No matter how much you know, no matter how much you think, no matter how much you plot and you connive and you plan, you’re not superior to sex. With these words our most unflaggingly energetic and morally serious novelist launches perhaps his fiercest book. The speaker is David Kepesh, white-haired and over sixty, an eminent cultural critic and star lecturer at a New York college–as well as an articulate propagandist of the sexual revolution. For years he has made a practice of sleeping with adventurous female students while maintaining an aesthete’s critical distance. But now that distance has been annihilated.
The agency of Kepesh’s undoing is Consuela Castillo, the decorous and humblingly beautiful 24-year-old daughter of Cuban exiles. When he becomes involved with her, Kepesh finds himself dragged–helplessly, bitterly, furiously–into the quagmire of sexual jealousy and loss. In chronicling this descent, Philip Roth performs a breathtaking set of variations on the themes of eros and mortality, license and repression, selfishness and sacrifice. The Dying Animal is a burning coal of a book, filled with intellectual heat and not a little danger.
About the Author
In 1997 Philip 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 three times. In 2005 The Plot Against America received the Society of American Historians’ Prize for “the outstanding historical novel on an American theme for 2003–2004.” Roth received PEN’s two most prestigious awards: in 2006 the PEN/Nabokov Award and in 2007 the PEN/Bellow Award for achievement in American fiction. In 2011 he received the National Humanities Medal at the White House, and was later named the fourth recipient of the Man Booker International Prize. He died in 2018.
Date of Birth:March 19, 1933
Place of Birth:Newark, New Jersey
Education:B.A. in English, Bucknell University, 1954; M.A. in English, University of Chicago, 1955
Read an Excerpt
I knew her eight years ago. She was in my class. I don't teach full-time anymore, strictly speaking don't teach literature at all-for years now just the one class, a big senior seminar in critical writing called Practical Criticism. I attract a lot of female students. For two reasons. Because it's a subject with an alluring combination of intellectual glamour and journalistic glamour and because they've heard me on NPR reviewing books or seen me on Thirteen talking about culture. Over the past fifteen years, being cultural critic on the television program has made me fairly well known locally, and they're attracted to my class because of that. In the beginning, I didn't realize that talking on TV once a week for ten minutes could be so impressive as it turns out to be to these students. But they are helplessly drawn to celebrity, however inconsiderable mine may be.
Now, I'm very vulnerable to female beauty, as you know. Everybody's defenseless against something, and that's it for me. I see it and it blinds me to everything else. They come to my first class, and I know almost immediately which is the girl for me. There is a Mark Twain story in which he runs from a bull, and the bull looks up to him when he's hiding in a tree, and the bull thinks, “You are my meat, sir.” Well, that “sir” is transformed into “young lady” when I see them in class. It is now eight years ago-I was already sixty-two, and the girl, who is called Consuela Castillo, was twenty-four. She is not like the rest of the class. She doesn't look like a student, at least not like an ordinary student. She's not a demiadolescent, she's not a slouching, unkempt, “like”-ridden girl. She's well spoken, sober, her posture is perfect-she appears to know something about adult life along with how to sit, stand, and walk. As soon as you enter the class, you see that this girl either knows more or wants to. The way she dresses. It isn't exactly what's called chic, she's certainly not flamboyant, but, to begin with, she's never in jeans, pressed or unpressed. She dresses carefully, with quiet taste, in skirts, dresses, and tailored pants. Not to desensualize herself but more, it would seem, to professionalize herself, she dresses like an attractive secretary in a prestigious legal firm. Like the secretary to the bank chairman. She has a cream-colored silk blouse under a tailored blue blazer with gold buttons, a brown pocketbook with the patina of expensive leather, and little ankle boots to match, and she wears a slightly stretchy gray knitted skirt that reveals her body lines as subtly as such a skirt possibly could. Her hair is done in a natural but cared-for manner. She has a pale complexion, the mouth is bowlike though the lips are full, and she has a rounded forehead, a polished forehead of a smooth Brancusi elegance. She is Cuban. Her family are prosperous Cubans living in Jersey, across the river in Bergen County. She has black, black hair, glossy but ever so slightly coarse. And she's big. She's a big woman. The silk blouse is unbuttoned to the third button, and so you see she has powerful, beautiful breasts. You see the cleavage immediately. And you see she knows it. You see, despite the decorum, the meticulousness, the cautiously soigné style-or because of them-that she's aware of herself. She comes to the first class with the jacket buttoned over her blouse, yet some five minutes into the session, she has taken it off. When I glance her way again, I see that she's put it back on. So you understand that she's aware of her power but that she isn't sure yet how to use it, what to do with it, how much she even wants it. That body is still new to her, she's still trying it out, thinking it through, a bit like a kid walking the streets with a loaded gun and deciding whether he's packing it to protect himself or to begina life of crime.
