Philip Roth – The Human Stain

Last modified: February 9, 2018

A probing story about the fall of a professor of classics. After a long and successful term as dean, he returns to his old department to take up teaching again. Following a bizarre accusation of racism, it turns out that some of his colleagues have an old score to settle. Amidst all this turbulence, his wife dies and he decides to take early retirement. He begins an affair with a cleaner half his age and clashes with his children. Finally, the couple are killed in a car crash in which her ex-husband may have played a role.

This is a tragedy without winners, meticulously reconstructing how the main characters engage in destructive behaviour. The professor turns out to be a light-skinned African American who decided as young man to break with his family and go through life as white. The cleaner was abused by her stepfather and ended up marrying a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. The young head of department fled her dominant mother, a French aristocrat, only to find herself living out an alienated and embittered life at a second-rate US college. All in all, these personal histories paint a dismal picture of our time.

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