked the stories what that everyone had an opinion on them and watching someone's downfall allows others to feel better about themselves. It also links them in terms of power and influence. Clinton is the President and Silk has been used to ruling the school.

2. Silk's downfall is due to be out of touch with the changes in language and his inability to back down and apologise. Should he have apologised personally I don't think so my grandfather right up until his death used the word "gay" to mean happy which it did in his day he would never have considered it to mean anything else when he used it. Silk's secret should not make a difference in this instance because the word he was using was free in his mind of any other meaning.

3. Roux is complicated the implication is she is racist because she doesn't want to date a black man but she goes out of her way to defend black students against the white professor. She is also potentially a target of racism being a Frenchwoman.

4. The teachers do what suits them and bringing down a powerful principal allows them to feel better about themselves. They are also aligning themselves with popular feeling and using misdirection to detract from any wrong doing of there own. Ernestine believes the college is ignorant because they allow the students to choose what to study without causing anyone offence rather than teaching the actual material and having proper discussions about it.

5. I think at that point they are both damaged people looking for someone they can trust. Faunia has been honest with Silk so it would be natural for him to return that honesty, if he ever does. Their relationship is shown to be just sex for Faunia but Silk appears to be looking for something more, most people would imagine it to be the other way around.

6. Silk is not the lecherous white professor due to his secret. Also at 34 at least he is dating a mature adult and not the cliched student. Faunia also has secrets and is more intelligent than we are initially given to believe. Les has reasons for his violence and is not always violent and not always in control of himself.

7. Silk disowned his past and his family but he still feels the need to reveal his secret even though time has shown that this would be unwise. He has reinvented himself as a new person by putting everything behind him.

Faunia's attraction to Silk could be due to a need for a father figure, her treatment of everything as just sex allows her to control the situation and to protect herself against hurt.

Les' experiences in Vietnam colour everything now he is home.

8. No-one really knows anyone else. Silk's secret when first revealed came as a shock to me.

9. To be left in peace if people know your are intelligent there is a tendency to judge and to try and force you to live up to your potential she just wants peace.

10. The story is non linear, we don't actually know all the facts what we have is supposition and piecing together of history.

11. The war has completely changed him as a person he is unable to adjust to civilian life.

12. A crow raised by humans doesn't know the language of crows which means he can't communicate rather like a lot of the characters. The human stain is the damage and marks humans leave behind without even being aware they are doing it.

13. Not sure on this one.

14. The novel reveals the secrets of the main characters to the reader while the main characters are concealing these secrets from the other characters.

15. It seems to suggest that Americans like to get on their high horse about morality while not actually living morally themselves. It shows that things are changing and that sexism and racism are being challenged. It also raises the issue of only really studying the contribution of black people to history during black history month Ernestine is perfectly correct when she says black doctors should be studied along with white doctors all year round not just one month a year. This section did make me uncomfortable though coming as it does from a white writer.

16. I did enjoy this one and unlike The Breast it deserves to be on the list.


Diane  | 2046 comments 1. Why does Roth Begin the novel by establishing the parallel story of the public scandal over Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky--a scandal that "revived the American's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure; The ecstasy of sanctimony" pg 2. How are Clinton's and Silk's stories similar? In what ways does this contect extend the novel's scope beyond one man's experience to a larger critique of late 20th century American culture?

Roth uses the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and Clinton's subsequent impeachment trial as a symbol for the public and personal trials of Silk, who was accused of being a racist and faces persecution for an affair with a much younger woman. Both men were placed in public scrutiny for mistakes they made, both of which involved a much younger woman. It draws a parallel between national events of the time and events happening to the main character.

2. What Causes Coleman Silk's downfall? What do we learn about Silk's past, that the colleagues have no knowledge? How does this change his disgrace? His Coleman responsible in any way for his own destruction?

A word he used (spook) was taken out of context and construed to be racist. He could have fixed this in a number of ways, but did not. I don't think he necessarily had to come clean about his heritage to do so.

3. What motives does Delphine Roux have for orchestrating the attack on Coleman Silk? Is she aware of her motivation? What discrepancies are revealed between the public position and her emotional struggles?

This isn't entirely clear to me. I think it was a way for her to get the attention that she didn't feel she was getting as a young female in a male dominated field. Perhaps she secretly harbored an attraction to Coleman and feels resentful because it isn't mutual. Or, maybe this motivation had roots in her childhood relationship with her father, feeling that she never received enough attention from him. Perhaps she felt that Faunia was Coleman's substitute for her, but a more controllable one.

4. Why do Coleman's colleagues fail to defend him? Why do educated academics trained to weigh evidence and complex subtleties readily believe the absurd tales concocted to disgrace Coleman? Why does Ernestine describe Athena College as a hotbed of ignorance? pg 328.

It seemed like he was maybe a bit of a loner with few friends among his colleagues. This probably made it easier for them to jump to conclusions and persecute him to benefit their own agendas.

5. What draws Coleman and Faunia together? What do they offer each other. How is their relationship different from what others imagine it to be? Why is Coleman able to reveal his secret to her?

Coleman saw in Faunia a kindred spirit. She, too, was creating her own identity by hiding her illiteracy. He was also attracted to her because her personal life experiences gave her a deeper awareness of the world and introspection.

I will try to answer the remaining questions later. Free time is scarce for me these days, and I would much rather use that limited time to read.


