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Desire in the Mirror: a Lacanian Reading of Roth’s The Human Stain

Author HeQin
Tutor DuZhiQing
School Huaqiao University
Course English Language and Literature
Keywords The Human Stain Lacan desire the mirror stage narrative
CLC I712.074
Type Master's thesis
Year 2012
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In The Human Stain, with the exquisite writing skills and keen insight, PhilipRoth profoundly depicts the characters’ inner world and focuses on the various formsof human existence which are forged by desire. The protagonist in this novel,Coleman Silk, floating between reality and fantasy, separates himself from his ownrace and paradoxically pursues the self and things essentially unattainable; othercharacters are involved in a series of tragic events in which they are burned by “thefire of desire” and devoured by envy, hatred and despair. The issue of desire iselaborated on by Roth in this novel, hence an attempt of psychoanalysis of thecharacters’ experiences is made in this thesis.As an outstanding theorist of contemporary psychoanalysis, Jacques Lacan(1901-1981) has unique insight into the matter of desire. He holds that desire isprimarily the desire of lack, for its object is lack in nature, and can only be felt in theSymbolic Order. It is something always delayed. With the idea of the mirror stage,Lacan further explains that one’s desire is in the form of the other’s desire the firsttime it rises up. Therefore,the “otherness” is the subject’s fundamental attribute.After the mirror stage, the subject enters into the Symbolic Order and desire becomesthe desire of the Other. Lacan’s theory of desire probes into what hides behind desireand how desire functions in the construction of the subject. Hence, the author of thisthesis finds that Lacan’s idea on desire may better provide a new perspective tounderstand the theme of The Human Stain.Characters in this novel try to satisfy their desires in a paradoxical way, the deepcause of which comes from their experience in the mirror stage. This thesis observesthe scope of the mirror both macroscopically and microscopically, that is, in thesocial-historical context and in the individual unconscious. It is found that the mirrorcan be a driving force and a destroying force at the same time in the subject’s identityconstruction and his pursuit of desire. Considering Roth’s thoughts on literarycreation and the narrative strategies employed in this novel, this thesis also discusses the relationship between the narrative and desire: the narrative is the carrier of desire;desire is the engine of the narrative.With Lacan’s idea on desire as the theoretical framework, this thesis, combiningthe text and the writer’s experience, aims to more thoroughly understand the effect ofdesire on the characters’ psychological development and their identity construction.The study shows that, guided by desire, they constantly confront themselves with themost radical dimension of human existence and unfetter themselves from constraints.In this way, Philip Roth gives a unique interpretation of desire through his characters.It can be also seen that Philip Roth is concerned with the fluidity of identity in thepost-modern context: the construction of subjectivity is characterized byindeterminacy rather than by certainty.

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