The Human Stain (American Trilogy #3)

The Human Stain (American Trilogy #3)

by Philip Roth


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It is 1998, the year in which America is whipped into a frenzy of prurience by the impeachment of a president, and in a small New England town, an aging classics professor, Coleman Silk, is forced to retire when his colleagues decree that he is a racist. The charge is a lie, but the real truth about Silk would have astonished even his most virulent accuser.

Coleman Silk has a secret, one which has been kept for fifty years from his wife, his four children, his colleagues, and his friends, including the writer Nathan Zuckerman. It is Zuckerman who stumbles upon Silk's secret and sets out to reconstruct the unknown biography of this eminent, upright man, esteemed as an educator for nearly all his life, and to understand how this ingeniously contrived life came unraveled. And to understand also how Silk's astonishing private history is, in the words of The Wall Street Journal, "magnificently" interwoven with "the larger public history of modern America."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375726347
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/08/2001
Series: Nathan Zuckerman Series
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 288,503
Product dimensions: 5.17(w) x 7.99(h) x 0.87(d)

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


B.A. in English, Bucknell University, 1954; M.A. in English, University of Chicago, 1955

Read an Excerpt

Everyone Knows

It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk—who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena College for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty—confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college. Twice a week she also cleaned the rural post office, a small gray clapboard shack that looked as if it might have sheltered an Okie family from the winds of the Dust Bowl back in the 1930s and that, sitting alone and forlorn across from the gas station and the general store, flies its American flag at the junction of the two roads that mark the commercial center of this mountainside town.

Coleman had first seen the woman mopping the post office floor when he went around late one day, a few minutes before closing time, to get his mail—a thin, tall, angular woman with graying blond hair yanked back into a ponytail and the kind of severely sculpted features customarily associated with the church-ruled, hardworking goodwives who suffered through New England's harsh beginnings, stern colonial women locked up within the reigning morality and obedient to it. Her name was Faunia Farley, and whatever miseries she endured she kept concealed behind one of those inexpressive bone faces that hide nothing and bespeak an immense loneliness. Faunia lived in a room at a local dairy farm where she helped with the milking in order to pay her rent. She'd had two years of high school education.

The summer that Coleman took me into his confidence about Faunia Farley and their secret was the summer, fittingly enough, that Bill Clinton's secret emerged in every last mortifying detail—every last lifelike detail, the livingness, like the mortification, exuded by the pungency of the specific data. We hadn't had a season like it since somebody stumbled upon the new Miss America nude in an old issue of Penthouse, pictures of her elegantly posed on her knees and on her back that forced the shamed young woman to relinquish her crown and go on to become a huge pop star. Ninety-eight in New England was a summer of exquisite warmth and sunshine, in baseball a summer of mythical battle between a home-run god who was white and a home-run god who was brown, and in America the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorism—which had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the country's security—was succeeded by cocksucking, and a virile, youthful middle-aged president and a brash, smitten twenty-one-year-old employee carrying on in the Oval Office like two teenage kids in a parking lot revived America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony. In the Congress, in the press, and on the networks, the righteous grandstanding creeps, crazy to blame, deplore, and punish, were everywhere out moralizing to beat the band: all of them in a calculated frenzy with what Hawthorne (who, in the 1860s, lived not many miles from my door) identified in the incipient country of long ago as "the persecuting spirit"; all of them eager to enact the astringent rituals of purification that would excise the erection from the executive branch, thereby making things cozy and safe enough for Senator Lieberman's ten-year-old daughter to watch TV with her embarrassed daddy again. No, if you haven't lived through 1998, you don't know what sanctimony is. The syndicated conservative newspaper columnist William F. Buckley wrote, "When Abelard did it, it was possible to prevent its happening again," insinuating that the president's malfeasance—what Buckley elsewhere called Clinton's "incontinent carnality"—might best be remedied with nothing so bloodless as impeachment but, rather, by the twelfth-century punishment meted out to Canon Abelard by the knife-wielding associates of Abelard's ecclesiastical colleague, Canon Fulbert, for Abelard's secret seduction of and marriage to Fulbert's niece, the virgin Heloise. Unlike Khomeini's fatwa condemning to death Salman Rushdie, Buckley's wistful longing for the corrective retribution of castration carried with it no financial incentive for any prospective perpetrator. It was prompted by a spirit no less exacting than the ayatollah's, however, and in behalf of no less exalted ideals.

