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Metamorphosis and Carnivalization: Construction of Rebellious Figures in Philip Roth’s the Breast and the Professor of Desire

Author XuZuoLv
Tutor ZhangTing
School Shanghai International Studies University
Course English Language and Literature
Keywords American Jewish Literature Philip Roth The Breast The Professor of Desire rebellion
CLC I712.074
Type Master's thesis
Year 2012
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The Breast, The Professor of Desire and The Dying Animal, known as Kepesh novelsμby contemporary Jewish American writer Philip Roth, concentrate on the experience ofprotagonist David Kepesh at different phases of his life. In these three works, Roth makesDavid an introspective narrator who unfolds his inner world and spiritual predicaments,especially the twists and turns he is confronted with in romance and sexual desire. Rothcasts most of the characters in these three novels as figures with rebellious characteristics,putting a transgressive hue on this series. The present thesis focuses on the rebelliousfigures in The Breast and The Professor of Desire, trying to explore the ways in whichRoth constructs the rebellious figures and the profound implications lurking behind suchconstruction.A host of literary critics tend to deem The Breast as a parody of Kafka·s TheMetamorphosis. In addition, in The Breast, even David himself attributes his physicaltransformation to the indulgence in Kafka·s novella. However, metamorphosis takes itsroots in Jewish traditional narrative, having been one of the folk motifs in kabbalisticliterature since the twelfth century. This folk motif is embodied in The Breast and TheProfessor of Desire in the construction of the figures that rebel against their own selves. InThe Professor of Desire, characters· obscure metamorphoses in mentality and identityprecede the observable metamorphosis of David·s physical body in The Breast. David hasencountered a diversity of people some with eccentric pursuits, some with distortedpersonalities, and others with freak identities whose metamorphosed mentality andidentity significantly affect his development towards maturity and cause his own mentaland identity metamorphoses. Such obscure metamorphoses eventually trigger David·sphysical metamorphosis in The Breast, which in turn further aggravates the obscuremetamorphoses in mentality and identity of David and other characters. Physical body,mentality and identity jointly constitute a complete individual. The metamorphosis of anyconstituent can be regarded as the individual·s negation of himself. Such negation is a kindof rebellion of the individuals against their original selves. According to Kabbalah,metamorphosis is a form of metempsychosis and a way through which people gain redemption from their previous souls. The individuals entrapped in their minds and desiresmetamorphose either obscurely or observably. They transgress against their own selves inthe hope of acquiring redemption and starting a new life.The rebellious individuals in these two works, each with his or her single force ofrebellion, will converge into a collective force against the external world. The constructionof these rebellious figures resonates with the characteristics of Bakhtin·s carnivalizedliterature.μ Characters in these two works pursue, behave or talk in frantic and bohemianways that directly or indirectly challenge the conventions, authorities and solemnity of theofficial society, rolling out a landscape painting of carnival ceremonies that dovetail withBakhtin·s identification of the second worldμ that is built up on the reverse side of theauthoritative world where people should live under official norms. In The Breast and TheProfessor of Desire, the second world,μ which enables the characters to smash up thefetters of social and religious conventions, unveil the solemnity and authorities of theofficial world, and discard identity and class hierarchies, is established on the basis of therebellious characters· carnivalized pursuits, language, and laughter. Carnivalization ofmanners displays to the full people·s nature and desires. Suffocated by social and religiousnorms, people are caught in between the needs of physical bodies and that of their spiritualminds. Carnivalization, however, serves as a spiritual catalysis that musters up people·scourage to extricate themselves from the restrictions of the reality, follow their own desires,and challenge the external oppressions. Carnivalization brings about the unification ofphysical bodies and spiritual minds. In this sense, the characters· rebellion against theexternal world in The Breast and The Professor of Desire reveals their anticipation offreedom and spiritual consolation.There lurk two sorts of crises behind the rebellious figures individual crises andcollective crises. The stories in the two works under discussion cover a span of over thirtyyears, from the1930s to the1970s, with the post World War II decades in particular,around which both the individuals and the entire society were undergoing vicissitudes.Influenced by the external circumstances, American youngsters blindly indulgedthemselves in hedonism and strongly rebelled against social norms and mainstream culture.However, their rebellion failed to cause substantive change to their status quo. Ensconcedin Roth·s construction of metamorphosing rebels, crises of individual mentality, identity and freedom in the actual world are refracted. In the mean time, American Jews, especiallythe descendants of the Jewish immigrants who were brought up in the United States, wereenormously affected by American culture and were inclined to assimilate into themainstream culture and abandon their own. The dominant American culture marginalizedJewish conventions and values. Consequently, the Jewishness in the younger Jewishgeneration began to dissolve, or even completely disappeared. Simultaneously, the UnitedStates was made into a vulnerable collective by the pervasive waves of transgressivemovements around postwar decades. The culture and values of the United States wereendangered. Roth, by constructing the rebellious figures against the self and the externalworld in The Breast and The Professor of Desire, unfurls the crises faced by both theindividuals and the collective under the historical, cultural and societal transformationsaround post World War II decades.Previous studies on these two works either cluster around Roth·s depiction of sexμand desire,μ or merely center on the artistic techniques or themes of either work. What·smore, they tend to focus on the protagonist, while giving little heed to other characters.This thesis, however, straddles these two novels and selects the rebellious characters as theobject of study. By employing relevant elements concerning metamorphosis in kabbalisticinterpretation of Jewish traditional narrative along with concepts of Bakhtin·scarnivalization theory, this thesis explores the methods by which Roth constructs rebelliousfigures and the profound implications carried by these figures. This thesis approaches TheBreast and The Professor of Desire from a comparatively new perspective. It is expected toenlarge, to some extent, the room for the interpretation of these two works and to arousemore attention to both the writer and his works among researchers.

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