Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Imagining Tragedy: Philip Roth's the Human Stain

Academic journal article Philip Roth Studies

Imagining Tragedy: Philip Roth's the Human Stain

Article excerpt

Philip Roth makes no secret of his intention that The Human Stain (2000) be read with reference to classical tragedy. From the epigraphic citation of Oedipus Rex, to the five-chapter structure capped by a final act entitled "The Purifying Ritual," to a plot that reads like an exercise in Sophoclean homage - talented hero doggedly refuses to acknowledge a terrible act he has committed, only to succumb to an ironic and mysteriously inevitable fate years later - all the signs point to a sustained effort by the author to fully exploit the conventions and traditional hallmarks of tragedy: seriousness, high rhetoric, a powerful central protagonist, an ambiguous play of agency and fate, a movement towards revelation and death, and the lingering sense of a painful mystery that resists analysis. Moreovet, the novel's consistent allusions to canonical works of tragedy - including The Bacchae, The Iliad, Hamlet and Death in Venice, in addition to Oedipus - suggest diat Roth is determined to engage not only with tragic themes and conventions but also with previous tragic literature, and hence to carry out, in narrative form, an intertextual engagement with the history of the genre itself.

TRAGIC ALLUSIONS

As early critical responses to The Human Stain implicidy testify, this engagement intervenes in a contemporary context in which "a rethinking of tragedy is undoubtedly beginning to take place" (Feiski vi). Following a period of declining interest in tragedy within the academy, Kathleen Sands identifies "a renewed sense of the tragic" in literary studies, arising both as a lament for a sensibility that seemed to go missing in modernity, and as a way of understanding the failings of the modern project itself (41). Dennis Schmidt argues that the increasing self-doubt of philosophy and the contemporary suspicion of the value of conceptual knowledge have much to do with the powerful but often unrecognized persistence of tragedy, which resists conceptualization and dramatizes blindness, hubris, and error. In addition, Rita Felski remarks that "tragic art has come to seem more resonant, alive, and contemporaneous rhan much tragic theory" (vii), meaning that as we enter the twenty-first century, we cannot be at all complacent about our comprehension of classical texts. Against this intellectual background, then, The Human Stain, published on the cusp of the new millennium and very much concerned, borh in toto and explicitly in one of its plot strands, with the status of die classics within academia, can function both as a work of tragic art and as a reading of the tragic canon, both as an exemplar of tragic themes and as a reflection upon the historical persistence of those themes.

Unsurprisingly, then, in the growing critical literature on The Human Stain, the majority of treatments mention the tragic elements of the novel.' Nevertheless, tragedy is taken as the central concern of only a handful of essays to date. Bonnie Lyons declares that the late trilogy of which The Human Stain is the third part "establish [es] Roth as our most important author of significant American tragedies" (125). Similarly, Elaine B. Safer argues that the comic elements of the novel prepare the reader for a shift to tragedy, and suggests that "Coleman and Faunia are rounded personalities, tragic and more complex than any Roth has previously portrayed" (213). Patrice Rankine notes that "[ajllusions to Greek epic and tragedy are die driving force of die novel" (103), and contends that Roth utilizes tragic references in order to deepen die implications of the theme of "passing" in the novel. Rankine's essay usefully lists and outlines many of the implicit and explicit allusions to tragedy in The Human Stain, highlighting the sheer number of intertextual and generic references throughout the text. What his essay shares with those of Lyons and Safer, however, is a lack of attention to the way the relationship between established motifs of tragedy and die particular story of Coleman Silk is itself treated as a significant theme in the novel. …

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