It was the summer in America when the nausea returned, when the joking didn't stop, when the speculation and the theorizing and the hyperbole didn't stop, when the moral obligation to explain to one's children about adult life was abrogated in favor of maintaining in them every illusion about adult life, when the smallness of people was simply crushing, when some kind of demon had been unleashed in the nation and, on both sides, people wondered "Why are we so crazy?" when men and women alike, upon awakening in the morning, discovered that during the night, in a state of sleep that transported them beyond envy or loathing, they had dreamed of the brazenness of Bill Clinton. I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner, draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other and bearing the legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE. It was the summer when—for the billionth time—the jumble, the mayhem, the mess proved itself more subtle than this one's ideology and that one's morality. It was the summer when a president's penis was on everyone's mind, and life, in all its shameless impurity, once again confounded America.

Sometimes on a Saturday, Coleman Silk would give me a ring and invite me to drive over from my side of the mountain after dinner to listen to music, or to play, for a penny a point, a little gin rummy, or to sit in his living room for a couple of hours and sip some cognac and help him get through what was always for him the worst night of the week. By the summer of 1998, he had been alone up here—alone in the large old white clapboard house where he'd raised four children with his wife, Iris—for close to two years, ever since Iris suffered a stroke and died overnight while he was in the midst of battling with the college over a charge of racism brought against him by two students in one of his classes.

Coleman had by then been at Athena almost all his academic life, an outgoing, sharp-witted, forcefully smooth big-city charmer, something of a warrior, something of an operator, hardly the prototypical pedantic professor of Latin and Greek (as witness the Conversational Greek and Latin Club that he started, heretically, as a young instructor). His venerable survey course in ancient Greek literature in translation—known as GHM, for Gods, Heroes, and Myth—was popular with students precisely because of everything direct, frank, and unacademically forceful in his comportment. "You know how European literature begins?" he'd ask, after having taken the roll at the first class meeting. "With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight." And then he picked up his copy of The Iliad and read to the class the opening lines. "'Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles . . . Begin where they first quarreled, Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.' And what are they quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It's as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father. A girl abducted in a war. Mia kouri-that is how she is described in the poem. Mia, as in modern Greek, is the indefinite article 'a'; kouri, or girl, evolves in modern Greek into kori, meaning daughter. Now, Agamemnon much prefers this girl to his wife, Clytemnestra. 'Clytemnestra is not as good as she is,' he says, 'neither in face nor in figure.' That puts directly enough, does it not, why he doesn't want to give her up? When Achilles demands that Agamemnon return the girl to her father in order to assuage Apollo, the god who is murderously angry about the circumstances surrounding her abduction, Agamemnon refuses: he'll agree only if Achilles gives him his girl in exchange. Thus reigniting Achilles. Adrenal Achilles: the most highly flammable of explosive wildmen any writer has ever enjoyed portraying; especially where his prestige and his appetite are concerned, the most hypersensitive killing machine in the history of warfare. Celebrated Achilles: alienated and estranged by a slight to his honor. Great heroic Achilles, who, through the strength of his rage at an insult—the insult of not getting the girl—isolates himself, positions himself defiantly outside the very society whose glorious protector he is and whose need of him is enormous. A quarrel, then, a brutal quarrel over a young girl and her young body and the delights of sexual rapacity: there, for better or worse, in this offense against the phallic entitlement, the phallic dignity, of a powerhouse of a warrior prince, is how the great imaginative literature of Europe begins, and that is why, close to three thousand years later, we are going to begin there today . . ."

