'Perpetual Fear': Repetition and Fantasy in the Plot against America by Philip Roth

By Chard-Hutchinson, Martine | Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

'Perpetual Fear': Repetition and Fantasy in the Plot against America by Philip Roth


Chard-Hutchinson, Martine, Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge


Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear.

Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn't been president or if I hadn't been the offspring of

Jews. (Plot 1)

Fear certainly presides over the incipit of Philip Roth's The Plot against America, a Novel, published in 2004; the very first sentence literally encapsulates the whole narrative beginning with the word fear and ending with a chapter entitled "Perpetual fear." As a matter of fact this forceful incipit gives the key to the novel's major thematic content (fear) as well as to the main narrative strategy: repetition, so systematic a repetition that it creates clusters of obsession. And it so happens that this hyperbolic, all-invading fear is made all the more powerful as it is still there, poisoning the narrator's present narration of his past memories. There is no paranoia, though, as some critics may have suggested. For what is this time-transcending "perpetual fear" directly connected with "Jews" if not a euphemistic reference to antisemitism?

Besides, "perpetual fear" indirectly recalls the "eternal antisemitism" doctrine that Hannah Arendt denounced as "giv[ing] the best possible alibi for all horrors" (Arendt 7) in her chapter about "Antisemitism as an outrage to common sense" in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951, revised 1973). This is not to say that The Plot Against America is to be read as a theoretical essay on antisemitism or even a belated response to Arendt; it is to be read for what it is: a novel, and one of a most provocative kind, for sure, on the "what if" mode, what if America had gone fascist and elected an overtly antisemitic president? Let's say that the result proves Arendt totally right: it's "all horrors," martial law, riots, massacres, pogroms and murder and there's very little outcry from "ordinary" American citizens. Those that dare speak out, like Walter Winchell on the radio or F.D. Roosevelt, are silenced one way or another, temporarily "detained" in Roosevelt's case or simply "murdered" like Winchell.

This "terrific political novel" (Paul Berman, The New York Times Book Review) which was published three years after the 9/11 tragic events did not raise the big controversy some of the critics announced, maybe because Roth made it perfectly clear in his "Postscript Note to the Reader" that " The Plot Against America [was] a work of fiction" (Plot 364). And the book was well received as such: "a fable of an alternative universe" (Berman), "a stunning work of political extrapolation" (Charles). To go on with the reception of the book, let's mention that some critics pointed at a subtext about the Bush administration and the dangers of isolationism in American contemporary policies after the 9/11 events, which Roth repeatedly denied. And also a jarring note coming from Bill Kauffman (from The American Conservative) who denounced The Plot as "a repellent novel, bigoted and libelous of the dead, dripping with hatred of rural America, of Catholics, of any Middle American who has ever dared stand against the war machine" (Kauffman 2004). Charles Lindbergh as the point of junction between fantasy and antisemitism in the Roth novel is precisely what the controversy originates in and feeds on. So Lindbergh as the illustration of the fiction and history (or "Counterhistory") interplay in the novel will be discussed with special emphasis on his function in the building up of "the terror of the unforeseen."

I. 'The terror of the unforeseen " (Plot 113): History or Counterhistory?

The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides,

turning a disaster into an epic. (Plot 114)

That "disaster" is Lindbergh's election as president; it is a major change in the narrator's life ("A new life began for me. I'd watch my father fall apart, and I would never return to the same childhood" [Plot 113]) and a turning point in the collective history of America, referred to as "the unfolding of the unforeseen": "And as Lindbergh's election couldn't have made clearer to me, the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

'Perpetual Fear': Repetition and Fantasy in the Plot against America by Philip Roth
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.