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The Human Stain

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The Human Stain book cover

The Human Stain (2000) is a novel by Philip Roth, who was born in New Jersey in 1933. Roth is a prolific writer, his most famous novel being Portnoy's Complaint (1969). The Human Stain was made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman in 2003.

The Human Stain takes place in the late 1990s in rural New England. The first person narrator is 65 year-old author Nathan Zuckerman. [Philip Roth has written some novels about him, starting with The Ghost Writer (1979) and including Zuckerman Bound and Zuckerman Unbound (1981).] He is a mere observer rather than the protagonist of the novel. He had prostate cancer and, consequently, was operated on, an operation that has left him both impotent and incontinent. Now he has embarked on the final part of his life and lives as a recluse in the Berkshires in New England. His neighbour is Coleman Silk, but the two men do not know each other until Silk's life is turned upside down and he asks Zuckerman to help him. The name Coleman Silk is a play on many archetypal colors. Cole (like coal) is black. The word man is placed between that and Silk...a soft, white substance known for its delicacy. The man, Coleman Silk is literally a man in balance between black and white.

In April 1996, at 69, Coleman Silk is still professor of classical literature at Athena College, Athena being a small town in the area. He is presented to us as an assimilated Jew who has a wife, Iris, and four grown-up children: two sons, both college professors of science on the West Coast, married with children, and the twins Mark -- who has become an orthodox Jew writing religious poetry and hating his father -- and Lisa, a burned-out teacher in New York. What happens to Coleman Silk one day out of the blue is that he is accused of having made a racist remark to two African American students who were absent from his class and who he had never seen before (This part of the novel is reminiscent of David Mamet's play Oleanna). He called them "spooks" -- literally, because they just were not there, not considering the fact that "spooks" is also an old-fashioned derogatory word for blacks. In the course of the ensuing upheaval several of his colleagues turn against Silk and openly support the African American students. Silk feels monstrously wronged, but there is nothing he can do about it. Although he could have gone on teaching, he eventually decides to resign, which again is misinterpreted by many people and also the local press. Suddenly, at the height of his trouble, his vigorous wife Iris dies of a stroke. Silk is devastated and accuses those who have been persecuting him as murderers. It takes him about two years to calm down and adapt to the new situation: being retired and single. He wants Zuckerman, who is a professional author, to write a book about the whole affair, but the latter refuses. So Silk spends several months writing an account he calls Spooks himself, but when he has finished he realizes that it is not really intended for publication. Nevertheless the two men become friends.

Gradually, we learn about Coleman Silk´s past. As a young man, even during the first years of his marriage to Iris, he was a womanizer. Now, as a widower, his old yearning for women flares up once again, and, at 71, he starts an affair with Faunia Farley, a 34 year-old cleaning woman from the college who also works on an organic farm. To increase his potency, he starts taking Viagra. The trouble is that Faunia, who enjoys their relationship as much as he does, has been victimized all her life: She grew up rich but was sexually molested by her stepfather. She escaped his clutches, married Lester Farley, a Vietnam veteran ("a trained killer thanks to the government of the United States"), and had two children with him. As a dairy farmer, Farley has not been successful, mainly due to his never having coped with what he saw and did in the war and, as a result, his drinking problem. As a husband, he seems to be hopeless. In a terrible accident their two children -- eight year-old Rawley, a girl, and five year-old Les Junior -- die: Their house catches fire while Faunia is out having an affair with someone else. Farley, who has been stalking them, is right there when he sees the fire but it is too late: The two children are asphyxiated. Years later, when she meets Coleman Silk, she, at 34, is seemingly an illiterate who hardly has any worldly possessions except her kids' ashes, which she keeps under her bed.

Now that Farley realizes that his wife is having an affair with a "kike" twice her age ("Who else has a wife sucks off an old Jew? Who else!"), he starts stalking them, too. Time and again Silk sees a grey pickup truck near his home but each time he is unable to identify the make or the driver. Eventually, Farley attacks the lovers, but nothing much happens.

