The Plot Against America

Houghton Mifflin   2004

Audaciously original and richly ironic, Roth’s new fiction, already categorized as another of the “Roth books” because its narrator bears the author’s name and facts resonate autobiographically, bores in on what it means to be a Jew in America. The years are 1940–42. The reverberation is 2004. Charles A. Lindbergh has been elected America’s 33rd president, defeating FDR in a landslide. Armed with substantial research and strategically deploying set-piece hamish humor, Roth explores through the eyes of young Philip Roth—seven when the Republicans nominate the famous Nazisympathizing aviator—the complex theme of American anti-Semitism. He posits an ingenious “what if,” and then cunningly closes the gap between farfetched hypothetical and possible reality. The concept of a fantastical premise that provokes serious rumination is hardly new to Roth: in The Breast, David Kepesh awakens one morning to find himself turned into a giant mammary gland and must confront questions of identity. In The Plot Against America Roth’s incredible imagination functions to deeper, wider and more Jewish-inflected purpose: Who are America’s Jews? How and why do they see themselves (or not) assimilating into the heartland? How do gentiles see Jews? To what extent is any American who happens to be any degree Jewish shadowed always by a Jewish counter life? One may be reminded of Sartre’s sardonic observation that the world decided that it’s not up to Jews to say who is Jewish.

Roth embeds his satire in an engaging narrative about childhood and Newark’s Jews, many of whom, insular and paranoid, articulate clichés that turn out to be horrific truths (the novel’s opening word is “fear”), prompting readers to brood on the wisdom or futility of flight, collaboration, resistance, inertia, and on the lessons of history. The tale is told by an adult who looks back to when he was “innocent” for the last time—the word dilates in its etymological sense as freedom from harm—to when he enjoyed an “unfazed sense of security” because of the “big protective republic” in which he lived and because of his “ferociously responsible parents.” This may be Roth’s most affectionate portrayal of family yet.

But the domestic scenes darken with the isolationist clamor that it’s only the Jews who want war, their plot against America. Walter Winchell, aggressively playing to vulgar stereotype, counters that the plotters are Hitlerites and Jew-hating Christian fronts who would destroy the Constitution, while some Jews say other Jews just don’t get it. At the center of the deepening crisis is young Roth, who comes to understand how fear drives his mother, father, beloved older brother, cousin, and extended family members and friends, characters and caricatures, to give way to disappointing, absurd and violent behavior. Comic, tragic, ragged in its reach and resolution, but with numerous memorable scenes, all rendered with Roth’s superb, unerring ear, The Plot Against the Jews defies neat summary. Because of the density of the pseudo facts at the heart of this extraordinary riff on history, Roth includes a 27-page postscript, which contains “A Note to the Reader, A True Chronology of the Major Figures, Other Historical Figures in the Work, Some Documentation.” Readers may want to start with this section.

Discussion Questions

From: Houghton Mifflin

1. In what ways does The Plot Against America differ from conventional historical fiction? What effects does Roth achieve by blending personal history, historical fact, and an alternative history that might have happened?

2. The novel begins "Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear" [p. 1]. With this sentence Roth establishes that his story is being told from an adult point of view by an adult narrator who is remembering what befell his family, over sixty years earlier, when he was a boy between the ages of seven and nine. Why else does Roth open the novel this way? What role does fear play throughout the book?

3. How plausible is the alternative history that Roth imagines? How would the world be different if America had not entered the war, or entered it on the side of Germany?

4. When the Roth family plans to go to Washington, young Philip wants to take his stamp collection with him because he fears that, since he did not remove the ten-cent Lindbergh stamp, "a malignant transformation would occur in my absence, causing my unguarded Washingtons to turn into Hitlers, and swastikas to be imprinted on my National Parks" [p. 57]. What does this passage suggest about how the Lindbergh election has affected the boy? Where else does this kind of "magical thinking" occur in the novel?

5. Herman Roth asserts that "history is everything that happens everywhere. Even here in Newark. Even here on Summit Avenue. Even what happens in this house to an ordinary man — that'll be history too someday" [p. 180]. How does this conception of history differ from traditional definitions? In what ways does the novel support this claim? How is the history of the Roth family relevant to the history of America?

6. After Mrs. Wishnow is murdered, young Philip thinks, "And now she was inside a casket, and I was the one who put her there" [p. 336]. Is he to some degree responsible for her death? How has his desire to save his own family endangered hers?

7. Observing his mother's anguished confusion, Philip discovers that "one could do nothing right without also doing something wrong" [p. 341]. Where in the novel does the attempt to do something right also result in doing something wrong? What is Roth suggesting here about the moral complexities of actions and their consequences?

8. When Herman Roth is explaining the deals Hitler has made with Lindbergh, Roth comments, "The pressure of what was happening was accelerating everyone's education, my own included" [p. 101]. What is Philip learning? In what ways is history robbing him of a normal childhood? Why does he want to run away?

9. What motivates Rabbi Bengelsdorf, Aunt Evelyn, and Sandy to embrace Lindbergh and dismiss Herman Roth's fears as paranoia? Are they right? In what ways do their personal aspirations affect their perceptions of what is happening?

10. In what ways are Bess and Herman Roth heroic? How do they respond to the crises that befall them? How are they able to hold their family together?

11. Roth observes that violence, when it's in a house, is heartbreaking: "like seeing the clothes in a tree after an explosion. You may be prepared to see death but not the clothes in a tree" [p. 296]. What causes Herman Roth and Alvin to fight each other so viciously? What is it that brings the violence swirling around them off the streets and into the house? Why is violence in a home so much more disturbing than on the street or the battlefield?

12. Much is at stake in The Plot Against America — the fate of America's Jews, the larger fate of Europe and indeed of Western civilization, but also how America will define itself. What does the novel suggest about what it means to be an American, and to be a Jewish American? In what ways are the Roths a thoroughly American family?

13. What does the Postscript, particularly the "True Chronology of the Major Figures," add to the novel?

Have You Read...