Patrick Robitaille | 954 comments Selected answers:

1. Why does Roth Begin the novel by establishing the parallel story of the public scandal over Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky--a scandal that "revived the American's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure; The ecstasy of sanctimony" pg 2. How are Clinton's and Silk's stories similar? In what ways does this contect extend the novel's scope beyond one man's experience to a larger critique of late 20th century American culture?

Because the stories mirror each other and because, in both stories, society casts judgments on the whole person based on how it perceives or transforms one event or behaviour which might not fit the generally accepted view of morals. Sanctimony is usually the hallmark of societies which tend to have or to revert to conservative views. Several pockets of American society are animated by such conservative views and by sanctimony.

2. What Causes Coleman Silk's downfall? What do we learn about Silk's past, that the colleagues have no knowledge? How does this change his disgrace? His Coleman responsible in any way for his own destruction?

Coleman Silk’s downfall started when he referred to certain students who never showed in his classes as “spooks”. While he used the term to signify “ghosts”, the two absent students (who were black) took offense to the word, which also derogatively referred to black people. Silk had never met or seen the students yet got blamed and disgraced for using a racist term. Unbeknownst to almost everybody, Silk had been hiding the fact that he had black heritage, despite physically identifying as a white person. His secret, had it been revealed at the time of the incident, would have given a clearer meaning to his use of “spooks” or, at least, it would probably not have been construed as a racist remark. Therefore, he bears some responsibility in his downfall.

3. What motives does Delphine Roux have for orchestrating the attack on Coleman Silk? Is she aware of her motivation? What discrepancies are revealed between the public position and her emotional struggles?

Delphine Roux reminds in several ways of Reese Witherspoon’s character in the movie Election, a young ambitious upstart who thinks she has the moral upper hand, but would go to many lengths to damage other people’s reputations. It is not really clear that she initially did this purposely to attack Coleman Silk, but the fake anonymous letter and the “anonymous” disparaging e-mail were intentional. She obviously strives for acceptance in a world so foreign from her French intellectual background and yearns for progressing beyond Athena College and, towards the end, for finding a meaningful relationship with a man who is not black.

4. Why do Coleman's colleagues fail to defend him? Why do educated academics trained to weigh evidence and complex subtleties readily believe the absurd tales concocted to disgrace Coleman? Why does Ernestine describe Athena College as a hotbed of ignorance? pg 328.

They failed to defend Coleman to protect themselves and to adhere to the majority’s view that the incident had racist connotations, even if it would have been completely out of character. Ernestine’s reaction is more a defence against attacks on the prestige, dignity and authority that teachers in general and academics in particular should be invested in. Her reaction can be explained from the fact that she herself is a teacher and comes from a family with several people involved in teaching or education in general.

5. What draws Coleman and Faunia together? What do they offer each other. How is their relationship different from what others imagine it to be? Why is Coleman able to reveal his secret to her?

When they met, they had been left in an outcast position; Coleman quite recently, Faunia for most of her life or, at least, since she left her privileged home after being abused. Unlike the prejudiced view of the society around them, they had a really pure relationship, with barely any strings attached, through which they soothed each other’s hurt. It is not entirely clear that Coleman has revealed his secret, as the narrator Nathan Zuckerman pointed out (p. 337): “I began by wondering what it had been like when Coleman had told Faunia the truth about that beginning – assuming that he ever had; assuming, that is, that he had to have.”.

6. Throughout the novel, characters are portrayed as caricatures through a set of preexisting and clichŽd stories--Coleman is the racist professor and lecherous old man who takes advantage of a woman half his age; Faunia Farley is the na•ve and helpless victim; Les Farley is the crazed, abusive husband. How does the real story of each of these characters defy or complicate these simplifications?

The real story of these characters provides a full context as to who they are and a better lens to judge their actions. In this way, Coleman can’t be labelled racist because he has black heritage or lecherous because we as readers are given an insight into his relationship with Faunia; Faunia can’t be labelled as naïve and helpless as we know why she ended up in her situation and we see what she does to protect herself and continue her life as best she can; Les Farley is the way he is because of his Vietnam PTSD, which has been left untreated for so long.

7. How are the characters (Coleman, Faunia, Les) controlled by the past?

They are defined by the burdens they carry from the past. Coleman has his secret as a black man, his life for 40 years has been based on that secret; Faunia has her past of abuse from her stepfather; Les has his PTSD and Vietnam War memories.

9. Why would Faunia feign illiteracy? Why this flaw? What are the implications of her secret?

It’s a defence mechanism, so that she finds more peace for herself. By appearing dumb and illiterate, she thought people would leave her alone.

13. Coleman Silk is a professor ancient Greek and Roman Lit, the novel abounds in classical references. What do the allusions add to the novel. How are the Greek tragedy such as hubris, the hero's fall, retribution, and ritual cleansing relevant to the action of the novel?

Three of the main characters (Coleman, Faunia, Les) are living tragedies of their own. And Greek tragedies generally end in the ineluctable death of one or more protagonists. Roth could have easily chosen to make all of them perish in a car accident caused by Les, but he gave Les his “peace” by creating this fake car accident in which he appeared to have no responsibility whatsoever.

16. Thoughts? Did you like it? Does it belong on the list. If you've read other Roths novels, what is your favorite?

This was my fifth from Roth, and I would say this was my favourite. It definitely belongs to the list.


message 9: by Diane (new) - added it

Diane Zwang | 1255 comments Mod
I have put this book on pause. I have loved the last 2 Roth books I have read but this one I can't seem to get into.


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