Coleman was one of a handful of Jews on the Athena faculty when he was hired and perhaps among the first of the Jews permitted to teach in a classics department anywhere in America; a few years earlier, Athena's solitary Jew had been E. I. Lonoff, the all-but-forgotten short story writer whom, back when I was myself a newly published apprentice in trouble and eagerly seeking the validation of a master, I had once paid a memorable visit to here. Through the eighties and into the nineties, Coleman was also the first and only Jew ever to serve at Athena as dean of faculty; then, in 1995, after retiring as dean in order to round out his career back in the classroom, he resumed teaching two of his courses under the aegis of the combined languages and literature program that had absorbed the Classics Department and that was run by Professor Delphine Roux. As dean, and with the full support of an ambitious new president, Coleman had taken an antiquated, backwater, Sleepy Hollowish college and, not without steamrolling, put an end to the place as a gentlemen's farm by aggressively encouraging the deadwood among the faculty's old guard to seek early retirement, recruiting ambitious young assistant professors, and revolutionizing the curriculum. It's almost a certainty that had he retired, without incident, in his own good time, there would have been the festschrift, there would have been the institution of the Coleman Silk Lecture Series, there would have been a classical studies chair established in his name, and perhaps—given his importance to the twentieth-century revitalization of the place—the humanities building or even North Hall, the college's landmark, would have been renamed in his honor after his death. In the small academic world where he had lived the bulk of his life, he would have long ceased to be resented or controversial or even feared, and, instead, officially glorified forever.

It was about midway into his second semester back as a full-time professor that Coleman spoke the self-incriminating word that would cause him voluntarily to sever all ties to the college-the single self-incriminating word of the many millions spoken aloud in his years of teaching and administering at Athena, and the word that, as Coleman understood things, directly led to his wife's death.

The class consisted of fourteen students. Coleman had taken attendance at the beginning of the first several lectures so as to learn their names. As there were still two names that failed to elicit a response by the fifth week into the semester, Coleman, in the sixth week, opened the session by asking, "Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?"

Later that day he was astonished to be called in by his successor, the new dean of faculty, to address the charge of racism brought against him by the two missing students, who turned out to be black, and who, though absent, had quickly learned of the locution in which he'd publicly raised the question of their absence. Coleman told the dean, "I was referring to their possibly ectoplasmic character. Isn't that obvious? These two students had not attended a single class. That's all I knew about them. I was using the word in its customary and primary meaning: 'spook' as a specter or a ghost. I had no idea what color these two students might be. I had known perhaps fifty years ago but had wholly forgotten that 'spooks' is an invidious term sometimes applied to blacks. Otherwise, since I am totally meticulous regarding student sensibilities, I would never have used that word. Consider the context: Do they exist or are they spooks? The charge of racism is spurious. It is preposterous. My colleagues know it is preposterous and my students know it is preposterous. The issue, the only issue, is the nonattendance of these two students and their flagrant and inexcusable neglect of work. What's galling is that the charge is not just false—it is spectacularly false." Having said altogether enough in his defense, considering the matter closed, he left for home.

Now, even ordinary deans, I am told, serving as they do in a no man's land between the faculty and the higher administration, invariably make enemies. They don't always grant the salary raises that are requested or the convenient parking places that are so coveted or the larger offices professors believe they are entitled to. Candidates for appointments or promotion, especially in weak departments, are routinely rejected. Departmental petitions for additional faculty positions and secretarial help are almost always turned down, as are requests for reduced teaching loads and for freedom from early morning classes. Funds for travel to academic conferences are regularly denied, et cetera, et cetera. But Coleman had been no ordinary dean, and who he got rid of and how he got rid of them, what he abolished and what he established, and how audaciously he performed his job into the teeth of tremendous resistance succeeded in more than merely slighting or offending a few odd ingrates and malcontents. Under the protection of Pierce Roberts, the handsome young hotshot president with all the hair who came in and appointed him to the deanship—and who told him, "Changes are going to be made, and anybody who's unhappy should just think about leaving or early retirement"—Coleman had overturned everything. When, eight years later, midway through Coleman's tenure, Roberts accepted a prestigious Big Ten presidency, it was on the strength of a reputation for all that had been achieved at Athena in record time—achieved, however, not by the glamorous president who was essentially a fund-raiser, who'd taken none of the hits and moved on from Athena heralded and unscathed, but by his determined dean of faculty.

