The Human Stain

by Philip Roth

Hardcover, 2000

Call number




Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2000), Edition: First Edition, 352 pages


Coleman Silk is a respected professor at a New England college who suddenly finds his life unraveling after a comment he makes about some African-American students is misinterpreted as a racial slur. As the scandal heats up, Nathan Zuckerman, a writer researching a biography of Silk, begins to dig deeply into Silk's life. Eventually, matters are made worse when Coleman's affair with a young married janitor named Faunia Farley is exposed. But amid the controversy, Silk must struggle to keep his greatest secret, a secret he's held for the majority of his life, from becoming made public.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Doey
This book would have been great if Philip Roth had written it 20 years earlier when the subjects covered in the book were controversial and actually mattered in life and academia. Hiding one's race was vital in the '50s and '60s. By the time Roth got around to writing this, the issue of race was not an issue in universities, thereby making the book trivial.… (more)
LibraryThing member Bookmarque
My Phillip Roth epiphany. Spoilers engaged.

When I’ve read a book that I think is brilliant, that I did not want to end, that I enjoyed and was challenged by on many levels, I find it hardest to write the review. Doubly so when the author is new to me and a venerated literary figure. So bear with me as I try to distill into this review why I liked The Human Stain so much.

I first tried to read a Phillip Roth book in my 20s. It was Sabbath’s Theater and I failed. I hung onto it though and tried again in my 30s. Another failure. The character of Sabbath was so violently misogynistic that it was painful to read. I have since given the book away and am sad that I can’t try again (without getting another copy) now that I understand Roth’s style a bit better. He doesn’t pull punches with language and I have to deal with that conscious choice and what it does to the story much better than I have so far. I can’t let the PC police interfere with deliberate craft. I need to realize there are valid reasons for choosing certain words. Coleman’s ridiculous downfall smacks me over the head with that truism.

Granted, reading a solitary book by a prolific author doesn’t make one an expert, but it has given me an appetite to read more. Partly it was the way the story and back story was revealed. Not so much a narrative, but a novel of tangents. At first it was disconcerting to be forcefully dragged down a rabbit hole that seemingly had nothing to do with what I’d been reading just before. He establishes character so well that when he gives you contradictory or surprising information, it literally stuns you. Makes you feel at once triumphant for the revelation and embarrassed at having been duped. The technique only serves to reinforce what I think is the main theme of the book; that you can never truly know anyone.

More than once our narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, asserts that the trap of thinking that you know a person is one we fall into all too often. Obviously the main character, Coleman Silk is its victim and it is delicious to know (ah, there’s that word again) just how wrong the pompous Delphine Roux is about him; that he must be a deviant, a misogynist, a racist and intellectual fraud. The character most completely assumed about, though, is Faunia. From all sides she is boxed and categorized according to what people think they know about her and I found her tangents to be really interesting and sort of liberating in my own assuming things about people. The most challenging and difficult tangent to read is the first one about Lester. So violent and extreme that I feared the knowledge that certainly some men must have come back from Vietnam in the exact same condition. All during the scene on the frozen lake with Nathan I dreaded what might happen. Would Lester snap? Did I think it was inevitable? Did I know?

Human sexuality is the aspect Roth uses most to illustrate this theme. Not only with the backdrop of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, but the center stage affair between Coleman and Faunia. The opening sentence of the whole book introduces the affair. Instantly we categorize Faunia as a sex-object and it is doubly, triply reinforced by Lester’s outrage that while his kids were trapped in the burning house, his wife, their mother was busy going down on some guy. Later still, the rabid gossip and presumed reason for the car accident that would kill them, was Faunia’s salacious, corrupt need to perform oral sex on a man. Any man it was implied almost as much as Coleman’s contradictory forcing her to do it. She can’t possibly be in control here, this can’t possibly be her will, she must be a victim of her own deranged lust and Coleman’s dominant personality. Why humans are so judgmental and hypocritical about sex is baffling to Roth and outrages him as demonstrated by the idea of draping a banner over the White House that reads ‘A Human Being Lives Here’.

Another theme I latched onto is the capricious nature of humans and the narrow confines of what an individual considers normal and reasonable. We do weird stuff for weird and unfathomable reasons and other people seem to think this is weird. To an outsider those reasons can seem insignificant, flimsy and immaterial causing us to judge that person severely. I agree with Zuckerman (Roth) that we as a society aren’t very good at stopping to think outside our own prejudices before we go for the pitchforks and torches. Coleman’s sister talks to Nathan about this at the end explaining that today it would be tantamount to criminal for a black person to try to pass as Colman decided to then. Her and her family’s assumption about why he did was off the mark. In reality he didn’t hate his race and didn’t want to insult anyone in it, he just wanted to shed it. To make it unimportant. A non-issue. For the vast majority of white people, race is not something that takes up room in the consciousness; it just is. For the vast majority of black people it is the opposite. I think Coleman wanted to haul it out to the curb to make room for something more worthy of his consciousness. This is not the conclusion we jump to though, when we first learn of Coleman’s deception. We think his reasons cannot be innocent or even otherwise.

