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Identity Crisis and Female Representation: The Reading of Main Characters in Philip Roth’s the Human Stain

Author HeChaoHui
Tutor CaiChunLu
School Xiamen University
Course English Language and Literature
Keywords Identity Crisis Female Representation Philip Roth The Human Stain
Type Master's thesis
Year 2008
Downloads 431
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Philip Roth (1933- ), since his debut Goodbye, Columbus in 1959, has published twenty-eight pieces of works up to now and gotten almost all of the prizes for literature save the Nobel Prize for Literature and thus established himself as a big name in the landscape of contemporary American literary circle. Therefore he is regarded as "America’s greatest living novelist" and one of the most prominent writers in contemporary American literature, and so on. However, Roth is also considered as one of the most controversial writers in contemporary American literature. The content of some of his works, for instance, concerned with "sexual perversity", and his harsh satiric portraits of Jewish life have inspired considerable critical debate. While some commentators laud Roth’s skill at rendering dialect, his exuberance and inventiveness, and his sense of humor, other critics view his works as anti-Semitic, sexually perverse, or self-indulgent.In general, Roth draws much upon his Jewish-American upbringing to explore such concerns as the search for self-identity, conflicts between traditional and contemporary moral values, and the relationship between fiction and reality. However, Philip Roth is "THAT LITERARY RARITY—AN AMERICAN NOVELIST WHO gets better with age". Roth sets out in his later years to explore new territory, to make each novel an experimental, challenging, even outrageous effort, which can be manifested in his later "thematic trilogy" that encompasses American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2000). This thematic trilogy has been well received by the critics and the academia. The last one of it The Human Stain is the study case in this thesis.In The Human Stain, Roth depicts the life of an African American named Coleman Silk, passing himself as a Jew, the life through his adolescence to adulthood to downfall and death. Through and centering on this Silk, Roth, by presenting before the reader the various realities of contemporary American society, satirizes "the persecuting spirit" behind the former American president Bill Clinton’s sexual scandal, condemns the frenetic enthusiasm of "political correctness" for its destruction to the innocent, reproaches the Vietnam War for its trauma on the individual and the society, and, more importantly, reveals the identity crisis existing not only in the African Americans but also in the white, and eventually suggests that all of these result from the dominating white discourse and are all the stains of American society and human being.This thesis "Identity Crisis and Female Representation: The Reading of Main Characters in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain", aims at studying this great but controversial writer’s acceptance and reputation in English-speaking countries and in China, the critical views about The Human Stain, his own style represented in this novel, the male characters’ identity crisis, the female characters’ female representation or femininity, and other interpretations of the novel. This study briefs the acceptance of Roth in English-speaking countries and in our country, scrutinizes some of the critical views about The Human Stain and also analyzes Roth’s boundary crossing and his own style in this novel. The critical approach is to explore Roth’s main characters from the perspectives of identity crisis and female representation, in virtue of some critical views about identity put forward mainly by Geoffrey Madell and of the classification of the images of women in literature by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. The purpose of this thesis is to study the main characters of this novel in order to analyze how Roth depicts his male characters in light of identity crisis and his female characters through their female representation and/or male gaze. This thesis consists of introduction, three chapters and conclusion.The "Introduction" introduces Philip Roth’s high reputation in English-speaking countries and lower acceptance in our country, his artistic achievements in his old age, a brief explanation about the story in The Human Stain, and a general view of this thesis."Chapter One Literary Reflection: Critical Views about The Human Stain" presents a brief view about Roth’s boundary crossing in his writing of this novel, scrutinizes a number of critical views in English and in Chinese about this novel, and explicates how Roth’s own writing style is demonstrated in it. The boundary crossing in this novel renders Roth a much more successful writer than before, which is manifested in the critical views about Roth and this novel. These critical views study his novel from the perspectives of its subject matter and theme, its characterization, its social setting, its style, language and narrative techniques, with a view to praising Roth the master and this remarkable novel. The later part of this chapter holds that