Other things go wrong as well for Coleman Silk. He realizes that he is losing touch with his children. When he phones his favourite kid, 38 year-old Lisa, she sounds detached and for the first time answers her father's question with a "Nothing", which upsets and hurts him. Also, he gets an anonymous -- handwritten -- letter from one of his former colleagues, a certain Delphine Roux, accusing him of sexually exploiting an underprivileged woman and thus, according to Silk, clearly invading his privacy. Silk is almost as enraged as during the "spooks" affair.

Only gradually does the reader realize that Silk has been "passing", that he comes from an African American family, the descendants of Southern negro slaves. His father used to be an optician but lost his business -- probably during the Depression years -- and had to work up to his premature death as a dining car waiter, while his mother was promoted to "first colored head nurse on any floor of any hospital in the city of Newark." Through various inter-racial unions for several generations, however, Silk´s complexion is "of a very pleasing shade, rather like eggnog".

In a reflective moment, we are given a glimpse of Silk's first sincere love: Steena Palsson. Her ethnicity comprises nothing but Nordic/Viking lineage, and symbolizes the ultimate of white, racial purity--though initially he has his doubts, via a poem she pens about him. During an evening meal with the Palsson family, (as practiced) Silk performs flawlessly, following all of the norms white social conversation and content. Later, Steena states simply and out of nowhere (surprising Silk entirely), "I can't do this," suggesting that Steena knew of Silk's race all along, and had merely attempted to deny it for the sake of love and passionate sexual discovery. It is a dissallusioning moment for Silk as he discovers his insufficiency as caucasian merely underscores his willingness to sacrifice his, "Negro" heritage.

Prior to this event, Coleman tells his mother of the many lies which have been told to Palsson--lies, primarily, about his race. Coleman has stated that his family (brothers, sisters and parents) didn't exist. Mrs. Coleman knows only that she will never know her grandchildren. Coleman Brutus Silk (think betrayal), prefers fillial dislocation to loyalty, which underscores his willingness to deny not only himself, but his lineage and heritage, much of which he cares nothing about.

In a different tangent, we discover Silk as an extremely skilled and victorious boxer--a fact that he hides from everyone, from Steena Palsson to his own father. For Silk, boxing is all in the "mind" and not his body, as he describes it to his father. In this light, Coleman has a penchant for skilled and impressive violence, but in the symbollic arena, his ability to exert both power and control become his venue for freedom and power. Tragically, his freedom comes only in hiding his skill. "Freedom", is what Silk truly wants. Freedom socially, sexually, physically and mentally...in every conceivable way.

From an early point in his life, Silk keeps personal secrets from both his parents and his girlfriends (and from everybody else as well). He takes up amateur boxing, even turning professional later in life, without ever having to walk around with bruises -- as he is so clever never to be hit -- so that no-one finds out. Similarly, he takes the "decision to identify himself as white", to "play his skin however he wanted, color himself just as he chose": He does "not allow his prospects to be unjustly limited by so arbitrary a designation as race". Only by posing as a white man is he able to join the U.S. navy, and in those days he is continually afraid of being found out and court-martialled for lying about his race. When he meets Iris Gittelman he, like a chameleon, changes his identity again: She is Jewish (but by no means orthodox), and so he pretends also to be a Jew. As a consequence, he decides that she must never meet his family. He is most brutal towards his mother, who realizes that if her son is really going to marry Iris, she will never in her life be able to see, let alone touch, her grandchildren unless she comes to his house posing as a cleaning woman ("Taking the blow was all she could do."). Silk thinks he has no other choice and tells Iris that all his family are dead. This is a complete break, and there is no way back now. The last he hears of his brother Walt, in 1953, is the latter's furious voice over the telephone, telling Coleman that he never wants to see his brother's "lily-white face" again.

In his private life, he has to keep on lying all the way, too, telling his children (and also Iris, his wife) whenever they ask him about their grandparents and great-grandparents that they were Russian Jews -- the Silberzweigs -- and that they are all dead, that all their worldly belongings -- including photo albums and the like -- were lost. All of his four children turn out to be white, so after the birth of the twins he realizes that he is safe now. This is the point when he almost tells Iris, but at the last moment he decides against it.