The same holds true for Faunia I think, though to me, her trade is even less understandable. To pretend illiteracy is just unfathomable for me. I cannot conceive of going through life ignoring words. To close myself off to that route to my imagination (to freedom, to knowledge, to fantasy, to learning!) is alien. Reading and literacy to me are so totally a human reflex that it’s shocking and fantastic (in that meaning of the word) to see Faunia suppress it. The assumptions, judgments and even more, the pity she received as a result would be unbearable to me. How she reacts to Coleman’s seminars with her is revealing. She is not stupid, she is not uneducated, and she is not unperceptive. She just understands, perceives and values things that the rest of the world deems worthless. I don’t get it, but it is fascinating in an other-worldly sort of way. The deliberate setting of the trap though, I do understand. Did she savor and gloat over the secret knowledge of her diary in the night when she wrote in it? Did she laugh at Coleman and the other scholastic luminaries she served? She’s the most intriguing character of all of them. Her earthiness and directness is unusual in a female protagonist and surprising. Did she reach Coleman in the end? Did she free him? I don’t know, and maybe that’s the whole point.
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LibraryThing member kJ.
I initially had a great deal of trouble getting into the flow of this book, due to Roth's jumps between time and location, his lengthy paragraphs (some of which extend for 5 pages) and the numerous changes in direction the novel took. In the end, however, this is what sealed The Human Stainas a great story. It took me in places I did not expect to go while elaborating on characters I assumed would remain in the background.

In particular, I loved Roth's beautiful characterisation of Delphine Roux, a hideous woman who I found myself wanting to read more and more about. To me, this illustrates the skill of a great writer, able to keep you turning the pages despite describing a personality so revolting. Still, though, you can't help but feel for this character in turmoil. The passages that concerned Vietnam veteran Lester Farley also left me amazed, brilliantly bringing the horrific ramifications of war to reality.

I also have to commend Roth's ability to create conflictions within the reader. Many times I found my self cringing at the words, and yet nodding my head simultaneously, hating what was happening and yet understanding why it was necessary.

While on the surface, Roth raises questions about identity, humanity and relationships, there are so many ideas jammed into this novel, every passage bursting with insights.

Once I settled with the fact that this book was not going to go where I wanted, I sat back and relaxed as Philip Roth took me on a marvelous ride.
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LibraryThing member TonyaJ
A college professor utters a word. A word that is misconstrued after a flawless academic career and then his world is utterly changed forever, for a second time. Absorbing, even mesmerizing story of what can happen when you deny a part of yourself, tell a lie, and the lives that lie can ultimately destroy, including your own. It devastatingly lays out how much ambition and the power of the American dream would lure a person to make such a devastating choice.… (more)
LibraryThing member Cecrow
Philip Roth is a brave author for trusting entirely to his story, relentlessly showing all of his cards at the start. There's no surprise ending here, only surprises along the way. His reveal about Coleman's past is so blunt and sudden, I thought I'd misunderstood at first. And still his story is compelling enough it doesn't matter. There is something quotable on nearly every page of this novel full of wisdom and insight about life and lives.

Since the author isn't shy with his own spoilers, I won't be either. Coleman clothes himself in an ulterior identity as a means of transcending societal limitations on his race. Thereafter he has a curiously adverse response to any minority group's movement to overthrow those limitations. It isn't merely disbelief in the movements' effectiveness. He finds them puerile, a childish tantrum against the laws of reality.

Coleman has progressed so far in his chosen direction that it becomes impossible for him to relate to what was, even when self-interest is at stake. Like a domesticated crow that can no longer return to the wild, his nature and identity have diverged too far to be reconciled. This theme applies as well to the other three central characters: a woman suffering from past traumas, a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD, and a professor caught between the country she left and one that won't accept her. All of them reject the notion of turning back, whatever their difficulties, because the identity they've embraced (or want to embrace) is more real.

