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Review of the Human Stain

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It is 1998, the year in which America is whipped into a frenzy of prurience by the impeachment of a president, and in a small New England town an aging Classics professor, Coleman Silk, is forced to retire when his colleagues decree that he is a racist. The charge is a lie, but the real truth about Silk would astonish even his most virulent accuser.

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The Human Stain by Phillip Roth is a novel that depicts a series of disgraceful events and dissatisfactions in a manner that it makes a reader highly inquisitive to read the novel further with a larger intensity into it. Roth is a maestro of such works and rarely fails to surprise readers with an array of practical as well as imaginary metaphors. In the human stain, Roth has chosen the characters very smartly and depicted the incidents on a good plot. It is a novel that depicts sex, desires and several other hidden tendencies of human beings to deceive and how people exploit others. The story, according to several people replicates the famous or infamous incident of American president bill Clinton and an employee of white house, Monica Lewinsky. The story and incident both have affected the Americans and that is the idea behind this story. The author has portrayed very explicitly the sexual desires and consequences afterwards. Roth seems to sensitize the incidents and the story at various places and in this course he has included some unwanted instances that make the novel a bit tedious. The story revolves around Nathan Zuckerman and Coleman silk. Nathan is in role of a writer and Coleman is an old man who tells him the stories and experience of his life. Both are in their old age and in course of spending time together share their experience of their life. The story of Coleman and his deeds has been highlighted which resembles to the contemporary bill Clinton episode. This old man after his retirement discloses the several incidents of his life to the writer. The final chapter of the novel is ironically titled The Purifying Ritual and it is the tragic part of the novel as against the main theme of novel. First the Faunia was dead and in her funeral, Nathan learnt many things that were unknown to him. Second day Coleman was to be buried and a couple of thoughts were coming and going in Nathan’s mind and he could not sleep. Roth has beautifully depicted the emotions and incidents. The novel reaches at a very tragic juncture and readers find themselves at a very confusing and tragic episode because in the earlier chapters they read several interesting instances of sex stories and affairs. The great irony of the Roth’s novel is that the bewilderment between stain and spotless, purity and impurity are visibly self contradictory. As soon as these ideas were structured, got restructured and seemed to be destructed at a later stage in the novel. Basically in this novel there is an array of contradictions, it seems usually that purity is in perseverance on impurity. Somewhere it seems rigid against the principle and ethics and in other instances it shows intolerance. The way the incidents and the characters have been portrayed, compels the readers to think about the novel. One starts relating the novel to his or her daily and practical life. At the end of the day, in the novel there is impurity but it depends and left on the reader to explain it as per his or her set of mind.

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Delphine Roux, the woman in charge of the smear campaign against Coleman Silk, has her own secrets - she is effectively in self-imposed exile in America from her family, who wish to control her life. Furthermore, she lusts after Coleman Silk; this makes his affair with Faunia Farley even more provocative and enraging to her, as she is caught up in sexual jealousy. This is why she gives him the letter that "everyone knows"; she masks it as protecting Faunia from Coleman's sexual desires, but instead she subconsciously wants him for herself (Neelakantan, p. 17). She could not come right out and say this, or even admit this to herself; it would be politically inconvenient and add to the immature drama that surrounds him. To that end, she herself is held back by her own political correctness and her desire to be part of the bloodhounds that want to depose Silk for his words and behavior. Faunia Farley, despite being an apparently semi-literate janitor at Athena College, is found to have rich relatives and is actually able to read, despite what she presents to people. Being a victim of sexual abuse, she seems to wish to hide away from the rest of the world by maintaining a low profile. Pretending to be dumb and insignificant is a response to her prior abuse, as being extraordinary gets people into trouble, as both she and Silk know. Her marriage to abused Vietnam veteran Les Farley is a response to that abuse, as they are two damaged characters that need each other. She refuses to take part in the inconsequential politics of political correctness that surround the times (Silk's resignation, the Clinton impeachment) and chooses to not play the social game at all by pretending to be illiterate. All three of these characters react in various ways to the concept of righteous moral outrage which is echoed by the book's setting near the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Like Bill Clinton, Silk is taken down and ravaged because of relatively inconsequential acts that have no bearing on his ability or his capacity to do his job. His secret is a secret because the hounds of the media and those like Delphine Roux would take him down, sometimes out of schaudenfreude or because of their own desires or need for retribution (Safer, p. 211). Faunia has already accepted the flawed nature of this world and its ability to judge unfairly, and thus has kept her ability to participate in it a secret. Through her interactions with Silk, they find kindred spirits who do not want to play the game of politics any longer.

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In sum, with this confusion comes an opportunity. While The Human Stain seems to argue for the superpower of secrecy—a superpower of knowledge that can persuade and alter minds—real growth comes from coming to terms with the fact that people—as well as our judgment of them—will change over time. Social scientist Dolly Chugh uses the notion of “goodish” as an adjustment of our expectation of ourselves and our assessment of others. Defining ourselves as “goodish” is an invitation to do better and keep learning. Defining Coleman Silk or Philip Roth as “goodish” enables us to keep the good even while the bad bubbles up all around it; to maintain our criticism while acknowledging that which is invaluable in each of them.

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Neelakantan, G. "Secrecy and Self-Invention: Philip Roth's Postmodern Identity in The Human Stain." International Fiction Review vol. 34, no. 1-2, 2007. Print.

Roth, Philip. The Human Stain. Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Print.

Safer, Elaine B. "Tragedy and Farce in Roth's The Human Stain." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction. vol. 43, no. 3, pp. 211-227. 2010. Print.

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