Social demand and personal desire in Philp Roth's "Human Stain"

Seminar Paper, 2003

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)



1. Introduction

2. Main Part: Analysis
2.1. Coleman Silk
2.2. Faunia Farley
2.3. Lester Farley
2.4. Delphine Roux
2.5. Nathan Zuckerman
2.6. Nelson Primus

3. Conclusion

1. Introduction

We live in a time in which conformity and adaptation are important constituents of social life. Integration into society and the obeying of established norms, which goes hand in hand with it, are often the precondition for the degree of acceptance and the recognition of the individual in society. This, however, means that forms of expression of personal nature, including ethnic, religious as well as general questions concerning the personal belief, have to be practiced in private or in secret, or even have to be completely suppressed because the stigma of being antisocial or immoral is quickly allocated.

Especially when it comes to moral centrals issues, such as different opinions and individual actions which are directed at the public morals, these are often not accepted or even fought against. The freedom of the individual therefore too often drowns in the swamp of generality.

Philip Roth has tackled this problematic issue in his novel “The Human Stain”. The main character, Coleman Silk, is badly criticised by the people around him for making a thoughtless comment on two of his students, and in his anger uses this as an opportunity to evade social grading once and for all; he decides only to pursue the fulfilment of his desires and ideas. But Coleman is not the only acting character in conflict with the expectations of the general majority. There is Faunia Farley, a cleaner at the local college, with whom Coleman fosters a secret love affair and who tries to escape from the brutal behaviour of her ex-husband. There is precisely that Lester Farley, the Vietnam veteran who cannot come to terms with his war memories and therefore is not able to return into society. Interesting is also Delphine Roux, the young and ambitious College professor, who sets in motion the conflict concerning the accusation of racism against Coleman. Finally, the character Nathan

Zuckerman should be mentioned, the author of the story who, in search for isolation, finds exactly the opposite.

Each of the characters mentioned above has to bear his own internal conflict which keeps them from integrating into society and leading a normal life in adaptation, in the in the safe close circle of moral.

This paper now has the intent to analyze the motives of each individual figure, and external reasons that make them outsiders. Besides the individual examination of each figure, there will also be an analysis of the interpersonal relations between the characters. Furthermore, besides the main figures of the story, there will be taken a closer look at the role of one minor character, Nelson Primus, who does not play a major role in the continuation of the story but influences the main character Coleman Silk in different ways.

2. Analysis

2.1. Coleman Silk

“Appropriate. The current code word for reining in most any deviation from the wholesome guidelines and thereby making everybody feel “comfortable”. Doing not what he was being judged to be doing but doing instead, what was deemed suitable by God only knows which of our moral philosophers.”1

The conflict that pushes and makes up completely the character of Coleman Silk is the result of a chain of impressing events which internally already troubled him in his youth and made him the man he finally was: an embittered, isolated loner who does not pay attention to what society has established in its moral code, and rather rebels against it. But this is not the rebellion of the young Coleman but that of the 71-year old college professor, who had reached everything desirable in life: a good employment at a respected college, a wonderful wife, four grown-up children, a home. So what are the reasons that persuaded this man to turn his back on his previous life and to begin an affair with a much younger woman, even under acceptance of the loss of family relations and friendly relations – the loss of social relations? To be able to answer this question, it is necessary to understand the sequence of important events in his life and their significance for his present state.

After two decades of employment at the college, which had undergone many modernizing changes during his term as dean, Coleman Silk is being accused of racism due to a thoughtless remark. He blames the college for the following death of his wife. The fact that even supposed friends are not behind him to defend him arouses his anger, and is a decisive aspect for the change of Coleman Silk:

“But Herb too has been radicalized by the racism of Jews like me. “I can’t be with you on this, Coleman. I’m going to have to be with them.” This is what he told me when I went to ask for his support. To my face. I’m going to have to be with them. Them!” 2

To be able to understand the complete motivation behind Coleman’s decision to leave the

College, instead of settling the differences with one simple excuse, it is necessary to uncover the circumstances under which Coleman had to grow up: Only in the course of the story it becomes apparent that actually is not, as he had claimed all his life, of Jewish descent but Afro-American. The issue of his origins, however, should only become a problem for the older Coleman because, although he had already felt the force of the stigma of being different as a child, he is at first rather uncritical:

“And when, in seventh grade, he didn’t get invited to some white friend’s birthday party (…), Coleman didn’t take it as rejection by white people – after his mystification, he took it as rejection by Dicky Watkin’s stupid mother and father.” 3

Coleman then understands the disapproving attitude displayed towards him not as a rejection of white people against him as a black person but, in his childlike ignorance, as a personal affront. In addition, his good school performance then allowed him to lead a relatively carefree life, despite the reservations of his teachers. Regarding his family this also holds true. The Colemans received a sort of acceptance and recognition in their neighbourhood only because of their conformist and moderate lifestyle.