I've not read Roth before, and I came to him anticipating less empathy for perspectives outside of his own background; a false impression I acquired somewhere. Only once did I wince - badly. Coleman muses about the possibility of his lover being better in bed as "a gift of the molestation" she suffered as a child. Try to read that as the character's thoughts alone.
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LibraryThing member fig2
A professor lets slip a comment that is taken for, but not meant as, a racial slur. What happens next changes his life and reveals his carefully hidden past. This is an amazing book!
LibraryThing member neddludd
Roth giveth and Roth taketh away. He is capable of the most glorious passages, characters that live and resonate in your soul. But then he will write a paragraph that stretches for three pages and you are caught up in verbal diaharea that is shocking in its self-indulgence. The very concept of the novel is fascinating, and apt for America. Can a light-skinned black man, a white black man, live a lie for his whole life? That's the hook and Roth carries it off with panache and insight. His description of an upper-class French woman, who his main character hires as a faculty member at a small New England college, is worth the price of admission. But just as predictably, he will spoil your pleasure by riffing on his own intelligence, as if he constantly has to prove he is worthy of his literary awards. It gets tiresome, and I found myself skipping his masturbatory passages, longing to get back to the good writer. It's a very mixed performance.… (more)
LibraryThing member BriannaNo2
Philip Roth’s “Human Stain“ surprised me. I’ve wanted to read the last part of his American Trilogy series for years, but all I remembered from a summary I once read was that it is about a college professor’s affair with a younger woman. How inept a description of the novel this is!

It is a book that cries out for a re-read, because only in the end you realize the depth of the plot and the connections between the characters. Suddenly you realize that despite their superficial differences, within, they are all dealing with the same insecurities. I had to fight for the first 100 pages or so to continue reading, but as soon as the whole enterprise crystallizes there was no stopping me and the pages just flew by.

Set against the 1998 Lewinsky scandal, it is a book about perception and deception. Nobody is who you think they are. This is a book about the depth of human existence. There are so many sides to us that we cannot be summarized in or described by one or two characteristics. Given the many acquaintances we make during our lives, the many turns we take along the way, we only reveal fragments of ourselves to the people around us. Nobody can say that they know us to our full extend. What essentially makes us human is our capacity to be so many things at the same time. So that maybe even we ourselves cannot always be sure of who we really are.
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LibraryThing member eheleneb3
The book opens in New England in the late 1990s—at a time when the country was stunned by a Presidential scandal and when conservatism, morality and political-correctness were beginning to take hold of the nation’s consciousness. Roth weaves this narrative of our recent history into his plot to give the reader a sense of context. The protagonist of the novel, Coleman Silk, is a revered classics professor and former dean nearing retirement at a fictional college. Silk is known for single-handedly overhauling the school’s faculty and course content when he became Dean, and is respected for being a Jew who managed to rise so high in academic circles. One unremarkable day, Silk unintentionally makes a comment in a class that he is teaching that two of his black students interpret to be a racial slur. This small, accidental incident prompts a series of events that cumulate to destroy his entire life. Roth richly and realistically describes his characters' thoughts and feelings; I was amazed that he was able to write such convincing streams-of-consciousness for so many different types of people. I was able to sympathize with each character, despite the despicable or unsavory things he or she had done. I was so fascinated with Roth's portrayal of the characters that I would read, intently and without stopping, for two hours or more.

My only gripe is that there were times when I didn't trust the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman. At one point he practically admits to making up part of the story, or rather, guessing certain thoughts and feelings of a few of the characters. I spent a lot of time backtracking and thinking over the pages I had already read, wondering if it was plausible for Zuckerman to know this or that, or if he was just guessing at the characters' emotions. I know now that Zuckerman is a recurring narrator in Roth’s novels and that he often plays a more active role than that of narrator, but that lack of confidence still made me uncomfortable.

Even with the one complaint factored in, I think this is too complicated and complex of a book to judge so quickly. One feels the urge to speed through it because of the plot, but it really should be savored and mulled over. It's a book that would be satisfying to read in a literature class, with all the symbolism and imagery Roth tucks away into his prose. Bottom line: I think it's a complex, well-written book, in which Roth deftly unravels his characters’ brains to reveal their thoughts, motivations and desires in a realistic, compelling manner. It is a book that not only tells a captivating story, but gives us a piece of modern history and culture as well.
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LibraryThing member phoenixcomet
Disturbing story of how what is said by a college professor is completely twisted by the administration leading to the demise of his career. The irony is that the Jewish professor is hiding the fact that he is part black, and that he was accused of racism.
LibraryThing member Katie_H
This novel was disappointing - I expected much more from it. The story details the life of an African American college professor who has been "passing" as white since he was in his late teens. He hid this fact from everyone he knew, including his wife and children. His secret begins to unravel when he refers to two absent students as "spooks." Because the students are black, the remark is deemed racist, when he had actually intended the word to mean "ghosts." The writing is extremely dull and rambling; sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are neverending, and the prose is too dense for my taste. The narration is very unclear, shifting between a primary narrator and events and thoughts that the narrator cannot possibly have known. The subject matter, however, is thought provoking and stimulates discussion. Is race merely about skin color? Is a person black when they have white skin? Why is the "one drop" definition of ancestry applicable to blacks, but no other race? Is it acceptible to build an identity based on a "lie?" What does it mean to live an authentic life?… (more)
LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
Since this is late-stage Philip Roth we're talking about, it's hard to call "The Human Stain" a bad book, but I'm sad to say that it isn't nearly as good as the other two books in his "American Trilogy." There are times at which we see Roth at his very best, and most of these involve his character's histories in some way, specifically Coleman Silk's privileged, if fragile, upbringing in suburban New Jersey. There's a kind of reverie here of a lost America that befits the elderly narrator, but there's also a profound understanding of the racial and class politics of the time. "The Human Stain" also features beautiful descriptions of the Berkshires, the classical music that the author seems to prefer, and of beautiful, alluring women, the last of which have always been one of the author's strong suits. When he wades into the present, Roth seems to do less well. While there's nothing wrong with them, technically speaking, I felt that his depictions of Les Farley, the PTSD-afflicted Vietnam vet and Delphine Roux, Athena College's imported post-everything academic, weren't up to Roth's admittedly lofty standard. Les and Delphine aren't quite cartoons, but Roth seems to be writing them from the outside. I have to say that I rushed through certain parts of "The Human Stain," and that's not something you do too often when you read Roth.

