Fiction is conflict. Someone versus someone or something. Professor Coleman Silk, Philip Roth’s central character in “The Human Stain,” lectures his students: “You know how European literature begins? With a quarrel. All of European literature springs from a fight.” He reads aloud the opening lines of The Iliad. “‘Divine Muse, sing of the ruinous wrath of Achilles… Begin where they first quarreled, Agamemnon the King of men, and great Achilles.’ And what are they quarreling about, these two violent, mighty souls? It’s as basic as a barroom brawl. They are quarreling over a woman. A girl, really. A girl stolen from her father.”
Roth’s narrator, the writer Nathan Zuckerman, begins with one of Coleman’s secrets, telling us that Coleman “confided to me that at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college.”
Lesson: Embody theme in character
Coleman Silk has a past life. Secrecy is the heart of the novel. Conflict is the heartbeat. Roth gives to young Coleman boxing training and to the adult Dean Silk an academic life in which he’s unlikely to be found in a barroom brawl. Yet Coleman never drops the gloves. He’s been in fisticuffs since early adulthood, dodging what he believes to be the knock-out punch—the closely guarded Big Secret—that he threw at himself.
Faunia Farley is not Coleman’s biggest secret. She’s of an age and social status that he believes would only further ravage his reputation, which has been pulverized by a misunderstanding due to a comment he made in class about two absent students. He asks, “Do they exist or are they spooks?” His father taught him to be precise with language; Coleman intends “spooks” to mean “ghosts, specters.” He’s never seen the students and, as his fate would have it, both are black. They set in motion accusations of racism and academic politics that lead to Coleman’s resignation and the grief, he believes, that causes his wife’s death.
Faunia, a victim and survivor of life’s misfortunes, also embodies conflict, but her struggles are no secret. Abused as a child by her stepfather, she ran from economic security to a hard-scrabble existence, marrying a man who beat her —Lester, her now ex-husband, a Vietnam vet who stalks her and Coleman. She carries the grief and guilt of losing her two young children in a fire—not her fault but certainly her negligence and the source of her internal strife. When she meets Coleman, she’s survived suicide attempts and is resigned to whatever comes her way—for now, the sex and companionship that Coleman offers.
Nathan Zuckerman is fighting battles, too. He’s impotent due to cancer surgery, unable to be helped by Viagra, which enables Coleman’s affair.
Every character in this story embodies conflict: Coleman’s associates on the faculty, his children, his birth family. Coleman’s greatest secret —thus his greatest quarrel with himself—resides with his birth family.
Lesson: Know when to parry, when to punch
Through the writer Zuckerman, Roth masterfully controls the narrative. Zuckerman lets us know that he knows Coleman’s secret and then delays delivery. We’re given hints:
Sixteen pages in, we’re told that Coleman is a “small-nosed Jewish type with the facial heft in the jaw, one of those crimped-haired Jews of a light yellowish skin pigmentation who possess something of the ambiguous aura of the pale blacks who are sometimes taken for white.”
This seems like an odd bit of detail, but it flows in context with a narrative that from the first sentence offered abundant information: “It was in the summer of 1998 that my neighbor Coleman Silk—who, before retiring two years earlier, had been a classics professor at nearby Athena college for some twenty-odd years as well as serving for sixteen more as the dean of faculty—confided to me that, at the age of seventy-one, he was having an affair with a thirty-four-year-old cleaning woman who worked down at the college.” The gem about the affair aside, there are a lot of numbers: 1998, two, twenty-odd, sixteen more, seventy-one, thirty-four. Whew!
As writers and close readers we know that masterful authors make every word count. So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise when Zuckerman, relating an incident from Coleman’s youth, refers to “the kind of obstacle that the Silks themselves had had to overcome to achieve all that distinguished them as a model Negro family.” Model Negro family? Wasn’t Coleman a white Jew? Well, apparently not. He’s lived a lie his entire adult life, denying his family and heritage in order to marry a white woman and be accepted into white academia. The lie has stained his life and even though the truth could save him from the accusations of racism, he doesn’t tell his wife. When she dies, his guilt at holding the lie is even greater. Perhaps the truth could have saved his career and her. But he’s lied to his children too. He’s backed into a corner, up against the ropes. His fear and shame have shadowed his life more than his genetics have darkened his complexion. His cowardice costs him, if not every round of his fight, certainly the match.
Lesson: Offer a time out, if not resolution or victory
Things end badly for Coleman and Faunia, who die when her truck careens off the road into a lake. Zuckerman believes Lester is the cause of their death. The narrative we’re reading is the book Zuckerman is writing about Coleman’s life, telling truths that Coleman didn’t have the courage to tell. Zuckerman confronts the volatile Lester, who is ice-fishing on the above-mentioned lake. Zuckerman sees a broken, terrified, and terrifying man—the man he, Zuckerman, could have continued becoming and would become if he didn’t tell this story in a reliable, truthful way. His bout finishes without a winner or even a technical knockout. We don’t what will happen to Lester or to Zuckerman, who trails off…
“Just facing him, I could feel the terror of the auger—even with him already seated back on his bucket: the icy white of the lake encircling a tiny spot that was a man, the only human marker in all of nature, like the X of an illiterate’s signature on a sheet of paper. There it was, if not the whole story, the whole picture. Only rarely, at the end of our century, does life offer up a vision as pure and peaceful as this one: a solitary man on a bucket, fishing through eighteen inches of ice in a lake that’s constantly turning over its water atop an arcadian mountain in America.”
Lesson: Layer contemporary events to add social dimension
Roth is a “Great American Novelist.” His themes are grand and intricately linked to contemporary events. “The Human Stain” is the story of Coleman Silk and also the story of our nation in the late 1990s, our shame, and our secrets. In spite of desegregation, civil rights as evidenced by laws on the books for decades, and the ability to identify the demons which possess America, whether PTSD, cancer, or Clinton’s “incontinent carnality” (Roth devotes passages to Bill and Monica), we Americans still struggle to get past race, religion, politics, tragedy, sanctimony, and whatever causes us to judge and fear, and prevents us from seeing ourselves in other human beings.