Delphine Roux is a member of the faculty at Athena College. She was born in France in the late 1960s to rich parents who could afford to send their daughter to the best schools and universities. Petite and most attractive, she spent the years of her higher education as a Marxist-oriented lycée student and had quite a number of love affairs, including one of her professors, whom she just could not resist . Eventually, also to escape from her complicated love life, she goes to the U.S.A. and embarks on her postgraduate studies at one of the prestigious American universities. Absolutely career-oriented, she considers her job at Athena as nothing but a stepping-stone to something much better. When she is hired by Silk, who is Dean at the time, she realizes that from the very moment they first lay eyes on each other they start sizing each other up -- she in her carefully chosen short kilt, wearing an oversized ring, he an athletic man in his sixties who does not look older than 50.

Very soon, however, Silk starts regretting hiring Roux: This is the age of political correctness, and whenever a female student complains about Silk, even if the accusation is wholly ridiculous, Roux automatically supports the student against Silk. Whereas Silk resigns over the "spooks" affair, Roux steadily climbs up the academic career ladder, achieving early tenure and, at only 27, being appointed Head of the newly-created Department of Languages and Literature.

For reasons we do not really learn, she is still frightened of Silk two years after his resignation. He might be able -- and willing -- to harm her as he probably still has connections in the academic world. Roux's moral outrage about Silk's affair with Faunia Farley causes her to write him an anonymous letter -- handwritten but unsigned -- which she carries around in her handbag for several weeks until finally posting it at a moment when her mental stability has left her: On a weekend trip to New York, she sees a man in the public library whom she fancies at once. She desperately wants to be picked up by him (or any other man, for that matter), but a girl clearly younger than herself approaches him and they leave together.

In the early morning of 1 November 1998, after having spent her first night with Silk, Faunia Farley drives to the remote headquarters of the Audubon Society, where a crow is kept in a cage -- a crow Faunia knows which could no longer survive in her natural surroundings. This is when she talks about "the human stain": "We leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint. Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen -- there's no other way to be here." There is a reference to the cycle of life and the "ceaseless perishing" that goes on on our planet -- this is what Zuckerman, himself in his sixties, thinks when he watches old people gathering to listen to a concert. Also, he observes "the anarchy of the train of events, the uncertainties, the mishaps, the disunity, the shocking irregularities that define human affairs".

Contents

Character destinies

Apart from these philosophical insights, what the reader can follow now is a number of individual destinies:

Lester Farley's destiny

After passing the test of having dinner at a Chinese restaurant without attacking the "gooks" there, he is urged by another Vietnam veteran to pay a therapeutic visit to "the Wall", i e to the monument erected in honour of all the U.S. soldiers who died in the war about 30 years back. Farley agrees, is seemingly apathetic standing in front of, and maybe also reading, all the names of the fallen soldiers but on the same night drives his pickup truck at considerable speed straight toward the oncoming vehicle carrying Silk and Faunia and thus makes Silk, who is driving, swerve off the road. Lester Farley is responsible for their deaths, but no-one seems to realize or to care. Lester Farley is the one who keeps on living.

Coleman Silk's and Faunia Farley's destiny

They stop hiding their relationship and appear in public, for example at some open-air concert one Saturday in August 1998. There Zuckerman, who is lonely and would love to be in touch with Silk, meets them again. Zuckerman knows, however, that their mutual promise about having dinner at some restaurant together soon is never going to be realized. This is the last time he sees them alive. At one point he likens them to Pygmalion and Galatea.

Delphine Roux's destiny

Roux, as lonesome as can be, composes an ad for a lonely hearts column on her computer but is not sure if she should actually e-mail it: It might cause her trouble if one of the faculty could trace it back to her. When she has finished writing, she is shocked at the result: Coleman Silk exactly fits her description of her dream man. We also learn that she would rather add "Whites only need apply" but that she is afraid to do so. (So who is the racist now?) In a moment of carelessness, she e-mails this draft to all the members of her department and of course cannot undo this unfortunate operation. Desperate, she already imagines her parents writing her off and herself having turned out a failure in the U.S.A. After a sleepless night -- the same night in which Silk and Faunia Farley are killed -- she goes back to her office early on the following morning but realizes that she has not got the keys necessary to unlock her colleagues' offices, so she cannot delete her message from their computers. In her office she starts throwing things and vandalizing the place. Then she calls Campus Security and claims Coleman Silk broke into her office, sent off the ad and then got into his car and deliberately killed himself and his mistress.