In the very first month he was appointed dean, Coleman had invited every faculty member in for a talk, including several senior professors who were the scions of the old county families who'd founded and originally endowed the place and who themselves didn't really need the money but gladly accepted their salaries. Each of them was instructed beforehand to bring along his or her c.v., and if someone didn't bring it, because he or she was too grand, Coleman had it in front of him on his desk anyway. And for a full hour he kept them there, sometimes even longer, until, having so persuasively indicated that things at Athena had at long last changed, he had begun to make them sweat. Nor did he hesitate to open the interview by flipping through the c.v. and saying, "For the last eleven years, just what have you been doing?" And when they told him, as an overwhelming number of the faculty did, that they'd been publishing regularly in Athena Notes, when he'd heard one time too many about the philological, bibliographical, or archaeological scholarly oddment each of them annually culled from an ancient Ph.D. dissertation for "publication" in the mimeographed quarterly bound in gray cardboard that was cataloged nowhere on earth but in the college library, he was reputed to have dared to break the Athena civility code by saying, "In other words, you people recycle your own trash." Not only did he then shut down Athena Notes by returning the tiny bequest to the donor—the father-in-law of the editor—but, to encourage early retirement, he forced the deadest of the deadwood out of the courses they'd been delivering by rote for the last twenty or thirty years and into freshman English and the history survey and the new freshman orientation program held during the hot last days of the summer. He eliminated the ill-named Scholar of the Year Prize and assigned the thousand dollars elsewhere. For the first time in the college's history, he made people apply formally, with a detailed project description, for paid sabbatical leave, which was more often than not denied. He got rid of the clubby faculty lunchroom, which boasted the most exquisite of the paneled oak interiors on the campus, converted it back into the honors seminar room it was intended to be, and made the faculty eat in the cafeteria with the students. He insisted on faculty meetings—never holding them had made the previous dean enormously popular. Coleman had attendance taken by the faculty secretary so that even the eminences with the three-hour-a-week schedules were forced onto the campus to show up. He found a provision in the college constitution that said there were to be no executive committees, and arguing that those stodgy impediments to serious change had grown up only by convention and tradition, he abolished them and ruled these faculty meetings by fiat, using each as an occasion to announce what he was going to do next that was sure to stir up even more resentment. Under his leadership, promotion became difficult—and this, perhaps, was the greatest shock of all: people were no longer promoted through rank automatically on the basis of being popular teachers, and they didn't get salary increases that weren't tied to merit. In short, he brought in competition, he made the place competitive, which, as an early enemy noted, "is what Jews do." And whenever an angry ad hoc committee was formed to go and complain to Pierce Roberts, the president unfailingly backed Coleman.

In the Roberts years all the bright younger people he recruited loved Coleman because of the room he was making for them and because of the good people he began hiring out of graduate programs at Johns Hopkins and Yale and Cornell—"the revolution of quality," as they themselves liked to describe it. They prized him for taking the ruling elite out of their little club and threatening their self-presentation, which never fails to drive a pompous professor crazy. All the older guys who were the weakest part of the faculty had survived on the ways that they thought of themselves—the greatest scholar of the year 100 B.C., and so forth—and once those were challenged from above, their confidence eroded and, in a matter of a few years, they had nearly all disappeared. Heady times! But after Pierce Roberts moved on to the big job at Michigan, and Haines, the new president, came in with no particular loyalty to Coleman—and, unlike his predecessor, exhibiting no special tolerance for the brand of bulldozing vanity and autocratic ego that had cleaned the place out in so brief a period—and as the young people Coleman had kept on as well as those he'd recruited began to become the veteran faculty, a reaction against Dean Silk started to set in. How strong it was he had never entirely realized until he counted all the people, department by department, who seemed to be not at all displeased that the word the old dean had chosen to characterize his two seemingly nonexistent students was definable not only by the primary dictionary meaning that he maintained was obviously the one he'd intended but by the pejorative racial meaning that had sent his two black students to lodge their complaint.

Reading Group Guide

The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Philip Roth's The Human Stain. We hope they will provide you with fruitful ways of thinking and talking about a novel that has been called "one of the most provocative explorations of race and rage in American literature." —The Christian Science Monitor

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 America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony" [p. 2]? How are Clinton's and Silk's stories similar? In what ways does this context extend the novel's scope beyond one man's experience to a larger critique of late twentieth-century American culture?

2. Coleman Silk's downfall is caused, ostensibly, by the spurious charge of racism that results from his question about two absent black students. But as we learn more of Silk's past—a past of which his colleagues at Athena have no knowledge—his disgrace takes on different meanings. What ironies are involved in Silk being charged with racism when he himself is black? By denying his own racial identity has he turned it into a kind of ghost? Is Coleman in any way responsible for his own destruction?

