The Woman of Ressentiment in When She Was Good

By Peeler, Nicole | Philip Roth Studies, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

The Woman of Ressentiment in When She Was Good


Peeler, Nicole, Philip Roth Studies


When She Was Good (1967) was published five years before Irving Howe and Norman Podhoretz used the pages of Commentary to attack Philip Roth as an arrogant iconoclast, determined to destroy both Jewish and American literary high culture with the force of his anger, his vulgarity, and his inability to understand or appreciate "middle-class America and what later came to be called 'family values'" (Podhoretz 32). While this "reading" was leveled at Roth as a response to Portnoy's Compkint (1969), Howe's and Podhoretz's critical "intervention" actually restates in quite simplistic terms elements of the relationship between morality and life that I would argue has been the subject of Rodi's fiction from its inception and that is fully realized in When She Was Good. This fascinating novel, however, has often been dismissed as evidence that his greatest weakness as a writer is, in the words of Podhoretz, Roth's desire "to take stock of die world in which he lived and give it the business" (30). Indeed, many dismissive readings of the novel are based on Roth's autobiography - specifically, his divorce from his ex-wife, Margaret Williams - and conclude that Roth is anti-feminist and/or a misogynist.1 In the case of When She Was Good, however, a reader who insists on seeing only "proof" of Rodi's hatred of women or sees in Lucy only a shade of Margaret Williams will miss what is, in fact, a set of important and prescient ethical questions that Roth's work will continue to explore throughout his career. Therefore, instead of offering another reading of a Roth novel based on his biography, I will argue that When She Was Good represents Roth's first sustained attempt to imagine the pre-ideological development of moral ideas.2 To establish this reading, I will explore how Friedrich Nietzsche's theory of ressentiment can be employed to unlock some of the novel's key themes.

Nietzsche is certainly not the only thinker through which When She Was Good can be read, and both Sam B. Girgus and James B. Carothers have explored the Freudian aspects of the novel. That said, this passage from Nietzsche's The Genealogy of Morals clearly anticipates the mindset of Lucy Nelson:

The revolt of the slaves in morals begins in the very principle of resentment becoming creative and giving birth to values - a resentment experienced by creatures who, deprived as they are of the proper oudet of action, are forced to find their compensation in an imaginary revenge. While every aristocratic morality springs from a triumphant affirmation of its own demands, the slave morality says "no" from the very outset to what is "outside itself," "different from itself," and "not itself": and this "no" is its creative deed. (19)

This quotation reveals two crucial aspects of Nietzsche's theory of ressentiment (here translated as "resentment"): that it is reactive, and that ressentiment becomes creative and gives birth to values. Thomas J. Brobjer argues that in Nietzsche's estimation, "Moral principles, even relativistic moral principles, assume or presuppose moral opposites, presuppose good and evil things, dioughts and deeds. Nietzsche, however, rejects the belief in moral opposites" (65). Ressentiment offers a glimpse not only into why moral principles dichotomize the world but also what the individual "gets" from this dualistic vision of morality. According to Lee Spinks, "Ressentiment describes the movement in which this reactive and resentful denial of higher life begins to create its own moral system and vision of the world" (97). As Spinks suggests, an individual's subjective reaction against a particular mode of life, stemming from that person's jealousy for or resentment towards that way of life, becomes the origin and basis of individual and collective ideologies. Paradoxically this primary act of negation becomes the "positive" principle at the very heart of a particular vision of life. Eventually this reactive stance establishes itself as the "universal" interpretation of the moral groundings of life. …

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