By – October 18, 2011

Philip Roth’s unnamed pro­tag­o­nist, our Every­man, is dead and buried at 71 at the very open­ing of this extra­or­di­nary novel­la, a work which encom­pass­es not only many of Roth’s sig­na­ture themes and para­dox­es — ecsta­sy and dread, ten­der sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty and raw sex­u­al­i­ty, risk and regret — but also much of life’s cen­tral con­cerns— sur­vival, rela­tion­ships, iden­ti­ty, right behav­ior, mean­ing, aging, and mortality. 

Roth has flirt­ed with the idea and real­i­ty of death in ear­li­er work, includ­ing The Coun­ter­life, Sabbath’s The­atre, and The Dying Ani­mal, but here he goes full throt­tle. From the very begin­ning, for his epi­graph for the book, he choos­es these lines from John Keats’ Ode to a Nightin­gale”: Here where men sit and hear each oth­er groan;/When pal­sy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,/Where youth grows pale, and spec­tre-thin and dies;/Where but to think is to be full of sor­row…” We learn through­out that life’s most dis­turb­ing inten­si­ty is death.”

Everyman’s old­er broth­er, Howie, at the grave­side, in a voice husky with emo­tion whis­pers to his wife, My kid broth­er. It makes no sense.” Nei­ther did it make sense to Roth’s cen­tral char­ac­ter, who even­tu­al­ly came not only to envy gen­er­ous and love­able Howie, but to hate him for remain­ing tri­umphant­ly healthy” all of his life. Although Every­man had had a bout with seri­ous ill­ness in his adult­hood, he con­tin­ued to count on a gen­er­al­ly healthy and rel­a­tive­ly long future. He dis­cov­ers, how­ev­er, after a series of block­ages — coro­nary, renal, and carotid — that old age isn’t a bat­tle; old age is a mas­sacre.” And, per­haps even more cru­el­ly, he has to endure it alone. 

The son of Jew­ish immi­grants who built lit­er­al­ly from noth­ing and in the mid­dle of the Great Depres­sion a mod­er­ate­ly suc­cess­ful jew­el­ry busi­ness in Eliz­a­beth, New Jer­sey, Every­man became an art direc­tor for an adver­tis­ing agency. At this he more than suc­ceed­ed. But he was thrice divorced and alien­at­ed from the two unfor­giv­ing sons of his first mar­riage. He was dis­tin­guished by what he him­self calls his mis­deeds” — mis­takes engen­dered main­ly by the revival of intense sex­u­al desire in the face of post­mid­dle age. Every­man tries to jus­ti­fy his behav­ior to his sons (but most­ly to him­self) by claim­ing that he was not the only one of the mil­lions of Amer­i­can men who were par­ty to a divorce that broke up a fam­i­ly.” He had, after all, phys­i­cal­ly abused no one. Nor had he failed to sup­port them, or even to make over­tures of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. But he is a repeat offend­er, leav­ing behind 13-yearold Nan­cy, the daugh­ter of his sec­ond mar­riage. Decom­pos­ing fam­i­lies,” he admits sad­ly, was his specialty.” 

In a sear­ing and mem­o­rable denun­ci­a­tion of her husband’s sex­u­al escapades, Nancy’s moth­er, Phoebe, an intel­li­gent and giv­ing woman, and a vir­tu­al­ly flaw­less part­ner for Every­man, asks him why he should want to unhinge every­thing?” She sup­plies her own answer. For Every­man, phys­i­cal affec­tion, ten­der­ness, com­radery (sic),…closeness,” is not enough. He is, she says, a man who can­not live with­out.” But he will have to live with­out. For although Roth man­ages here to cel­e­brate the exquis­ite phys­i­cal splen­dor expressed in sex­u­al desire and per­for­mance, indeed in every­thing the body offers, the attempt by Every­man to retrieve what David Kepesh in The Dying Ani­mal calls an erot­ic birthright,” to beat off the indig­ni­ties and infir­mi­ties of aging by chas­ing and tem­porar­i­ly pos­sess­ing young female bod­ies, always ends in meaninglessness. 