3. Delphine Roux appears to act on behalf of the aggrieved students, but what other motives does she have for orchestrating the attack on Coleman Silk? Is she aware of her motivation? What discrepancies are revealed between her public position and her emotional struggles?

4. Why do Silk's colleagues fail to defend him? Why would highly educated academics—people trained to weigh evidence carefully and to be aware of the complex subtleties of any object of study—so readily believe the absurd stories concocted to disgrace Coleman Silk? Why does Ernestine describe Athena College as "a hotbed of ignorance" [p. 328]?

5. Coleman and Faunia are an unlikely couple—a seventy-one-year-old classics professor and a thirty-four-year-old janitor. What draws them together? What do they offer each other? How is their relationship—the relationship about which "everyone knows"[as Delphine Roux claims in her anonymous letter]—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 cliched stories—Coleman is the racist professor and lecherous old man who takes advantage of a woman half his age; Faunia Farley is the nafive 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. In what ways are each of the major characters in the novel—Coleman, Faunia, and Les—controlled by the past?

8. After the funeral, when Ernestine reveals that Coleman was black, Nathan reflects, "I couldn't imagine anything that could have made Coleman more of a mystery to me than this unmasking. Now that I knew everything, it was as though I knew nothing" [p. 333]. What is Roth saying about the limits of our ability really to know one another? At what other points in the novel does this problem arise?

9. Late in the novel, Nathan discovers that Faunia had kept a diary and that "the illiteracy had been an act, something she decided her situation demanded" [p. 297]. Why did Faunia feign illiteracy? Was there any reason why she chose this flaw in lieu of others? What are the implications of her secret?

10. In the overheard conversation that begins Chapter 3, one of the characters complains of his students, "They fix on the conventionalized narrative, with its beginning, middle, and end—every experience, no matter how ambiguous, no matter how knotty or mysterious, must lend itself to this normalizing, conventionalizing, anchorman clichZ?. Any kid who says 'closure' I flunk. They want closure, there's their closure" [p. 147]. In what ways does The Human Stain resist this "conventionalizing" need for closure? How does it alter the classical unities of beginning, middle, and end?

11. The Vietnam vet Les Farley is a menacing, violently 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 he is? What are the implications of Les's being the instrument of Coleman's destruction?

12. After an argument with Coleman, Faunia drives to the Audubon Society to visit Prince, a crow who was raised by people and achieved notoriety for acting like a "big shot" and stealing girls' barrettes. When Faunia learns that Prince has ripped down the newspaper clippings about him, she says, "He didn't want anybody to know his background! Ashamed of his own background! Prince! . . . Oh, you good boy. You're a good crow" [p. 240]. And when she's told that Prince can't live among other crows, she says, "That's what comes of hanging around all his life with people like us. The Human Stain" [p. 242]. In what ways can this episode be read as a parable of Coleman Silk's own experience? How does this passage help to explain the novel's title?

13. Nathan interprets Coleman's choosing to reject his past and create a new identity for himself as "the drama that underlies America's story, the high drama that is upping and leaving—and the energy and cruelty that rapturous drive demands," whereas Walter thinks of his brother as a "calculating liar," a "heartless son," and a "traitor to his race" [p. 342]. Which of these views seems closer to the truth? Are they both legitimate? What is Ernestine's position?

14. Coleman Silk is a professor of ancient Greek and Roman literature, and the novel abounds in classical references. The college is named Athena, Coleman thinks Viagra should be called Zeus, the author of the anonymous e-mail message that slanders Coleman calls herself Clytemnestra, the three young professors whom Coleman overhears commenting on the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal are referred to as a chorus, and so on. What do these allusions add to the novel? How are elements of Greek tragedy such as hubris, the hero's fall, retribution, and ritual cleansing relevant to the action of the novel?

15. The Human Stain ends with Zuckerman finding Les Farley ice fishing in the middle of a secluded lake. Les says, "And now you know my secret spot. . . . You know everything. . . . But you won't tell nobody, will you? It's nice to have a secret spot. You don't tell anybody about 'em. You learn not to say anything" [p. 361]. In what sense is the entire novel about revealing and concealing secrets?

16. The Human Stain is a novel of sweeping ambition that tells the stories not just of individual lives but of the moral ethos of America at the end of the twentieth century. How would that ethos be described? What does the novel reveal about the complexity of issues such as race, sex, identity, and privacy?

