The Human Stain by Philip Roth

The Human Stain
By Philip Roth
Completed October 5, 2007

I wish I could have read The Human Stain in college with a talented professor and insightful fellow students. This book has so many lively discussion points - it's a shame to read it alone. It's your typical "hard" college read - lots of literary devices, character development and narrative interpretations. As you peel away these literary layers, you are left with an interesting story that explores race, betrayal and envy - things that can leave a stain on a human heart.

The Human Stain is a story about Coleman Silk, a seventy-one year old man who had a prestigious career as a college dean, leading his small college into a progressive institution, and rising to academic ranks unheard of by a Jewish man at that time. Before retirement, he decides to return to the classroom, where he makes a comment that is interpreted to be a racial slur against African Americans. The college officials side with the students and formally investigate Coleman. Outraged, Coleman resigns. Ironically, unknown to his peers and family, Coleman Silk is really an African American, "passing" as a Jewish man for more than forty years. "Passing" because he knew that he could not succeed as a black man in academics, because he wanted to do better than his father, because he was "more white than white men."

Bitter, Coleman turns to a housekeeper/dairy maid who is forty years his junior, and they begin a torrid affair that will eventually lead to the complete demise of Coleman Silk.

Narrated by Roth's long-time character, Nathan Zuckerman, this novel is a complex read with stream of consciousness (usually happening among many characters without introduction, so you have to guess who is thinking) and references to ancient Greek and Latin literature. Despite this, the novel sucks you in because the story is so enthralling and the characters are so real.

One hundred years from now, college kids will be reading Philip Roth, much like kids now read John Steinbeck or F. Scott Fitzgerald, because Roth represents smart fiction from this era. If you read The Human Stain prepare to have your brain muscles flexed. It will leave you feeling wiser. ( )