Every­man comes close to ask­ing him­self the same ques­tion posed by Tolstoy’s pro­tag­o­nist in The Death of Ivan Ilych”: What if in real­i­ty all my life, my con­scious life, has been not the right thing?” We learn ear­ly in the book that Every­man is an athe­ist; he abides no hocus-pocus” about death or God or heav­en. There was,” he insist­ed, only our bod­ies.” But as he approach­es his end, Every­man, per­haps seek­ing con­nec­tion to anoth­er more secure, more ordered time, vis­its the ceme­tery of his par­ents, the same bur­ial ground in which he will be interred and that opens the book. His moth­er had died at eighty, his father at nine­ty. Aloud he said to them, I’m sev­en­ty-one. Your boy is sev­en­ty-one.’ Good. You lived,” his moth­er replied, and his father said, Look back and atone for what you can atone for, and make the best of what you have left.’ But over­whelmed with emo­tion, Every­man longs instead for every­one to be liv­ing. And to have it all over again.” 

This is Roth’s dark­est work. There is lit­tle con­so­la­tion here. But there is, in this small mas­ter­piece, the beau­ty of Philip Roth’s lan­guage, the cadence of which is often Shake­speare­an or Bib­li­cal. And there is Roth’s remark­able abil­i­ty, even as he rumi­nates about the inex­ora­bil­i­ty of death, to make this inti­mate per­son­al sto­ry, which invokes the glo­ry of hav­ing lived, of hav­ing had sen­su­ous expe­ri­ence, our own.

Ger­ald Sorin is Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can and Jew­ish Stud­ies at the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, New Paltz. His most recent book, Irv­ing Howe: A Life of Pas­sion­ate Dis­sent,” won the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award in His­to­ry. He is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a biog­ra­phy of Howard Fast.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Houghton Mif­flin

1. How does the twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry nov­el Every­man sig­nif­i­cant­ly diverge in con­tent, form, and intent from the fif­teenth-cen­tu­ry Eng­lish moral­i­ty play Every­man? In what impor­tant ways has Roth mod­ern­ized and sec­u­lar­ized that medieval text? 

2. What is the rel­e­vance of the title to the sto­ry that is told in the novel? 

3. What do you learn about the man being buried from the open­ing scene at the ceme­tery? What would the book be like if this scene came — as it might if the sto­ry were told chrono­log­i­cal­ly — at the end rather than at the beginning? 

4. Describe pre­cise­ly his predica­ment with his sons, Lon­ny and Randy. 

5. Describe pre­cise­ly his rela­tion­ship with his daugh­ter, Nan­cy. What is the nature of theirpredica­ment? 

6. Why does he refuse the con­so­la­tions of reli­gion despite his shar­ing in the uni­ver­sal ter­ror of death? 

7. What is his rela­tion­ship with the dead? a. With his dead par­ents. b. With Mil­li­cent Kramer. c. With those of his fam­i­ly who are long dead. 

8. Why does he take up paint­ing, and why does he aban­don it? Why does he begin teach­ing paint­ing class­es to his fel­low retirees, and why does he stop teaching? 

9. Exact­ly what tran­spires between the young jog­ger and the hero? Trace the shift­ing devel­op­ment of their encounter line by line. 

10. While vis­it­ing his par­ents’ graves, the pro­tag­o­nist imag­ines his father telling him: Look back and atone for what you can atone for, and make the best of what you have left” (p. 171). Why does he imag­ine his father pos­ing this ques­tion? Why does­n’t he imag­ine his moth­er pos­ing it? Why does he imag­ine his moth­er say­ing Good. You lived.” What does she mean? How do you explain the dif­fer­ence between what is voiced by the father and what is voiced by the mother? 

11. Some read­ers have said that they wept when they fin­ished read­ing the book. Did you weep? If so, why? If not, how do you under­stand the response of those who did? 

12. Exam­ine the final para­graph of the book sen­tence by sen­tence. Dis­cuss the motifs that are gath­ered togeth­er in these final sen­tences and the impor­tance of each to the novel.