And she's aware of something else, and this I couldn't know from the one class meeting: she finds culture important in a reverential, old-fashioned way. Not that it's something she wishes to live by. She doesn't and she couldn't-too traditionally well brought up for that-but it's important and wonderful as nothing else she knows is. She's the one who finds the Impressionists ravishing but must look long and hard-and always with a sense of nagging confoundment-at a Cubist Picasso, trying with all her might to get the idea. She stands there waiting for the surprising new sensation, the new thought, the new emotion, and when it won't come, ever, she chides herself for being inadequate and lacking . . . what? She chides herself for not even knowing what it is she lacks. Art that smacks of modernity leaves her not merely puzzled but disappointed in herself. She would love for Picasso to matter more, perhaps to transform her, but there's a scrim drawn across the proscenium of genius that obscures her vision and keeps her worshiping at a bit of a distance. She gives to art, to all of art, far more than she gets back, a sort of earnestness that isn't without its poignant appeal. A good heart, a lovely face, a gaze at once inviting and removed, gorgeous breasts, and so newly hatched as a woman that to find fragments of broken shell adhering to that ovoid forehead wouldn't have been a surprise. I saw right away that this was going to be my girl.
Now, I have one set rule of some fifteen years' standing that I never break. I don't any longer get in touch with them on a private basis until they've completed their final exam and received their grade and I am no longer officially in loco parentis. In spite of temptation-or even a clear-cut signal to begin the flirtation and make the approach-I haven't broken this rule since, back in the mid-eighties, the phone number of the sexual harassment hotline was first posted outside my office door. I don't get in touch with them any earlier so as not to run afoul of those in the university who, if they could, would seriously impede my enjoyment of life.
I teach each year for fourteen weeks, and during that time I don't have affairs with them. I play a trick instead. It's an honest trick, it's an open and aboveboard trick, but it is a trick nonetheless. After the final examination and once the grades are in, I throw a party in my apartment for the students. It is always a success and it is always the same. I invite them for a drink at about six o'clock. I say that from six to eight we are going to have a drink, and they always stay till two in the morning. The bravest ones, after ten o'clock, develop into lively characters and tell me what they really are interested in. In the Practical Criticism seminar there are about twenty students, sometimes as many as twenty-five, so there will be fifteen, sixteen girls and five or six boys, of whom two or three are straight. Half of this group has left the party by ten. Generally, one straight boy, maybe one gay boy, and some nine girls will stay. They're invariably the most cultivated, intelligent, and spirited of the lot. They talk about what they're reading, what they're listening to, what art shows they've seen-enthusiasms that they don't normally go on about with their elders or necessarily with their friends. They find one another in my class. And they find me. During the party they suddenly see I am a human being. I'm not their teacher, I'm not my reputation, I'm not their parent. I have a pleasant, orderly duplex apartment, they see my large library, aisles of double-faced bookshelves that house a lifetime's reading and take up almost the entire down stairs floor, they see my piano, they see my devotion to what I do, and they stay.
My funniest student one year was like the goat in the fairy tale that goes into the clock to hide. I threw the last of them out at two in the morning, and while saying good night, I missed one girl. I said, “Where is our class clown, Prospero's daughter?” “Oh, I think Miranda left,” somebody said. I went back into the apartment to start cleaning the place up and I heard a door being closed upstairs. A bathroom door. And Miranda came down the stairs, laughing, radiant with a kind of goofy abandon-I'd never, till that moment, realized that she was so pretty-and she said, “Wasn't that clever of me? I've been hiding in your upstairs bathroom, and now I'm going to sleep with you.”