The narrator is particularly appalled at the malicious rumours that are spread in the wake of the accident in which Silk and Faunia Farley are killed. ("The danger with hatred is, once you start in on it, you get a hundred times more than you bargained for. Once you start, you can't stop. I don't know anything harder to control than hating. Easier to kick drinking than to master hate. And that is saying something.") To the very end (of the novel) he is convinced that Lester Farley made Silk drive off the road and into his death and, accordingly, keeps calling him a murderer. (The reader never learns for sure whether this was the case or not.) However, no-one is interested in what he has to say: neither the police, nor Silk's children, who have consciously set out to clear their father's name and do not want his reputation to be damaged by revelations concerning his love affair with a cleaning woman half his age, nor Ernestine, Silk's sister, who is just too polite to enquire and who does not want to upset her still very belligerent brother Walt. In November 1998 rumours about Silk and Faunia Farley are spreading across the small town of Athena although the police know that there is no truth in them, and the "public stoning" goes on: Silk is said to have been given a blowjob by Faunia while driving, and it is rumoured that the fact that he was sexually aroused and thus distracted caused the fatal car crash. Silk's enemies -- and other people, too -- readily believe what they are told. Nobody wishes to look into Lester Farley's desperate life or connect him in any way with the accident.

There are two funerals on two successive days. First there is Faunia Farley's burial, which is unspectacular compared to Silk's. Only few people show up. One of the mourners present is Harry, Faunia's biological father, an elderly man in a wheelchair who reproaches himself for having left his daughter alone with "that woman", i e her irresponsible mother. He is accompanied and looked after by Sylvia, a young Filipino woman who makes sure that Harry is not upset or bothered by any unpleasant business that might crop up during or after the funeral. When Zuckerman, who is keen on finding out the truth, follows them to a restaurant and overhears their conversation he learns that (a) Faunia had a child when she was 16 whom she put up for adoption and that (b) her alleged illiteracy was just an "act", that she made everyone believe that she could not read or write, probably in order to be able to lead an undisturbed life. Faunia even kept a diary, but when Zuckerman wants to have it Sylvia denies its existence. As opposed to the straightforward eulogies at her funeral, Zuckerman also comes across an anonymously posted on-line eulogy in which all the blame is placed on Coleman.

The question Ernestine is most concerned with is that, even after so many births (Coleman's children and grandchildren), the danger of a new-born child betraying Coleman's origins is not yet over: She is afraid Lisa might soon decide to have a baby, and, bound to have chosen a white out about Coleman's violent death: The accident happened on the eve of his 72nd birthday.

Zuckerman goes on living his uneventful and solitary life. Delphine Roux is never mentioned again. When, in February 1999, he is driving his car along a lonely mountain road on his way to Ernestine's, he recognizes Lester Farley's grey pickup truck -- the "murder weapon" -- parked near a small frozen lake. He cannot resist the temptation of stopping his car, getting out and looking for Farley. He finds him sitting on a bucket in the middle of the pond, ice fishing. Farley recognizes him as "the author" and, to Zuckerman's surprise, turns out to be much more intelligent and well-spoken than the narrator has imagined. What is supposed to be small talk is in reality rather a multi-layered affair, with Zuckerman pretending not to know who Farley is but at the same time knowing very well that Farley knows that he does. They talk about the Vietnam War, Farley's PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder), fishing, unspoiled nature, Bill Clinton (who has just been victorious in the impeachment proceedings and whom Farley calls "draft dodger" and "Slick Willie"), literature and so on. When the conversation focuses on Farley's auger, a machine used for drilling holes in the ice, and Farley picks it up and holds it up against Zuckerman's face, the latter is just about able to make a polite retreat, saying that he is cold. He knows, however, that he will have to move now rather than be able to go on living in his solitary cabin.

An earlier example of a "passing narrative" is Nella Larsen's 1929 novel Passing.

Coleman SIlk is partially based on the deceased New York Times literary critic Anatole Broyard, a "black" man who passed as a "white man" for many decades. An essay by African American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr on Broyard's passing may be found here: http://web.princeton.edu/sites/english/NEH/GATES1.HTM

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