Roth completes The Human Stain by way of "Sheer Playfulness and Deadly Seriousness" and expounds how it is represented in the novel from the angles of its social setting and several main characters, aiming in the meantime at introducing the social background and the general knowledge of the main characters to the reader."Chapter Two Identity Crisis in The Human Stain" provides a generally theoretical view about identity and expounds the identity problems occurring to three male characters Coleman Silk, Lester Farley and Nathan Zuckerman, with the intention of pointing out that identity crisis is crucial for the understanding of these characters and Roth’s writing.First, this chapter explores some theoretical underpinnings about identity, including its definition, the factors that can determine a person’s identity in general and put forward by Geoffrey Madell, its relation with responsibility and freedom, and finally the relationship between group identity and individual identity.Second, this chapter investigates into the hero Coleman Silk’s identity passing and his tragic destiny, by way of firstly making a brief introduction about identity passing, or racial passing, enumerating some passing narratives in American literature written by African Americans and the white writers as well, aiming at providing a historical and literary frame of reference for this novel, explicating then in a great detail why and how Coleman in his adulthood passes himself as a white, disclosing what Coleman has achieved after passing as a white and analyzing his dramatic correlation with Faunia Farley, Delphine Roux, Lester Farley and Nathan Zuckerman, and finally explaining in what way his identity passing accounts for his tragic destiny.Third, this chapter discusses war trauma and Lester Farley’s identity crisis so that identity issue in war literature is briefly demonstrated, with a view to pointing out that the war can change a person’s identity, thus eliciting the discussion of Lester’s identity destroyed by the Vietnam War. How Lester’s mentality or identity and his life are ruined by the war and what has been done to rescue him and his life are detailed. Roth’s criticism on the Vietnam War is also referred to in the end.Finally, this chapter expounds in what way the narrator Nathan Zuckerman experiences some transformation as far as his male identity is concerned. In light of his contact with Coleman and his interest in Coleman’s sex life, Nathan, a recluse, re-entangles with life and experiences vicariously, due to his physiological problems, what Coleman experiences in his involvement in Faunia."Chapter Three Female Representation in The Human Stain" studies the female representation or femininity of three female characters in the novel according to Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s analysis of images of women in literature as the angel and the monster. First, this chapter probes into Faunia Farley’s female representation, arguing that she is an Other under male gaze, explicating in what way she is not only an angel-like woman but a monster woman as well, elaborating on her relation with Coleman Silk and her complicated role as a female in the drama of Roth’s writing, her identity crisis also being analyzed in the meantime. Secondly, this chapter elaborate on why and how Delphine Roux’s female identity and sexuality is in crisis and in what aspects that she is a complicated figure bearing some features of a monster woman, in virtue of demonstrating her relation with Coleman Silk and her past experience in her home country France and her rebellion against her mother, of depicting her frenetic mood and her out-of-control behavior towards Coleman. In the end, this chapter illuminates the female representation of Mrs. Silk, Coleman’s mother, a tough and strong black woman by means of depicting briefly her conduct as a wife, a mother and a nurse, her intelligence and ability, and of adumbrating vividly what she endures in her son’s identity passing, aiming at pointing out that she is an angel woman, different from Faunia’s and Delphine’s complicated female characteristics.In Conclusion part, I restate the main ideas of this thesis after an overall comment on Philip Roth’s achievement in his later years and present more interpretations of this novel from the perspectives of the Cultural Studies, genre study, the narrative techniques employed in the novel, and of the "anxiety of influence". The profundity and readability of Roth is thus made clear, although there is a certain foible in Roth’s narrative, that is, too much Roth himself in his writing. Roth’s own purpose in writing this novel and the thematic significance of this novel are also briefed near the end in this part.Philip Roth is a great writer in the landscape of contemporary American literature, and his The Human Stain is a remarkable novel, which is worth studying, due to its content with richness, its theme with profundity and its narrative techniques with tact. Identity crisis in male characters and female representation in female characters, having made a great impression on the reader, play a crucial role in the understanding of this novel and will stimulate much greater study interest of more readers in Philip Roth and his novels.

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