But the “bubble”, that protected Coleman until this time in his life, bursts abruptly with his entrance into Howard College, which he enters only because of his father. The fact that Howard is a traditional College for black students bothers him:

“I’d never seen so many colored people before, not even in south Jersey at the family reunion. Howard University looked to me like just too many Negroes in one place. Of all persuasion, of every stripe, but I just did not want to be around them lie that. Did not at all see what it had to do with me. Everything there was just so concentrated that any sort of pride I ever had was diminished. Completely diminished by a concentrated, false environment.” 4

His uniqueness, the uniqueness of the exceptional black student Coleman Silk was all of a sudden worthless. Worthless not in the academic sense but rather in the sense of Coleman’s personal self-esteem.

But the decisive point that leads to his rejection of the past was the racist insult he had to put up with (page), against which he could not defend himself, and which showed him his limited opportunities in society.

The significance that his father had in his life becomes very clear at that point.

“It was his father who had been making up Coleman’s story for him; now he would make it up himself.” 5

The death of his father, who until this point of time was the connecting link between Coleman and the legacy of his black roots, is at the same time the only possibility for Coleman to escape this legacy and so to be able to advance the own existence in his own estimation. He enters the Navy under the pretence that he is white, and successfully manages to visit a College for white students.

The encounter with Steena, however, shows Coleman the consequences of his decision. The meeting between Steena and his family and her “retreat” make clear that Coleman had underestimated the complete scale of his actions. He has to realize that the social claim for the free development of one’s personality does not correspond with his own ideas. But even the open understanding of Ellie does not form the starting point for Coleman’s salvation from his moral dilemma.(page) This circumstance would rather spur him on to see his decision all the way through and to be wrapped up completely in his new life: a prospect that is reluctant to Coleman because this way he would change inevitably from one milieu to the next. The decision to keep his secret to himself in the future is the logical conclusion Coleman has drawn in order to realize his goals: not to let social boundaries restrict his opportunities and not to put aside his own luck in favour of social well-being. The final liberation from his past

comes from his marriage with Iris, the birth of his fair-skinned children, and the employment at a respected college.

The sordid slander initiated by the College professor Delphine Roux lets the rickety scaffold, on which Coleman’s identity is based, begin to waver – he himself causes the collapse. To reproach a black person of spreading racist remarks about black people is in principle rather absurd, but because of the rejection of his past, this absurdity becomes to Coleman the starting point of his troubles: a reference to his black roots was out of the question. The apparent security that the life of a white Jew in the American society promised, is all of a sudden void. The crime that, years before when directed against him, stayed unnoticed and unexpiated (105), now wrongly leads to an accusation against him. Coleman, who sees the effort of his life slandered, does what everyone expected the least: he quits his job at the College und begins an affair with a cleaner who could be his daughter. This last act of rebellion closes another chapter of the life of Coleman Silk: a chapter of hypocrisy. After decades of pretence and suppression of personal leaning and desire, and the following dishonourable discharge, Coleman uses this as an opportunity to make up the lost time and to realize ruthlessly what had been a taboo before – in defiance of any social reproaches. The affair with Faunia illustrates, like no other aspect in the story, not even the aspects of Coleman’s interpretation, the motives and views of Coleman. In the centre of attention stands initially the sexual component, which contrasts starkly with Coleman’s long and harmonious marriage with Iris. Further points of view regarding the relationship between Coleman and Faunia will be pointed out in the next section, after having dealt more closely with the character of Faunia Farley.

2.2. Faunia Farley

Faunia is also still influenced in her actions and her thinking by the circumstances that

have accompanied her while growing up. At the time she gets to know Coleman, Faunia works as a cleaner at the College and on the side at a dairy farm. She then still tries to escape from her violent ex-husband, Lester, who follows and threatens her because he blames her for the tragic death of their children. As one finds out, Faunia had been born into a prosperous family, but after the divorce of her parents she was abused by her step-father. She cannot cope with the fact that her mother refused to believe her and escapes from her background. She marries Lester Farley, who just returned from Vietnam; both found a farm and have


1 Roth, Philip, the Human Stain. London: Vintage, 2001. pp. 152-153.

2 ebd., p. 16.

3 ebd., p. 104.

4 ebd., p. 134.

5 ebd., p. 107.

Excerpt out of 18 pages


Social demand and personal desire in Philp Roth's "Human Stain"
University of Potsdam  (Anglistics/American Studies)
Introduction to American Literature and Culture
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
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473 KB
Social, Philp, Roth, Human, Stain, Introduction, American, Literature, Culture
Quote paper
Mandy Dobiasch (Author), 2003, Social demand and personal desire in Philp Roth's "Human Stain", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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