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The Human Stain 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 72 reviews.
E_Caine More than 1 year ago
Philip Roth is the modern master of the American novel and The Human Stain is a wonderful example of why he deserves that distinction. It is difficult and surly. Not to read, it is wonderfully written, but to digest. It casts a light on aspects of being both human and an American that few of us dare examine. It is a skeleton in everyone's closet that no one wants to reveal but that, once felt, must be confronted. It is a novel that will do what so few novels can, challenge you to examine the very notion of what you think you are. As uncomfortable as that may be, it is an experience that no person should forego.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Philip Roth is simply one of the best authors today. His novels, including this one, contain complex story lines and deal with a number of issues. A great read! but those that prefer easy reads, such as Dan Brown's DaVinci Code.
Orbit0 More than 1 year ago
I'm in awe of the authors command of the English language. The book haunts the soul long after you put it down. Don't be surprised if you're disappointed in humanity as a whole when you are done. I was. Still am.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The book's plot was very interesting and exciting. However, the writing, although very well done and eloquent was not done so in a fashion as to captivate readers. The reading was actually tedious, and boring. However, a good story if you can get over the boredom.
MichaelTheAuthorMG More than 1 year ago
Philip Roth's The Human Stain is an excellent example of what T.S. Eliot described in his essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent." First, let's note that "Roth" derives from the German word for red. And the surname of his petite French professor, Delphine Roux, whose interview costume of a mini-kilt and tights resembles the getup of a French poule, means reddish brown. The novel's hero, Professor Coleman Silk, aka Silberzweig, like Sammy Davis, Jr., is a pale-skinned Negro Jew who can and does pass as Caucasian. Like Hemingway's Robert Cohn, he is also an accomplished boxer. As dean of the fictional Athena College in the Berkshires, he comes to "Roux" having hired Delphine, who perversely has an unrequited crush on him. Her loneliness brings to mind the dictum of Zorba the Greek: "When a woman sleeps alone, it is a disgrace to every man." But at 71, Coleman, aided by Viagra -- whose properties I think Roth misconstrues and exaggerates -- prefers an uneducated but by no means stupid janitoress. The theme of overthrowing one's origins and succeeding in life on one's own terms seems like an illustration of Arthus Miller's essay, "The Family in Modern Drama." As in most novels, there are some improbable twists of plot, e.g., the narrator's naivete in thinking that by moving he can escape the story's villain, or the police department's failure to check Delphine's office for fingerprints after it has been trashed -- by her, not, as she claims, by the just deceased Coleman. The book contains one literary term not found in any dictionary I've consulted: diegetic; but its antecedent noun, diegesis, is defined in an online dictionary as a narrative explanation, i.e., a narrative exegesis, to which latter word it is obviously related etymologically. Roth's complex development of all the book's characters, his Jamesian sentences, and distilled wisdom render this work a tour de force well worth reading and highly recommended.
Persaus More than 1 year ago
The characters slide in one on you without you noticing that you not only like them at first, they seem familar to me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
At times this book was very verbose, which made for some challenging reading. Even so, I needed to get to what ended up being a very unfulfilling ending. On a positive note, I got to use the nook dictionary frequently.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a captivating book that remains with the reader long after the book is finished. This was my first Philip Roth novel and I look forward to my next one...The Human Stain was a mesmerizing experience
Doey on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book would have been great if Philip Roth had written it 20 years earlier when the subjects covered in the book were controversial and actually mattered in life and academia. Hiding one's race was vital in the '50s and '60s. By the time Roth got around to writing this, the issue of race was not an issue in universities, thereby making the book trivial.
seventime on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I adore and admire this novel.
rmckeown on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As my legions of readers know, I have recently rediscovered Philip Roth. Although I still do not appreciate the artistry of Goodbye, Columbus, I have really enjoyed several of his later works. The Human Stain has added greatly to my admiration of this fine writer.Few writers delve into the psychology of characters the way Roth does. The intense reflection and the detailed examination of motives, actions, and consequences make for absorbing reads. As I have said many times, I believe good characters drive a good story. These characters surprise, alarm, and bring the reader deep into the psychological gymnastics we all go through, sometimes unconsciously, every day. Roth brings all these emotions, fears, joys, prejudices, and hopes right out in the open.Stain is the first ¿Zuckerman¿ novel I have read, but by no means will it be the last. Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator, is a writer, and as revealed in the closing pages, we have read as he writes. We make discoveries along with him. Some of the passages are long, and this novel requires a great deal of concentration as he meanders among the characters and situations. Many of these ring true on many levels. For example, I know a Delphine Roux. I have seen students complain to administration over harmless, off-hand remarks made in class. I have seen the petty jealousies and political maneuvering in the perpetual turf wars of academia.Realism is the hallmark of Roth¿s novels, and The Human Stain clearly ranks as one of his masterpieces. I see a large shelf, with all his books, in my future. Caution: Raw language throughout with graphic depictions of some sexual situations. Five stars.--Jim, 4/29/09
librarianbryan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Great characterizations, especially the parts about how our moral selves are formed. If Roth could have been more deft with the plot at the end it would have got five stars.
BriannaNo2 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Philip Roth¿s ¿Human Stain¿ surprised me. I¿ve wanted to read the last part of his American Trilogy series for years, but all I remembered from a summary I once read was that it is about a college professor¿s affair with a younger woman. How inept a description of the novel this is! It is a book that cries out for a re-read, because only in the end you realize the depth of the plot and the connections between the characters. Suddenly you realize that despite their superficial differences, within, they are all dealing with the same insecurities. I had to fight for the first 100 pages or so to continue reading, but as soon as the whole enterprise crystallizes there was no stopping me and the pages just flew by. Set against the 1998 Lewinsky scandal, it is a book about perception and deception. Nobody is who you think they are. This is a book about the depth of human existence. There are so many sides to us that we cannot be summarized in or described by one or two characteristics. Given the many acquaintances we make during our lives, the many turns we take along the way, we only reveal fragments of ourselves to the people around us. Nobody can say that they know us to our full extend. What essentially makes us human is our capacity to be so many things at the same time. So that maybe even we ourselves cannot always be sure of who we really are.
Rynooo on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Angry and cerebral but a little dry for my taste.
kJ. on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I initially had a great deal of trouble getting into the flow of this book, due to Roth's jumps between time and location, his lengthy paragraphs (some of which extend for 5 pages) and the numerous changes in direction the novel took. In the end, however, this is what sealed The Human Stainas a great story. It took me in places I did not expect to go while elaborating on characters I assumed would remain in the background. In particular, I loved Roth's beautiful characterisation of Delphine Roux, a hideous woman who I found myself wanting to read more and more about. To me, this illustrates the skill of a great writer, able to keep you turning the pages despite describing a personality so revolting. Still, though, you can't help but feel for this character in turmoil. The passages that concerned Vietnam veteran Lester Farley also left me amazed, brilliantly bringing the horrific ramifications of war to reality.I also have to commend Roth's ability to create conflictions within the reader. Many times I found my self cringing at the words, and yet nodding my head simultaneously, hating what was happening and yet understanding why it was necessary.While on the surface, Roth raises questions about identity, humanity and relationships, there are so many ideas jammed into this novel, every passage bursting with insights.Once I settled with the fact that this book was not going to go where I wanted, I sat back and relaxed as Philip Roth took me on a marvelous ride.
janey47 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I could never quite get why people raved so much about Roth until I read The Human Stain. It has passages of some of the best writing I've read in recent years, and it's sad and it's thought-provoking and it's funny. The film could never match the book because of the nature of film. The book is written from a particular point of view -- the perennial Zuckerman, who looks at Coleman Silk and thinks about how Silk's life happened to move in the paths that it did. This is a FAR cry from just telling Silk's story, which the film more or less purports to do. In the book Zuckerman is always saying to himself things like: So I thought about what it would have been like or what would have motivated him.... And that makes it very moving in a really quiet and lovely way. But there are also just hysterically funny passages. And the characters are drawn so vividly. There are other books of Roth's that I like a lot, but to my mind nothing measures up to this.
piefuchs on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Roth is a genius and the Human Stain does not disappoint. A wonderful commentary on political correctness and race.
gwendolyndawson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A college professor is forced to resign for alleged racism and begins an affair with an illiterate woman. In my opinion, this is very close to the perfect book. The writing is genius, and the scope of the book is enormous.
