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  • Alienation and Black Humor in Philip Roth's Exit Ghost1
  • Elaine B. Safer (bio)

An aged man is but a paltry thing,A tattered coat upon a stick, unlessSoul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

(Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium ll 9-11)

Ever since Portnoy, most of the protagonists in the many novels of Philip Roth have been outsiders (i.e., persons estranged in some way from their environment). This basically serious theme is illuminated by the ever-present—and sometimes macabre—black humor in which it is cast. Indeed, one way to read Roth's oeuvre is to trace the many variations—and the growing depth—in which he treats personalities distanced or even divorced from their settings.

Take the case of the assimilated Jew, "Swede" Levov, and his daughter, Merry (American Pastoral, 1997). Swede's American dream and sense of belonging crash when Merry—estranged from her family and from contemporary America—becomes an anti-Vietnam War militant, a bomb planting terrorist, and later, a Jain ascetic. Swede's wife deceives him; his brother bursts out in a tirade expressing utter contempt for him; his fantasy of living the life of a country gentleman in the affluent WASP countryside of Old Rimrock turns to dust and ashes: "Whirling about inside him now was a frenzied distrust of everyone" (357). The narrator sums up the result: "The breach had been pounded in … [his] fortification … and now that it was opened it would not be closed again" (423).

Or take the case of that totally asocial puppeteer, Mickey Sabbath (Sabbath's Theater, 1995) who will not—cannot—commit suicide because: "How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here" (451). Or Coleman Silk (The Human Stain, 2000), the light-skinned African American who feels that his blackness makes it impossible for him to be a full-fledged member of society, and who therefore "passes." Although accepted as a white man, he remains an outsider at the college at which he teaches. And, not fortuitously, his warmest human bond is [End Page 139] formed with another outsider, an abused and deeply depressed woman, the unforgettable Faunia. Silk has deconstructed his past by denying his race and his family; and he eventually also destroys his new present by resigning from Athena College when accused—falsely and grotesquely—of racism. He dies, belonging nowhere at all.

Yet another facet of alienation—that of a group—appears in The Plot Against America (2004), a "what if" novel, a novel that speculates on what would have happened if the pro-Nazi Charles Lindbergh had become president of the United States in 1940. The narrator's Jewish family become outcasts, lost souls, not because of anything that they have done, but because of what society thinks of them. Although Herman Roth pre-books a room for his family at a hotel in Washington, D.C., the manager tells them that another person has registered for the room. Herman calls the police in protest, mentioning that the Gettysburg Address in the Lincoln Memorial says "All men are created equal." The policeman responds: "But that doesn't mean all hotel reservations are created equal" (54-55). Young Philip feels that he and his family are outsiders (Safer 54-55).

The estrangements described above are primarily the result of the hostility or rejection that the individual encounters in his/her environment, although the response—vide Coleman Silk—also plays a role. But alienation can also be the result of an act of will. David Kepish and his friend George O'Hearn build up a rather repellent theory in which the good life consists of a refusal to make personal commitments: Love is the experience that instead of making you whole "fractures you.… You're whole and then you're cracked open.…attachment is ruinous" (99-100). Whether their self-regarding ethos will survive when, unexpectedly, genuine feelings threaten to overwhelm Kepish is the central question. Roth's art is so subtle that the reader really cares to know the answer. But Roth sensibly withholds it.

The feeling of sinfulness, unworthiness, and estrangement that can be caused by the imposition of rigid...


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pp. 139-147
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