A little thing, maybe five foot one, and she pulled off her sweater and showed me her tits, revealing the adolescent torso of an incipiently transgressive Balthus virgin, and of course we slept together. All evening long, much like a young girl escaped from the perilous melodrama of a Balthus painting into the fun of the class party, Miranda had been on all fours on the floor with her rump raised or lying helplessly prostrate on my sofa or lounging gleefully across the arms of an easy chair seemingly oblivious of the fact that with her skirt riding up her thighs and her legs undecorously parted she had the Balthusian air of being half undressed while fully clothed. Everything's hidden and nothing's concealed. Many of these girls have been having sex since they were fourteen, and by their twenties there are one or two curious to do it with a man of my years, if just the once, and eager the next day to tell all their friends, who crinkle up their faces and ask, “But what about his skin? Didn't he smell funny? What about his long white hair? What about his wattle? What about his little pot belly? Didn't you feel sick?”
Miranda told me afterward, “You must have slept with hundreds of women. I wanted to see what it would be like.” “And?” And then she said things I didn't entirely believe, but it didn't matter. She had been audacious-she had seen she could do it, game and terrified though she may have been while hiding in the bathroom. She discovered how courageous she was confronting this unfamiliar juxtaposition, that she could conquer her initial fears and any initial revulsion, and I-as regards the juxtaposition-had a wonderful time altogether. Sprawling, clowning, cavorting Miranda, posing with her underwear at her feet. Just the pleasure of looking was lovely. Though that was hardly the only reward. The decades since the sixties have done a remarkable job of completing the sexual revolution. This is a generation of astonishing fellators. There's been nothing like them ever before among their class of young women.
Consuela Castillo. I saw her and was tremendously impressed by her comportment. She knew what her body was worth. She knew what she was. She knew too she could never fit into the cultural world I lived in-culture was to bedazzle her but not something to live with. So she came to the party-beforehand I'd worried that she might not show up-and was outgoing with me there for the first time. Uncertain as to just how sober and cautious she might be, I had been careful not to reveal any special interest in her during the class meetings or on the two occasions when we met in my office to go over her papers. Nor was she, in those private meetings, anything other than subdued and respectful, taking down every word I said, no matter how unimportant. Always, in my office, she entered and exited with the tailored jacket worn over her blouse. The first time she came to see me-and we sat side by side at my desk, as directed, with the door wide open to the public corridor, all eight of our limbs, our two contrasting torsos visible to every Big Brother of a passerby (and with the window wide open as well, opened by me, flung open, for fear of her perfume)-the first time she wore elegant gray flannel cuffed pants, and the second time a black jersey skirt and black tights, but, as in class, there was always the blouse, against her white-white skin the silk blouse of one creamy shade or another unbuttoned down to the third button. At the party, however, she removed the jacket after a single glass of wine and boldly jacketless was beaming at me, offering a tantalizingly open smile. We were standing inches apart in my study, where
I had been showing her a Kafka manuscript I own-three pages in Kafka's handwriting, a speech he'd given at a retirement party for the chief of the insurance office where he was working, a gift, this 1910 manuscript, from a wealthy married woman of thirty who'd been a student-mistress some years back.
Consuela was talking excitedly about everything. Letting her hold the Kafka manuscript had thrilled her, and so everything was emerging at once, questions nursed by her over that whole semester while I had secretly nursed my longing. “What music do you listen to? Do you really play the piano? Do you read all day long? Do you know all the poetry on your shelves by heart?” From every question it was clear how much she marveled-her word-at what my life was, my coherent, composed cultural life. I asked her what she was doing, what her life was like, and she told me that after high school, she didn't start college immediately-she'd decided to become a private secretary. And that's what I'd seen right off: the decorous, loyal private secretary, the office treasure to a man of power, the head of the bank or the law firm. She truly was of a bygone era, a throwback to a more mannerly time, and I guessed that her way of thinking about herself, like her way of comporting herself, had a lot to do with her being the daughter of wealthy Cuban émigrés, rich people who'd fled the revolution.