delphica on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
(#40 in the 2004 Book Challenge)I liked it very much, it's about a college professor who resigns over allegations that he made a racially insensitive remark in the classroom, and then it turns out that he has this other secret that that he's keeping a lid on. Lots of Roth exposition.Grade: A Recommended: To people who maybe haven't read Philip Roth before, and are looking to start. I think this would be a good one. I've decided to personally back him for the next American to win a Nobel in literature.
phoenixcomet on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Disturbing story of how what is said by a college professor is completely twisted by the administration leading to the demise of his career. The irony is that the Jewish professor is hiding the fact that he is part black, and that he was accused of racism.
BrianDewey on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Roth, Philip. The Human Stain. Vintage International, New York, 2000. Applied the 50-page rule and gave up on this book. Chapter 1 was interesting, and kept me going along with the plot & characters. Chapter 2 really took me by surprise. But I just couldn't make it through chapter 3. The writing was too random & self-indulgent. The pointless moralizing about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, the stream-of-consciousness passage about crows -- I'm out of college, I don't need to spend my time reading such disjointed rubbish.
mrstreme on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I wish I could have read The Human Stain in college with a talented professor and insightful fellow students. This book has so many lively discussion points - it's a shame to read it alone. It's your typical "hard" college read - lots of literary devices, character development and narrative interpretations. As you peel away these literary layers, you are left with an interesting story that explores race, betrayal and envy - things that can leave a stain on a human heart.The Human Stain is a story about Coleman Silk, a seventy-one year old man who had a prestigious career as a college dean, leading his small college into a progressive institution, and rising to academic ranks unheard of by a Jewish man at that time. Before retirement, he decides to return to the classroom, where he makes a comment that is interpreted to be a racial slur against African Americans. The college officials side with the students and formally investigate Coleman. Outraged, Coleman resigns. Ironically, unknown to his peers and family, Coleman Silk is really an African American, "passing" as a Jewish man for more than forty years. "Passing" because he knew that he could not succeed as a black man in academics, because he wanted to do better than his father, because he was "more white than white men."Bitter, Coleman turns to a housekeeper/dairy maid who is forty years his junior, and they begin a torrid affair that will eventually lead to the complete demise of Coleman Silk.Narrated by Roth's long-time character, Nathan Zuckerman, this novel is a complex read with stream of consciousness (usually happening among many characters without introduction, so you have to guess who is thinking) and references to ancient Greek and Latin literature. Despite this, the novel sucks you in because the story is so enthralling and the characters are so real. One hundred years from now, college kids will be reading Philip Roth, much like kids now read John Steinbeck or F. Scott Fitzgerald, because Roth represents smart fiction from this era. If you read The Human Stain prepare to have your brain muscles flexed. It will leave you feeling wiser.
ragwaine on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The characters are so real it's like you lived with them. His writing is really great.
tsutsik on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of the best books I've read this year. I got hooked to the Zuckerman identy of Roth after reading 'exit ghost' - and I'm reading now more or less backwards the earlier books with Zuckerman. I'm suspecting now you can only really appreciate Roth if you have some life experience. I do remember I've tried to read a book of his when I was about 17 years old, but dropped it after twenty pages or so. (I can't remember the title, It was about a baseball team. Am bound to rediscover it soon).This book is a tribute to Zuckerman's neighbour in upstate New York Coleman Silk; former dean of a college which he has almost single-handed brought to fame, but which has let him down after his allegedly racial abuse against two afro-american students. This provides a starting point for a really startling story about.. yes about what? I think about human identity and the ways we try to carve out a position for ourselves in the world, of making a success of ourselves. Central sentence for me: "The truth about us is endless..". The tragedy of Coleman Silk is that the way he has chosen to fulfil his life requires total obliteration of his former self and identity. Although the atmosphere is dark and sad, the compassion, almost love, which Zuckerman shows when telling the story was very moving.
kambrogi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
My first book by Roth, it is heavy stuff: complex and disturbing, with a dense and difficult writing style that is also awe-inspiring. The characters and the story are powerful and thought-provoking, very much alive on the page. Reminiscent of [Sophie¿s Choice], by William Styron, its narrator is removed from the action, and the tale deals with secrets and tragedies which are very much bound up with the worst problems of American society. An important read.