She told me, “I didn't like being a secretary. I tried it for a couple of years, but it's a dull world, and my parents always wanted and expected me to go to college. I finally decided to study instead. I suppose I was trying to be rebellious, but that was childish and so I enrolled here. I marvel at the arts.” Again “marvel,” used freely and sincerely. “Yes, what do you like?” I asked. “The theater. All kinds of theater. I go to the opera. My father loves the opera and we go to the Met together. Puccini's his favorite. I always love going with him.” “You love your parents.” “Very much,” she said. “Tell me about them.”
Reading Group Guide
“A disturbing masterpiece.” —The New York Review of Books
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal. We hope they will deepen and broaden your understanding of one of Roth’s most brilliant characters, David Kepesh, and the story he tells in this complex and powerful novel.
1. To begin, answer these questions using the book as your guide. Read aloud the relevant sentences or passages.
a. Why is Janie Wyatt Kepesh’s hero [pp. 48–58]?
b. Why is Caroline Lyons Kepesh’s lover [pp. 46–48, 69–76]?
c. Why does Miranda stay behind after the party [pp. 7–9]?
d. Why does Elena Hrabovsky come to Kepesh when she’s unhappy about her life with men? What is Kepesh’s response to her unhappiness [pp. 107–110]?
e. Why is Kepesh’s description of Consuela’s vulva so detailed [p. 103]? Why the aquatic and artistic references? What human emotion informs this passage?
2. What are the sources of pleasure in Consuela Castillo and David Kepesh’s relationship? What do they offer each other? What allows each to “master” the other? Describe Consuela.
3. Why does Kepesh become obsessively jealous? Do his pleasure and jealousy derive from the same source?
4. What is the place of music in Kepesh’s life? What about books?
5. After Consuela leaves Kepesh, his friend the poet George O’Hearn warns him to stay away from her: “This is the pathology in its purest form. . . . You violated the law of aesthetic distance. You sentimentalized the aesthetic experience with this girl—you personalized it, you sentimentalized it, and you lost the sense of separation essential to your enjoyment” [p. 99]. Why would George suggest, and Kepesh be receptive to, the notion that sexual relations be governed by aesthetic laws?
6. Kepesh agrees with George that “attachment is ruinous,” finds those who voluntarily give up their freedom “ridiculous,” and feels that “marriage at its best is a sure-fire stimulant to the thrills of licentious subterfuge” [p. 111]. His son Kenny, who struggles to make his own marriage work, accuses him of gross irresponsibility, of confusing sexual freedom with vulgar self-interest, of behaving like a lecherous fool. Does the novel resolve these conflicting points of view? Does it endorse one position over the other or simply bring them into clarifying opposition?
7. Why doesn’t Kepesh’s son Kenny listen to his father? Is Kepesh not giving Kenny good advice?
8. In what ways is The Dying Animal about the intersection of America’s cultural history with David Kepesh’s personal history? How does he interpret the sixties? How does the sexual revolution “revolutionize” his life? What does it cost him?
9. Kepesh argues that family life is childish and that “emancipated manhood never has had a social spokesman or an educational system. It has no social status because people don’t want it to have social status” [p. 112]. Why do people refuse to give “emancipated manhood” social status? Do they give “emancipated womanhood” social status? If Kepesh were gay or female, would that alter your response to the book?
10. Why does Roth include the extended section on George O’Hearn’s death? What is the motive behind O’Hearn’s final desperate attempt to undress his wife [pp. 121–3]?
11. How does Consuela’s illness abolish the age difference between her and Kepesh?
12. Even though its last word is “finished,” and even though its final pages are filled with anxiety about death, The Dying Animal is open-ended. Why does Roth choose to close the book in this way? What is likely to happen to David Kepesh? Will he ignore his listener’s warning and go to Consuela? If so, will it be the end of him?