The other problem here has to do with politics, and not necessarily Roth's, though the author has, on occasion, expressed his dissatisfaction with the direction that the post-sixties left has taken. In the same way that the Clinton/Lewinsky affair often seemed too ridiculous and flimsy for the great themes that the journalists at the time tried to hang on it, I wonder if there might not be enough to the story of Coleman Silk and Faunia Farley to make a three-hundred page closely printed novel out of. There were times when I felt that both the book's plot, which is pretty improbable in some places, and its characters, strained under the themes that Roth had loaded on to them. I think it's even possible to argue that the author, who's not shy about pointing out his own plot's farcical elements, might even be aware of this. Of course, Roth can still reel off note-perfect paragraph long sentences, and, as the book comes to a close, he's got some lovely things to say about the dangers and burdens of keeping secrets, even if I found the appeal to the First Amendment fatuous, seeing that the problems that Coleman deals with here are largely cultural, not legal. But it's possible that Roth, like Toni Morrison and more than a few other good writers, just writes best when he writes about the past. Perhaps memory, his own and that of his characters, is his real strong suit. Recommended, I suppose, but, sadly, with certain reservations.
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LibraryThing member rmckeown
As my legions of readers know, I have recently rediscovered Philip Roth. Although I still do not appreciate the artistry of Goodbye, Columbus, I have really enjoyed several of his later works. The Human Stain has added greatly to my admiration of this fine writer.

Few writers delve into the psychology of characters the way Roth does. The intense reflection and the detailed examination of motives, actions, and consequences make for absorbing reads. As I have said many times, I believe good characters drive a good story. These characters surprise, alarm, and bring the reader deep into the psychological gymnastics we all go through, sometimes unconsciously, every day. Roth brings all these emotions, fears, joys, prejudices, and hopes right out in the open.

Stain is the first “Zuckerman” novel I have read, but by no means will it be the last. Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator, is a writer, and as revealed in the closing pages, we have read as he writes. We make discoveries along with him.

Some of the passages are long, and this novel requires a great deal of concentration as he meanders among the characters and situations. Many of these ring true on many levels. For example, I know a Delphine Roux. I have seen students complain to administration over harmless, off-hand remarks made in class. I have seen the petty jealousies and political maneuvering in the perpetual turf wars of academia.

Realism is the hallmark of Roth’s novels, and The Human Stain clearly ranks as one of his masterpieces. I see a large shelf, with all his books, in my future. Caution: Raw language throughout with graphic depictions of some sexual situations. Five stars.

--Jim, 4/29/09
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LibraryThing member gwendolyndawson
A college professor is forced to resign for alleged racism and begins an affair with an illiterate woman. In my opinion, this is very close to the perfect book. The writing is genius, and the scope of the book is enormous.
LibraryThing member weird_O
The Human Stain by Philip Roth

Coleman Silk has had a stellar career as a classics professor and dean of faculty at a small New England college. He was, we're told, "one of a handful of Jews on the…faculty when he was hired and perhaps among the first Jews to be permitted to teach in a classics department anywhere in America." He grew up in the 1930s in East Orange, NJ, neighboring Newark. In high school, he excelled academically and was a standout boxer. After a stint in the navy, he moved to NYC's Greenwich Village, attended NYU, met and married a Jewish girl named Iris Gittelman. They had four children.

As Philip Roth's novel begins, Coleman Silk has stepped down as dean to return to the classroom. About five weeks into the semester, he notes that two students have never appeared, never attended a single session. He doesn't know who they are; he's never laid eyes on them. He asks those in the room: "Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?" So of course these people exist and they are…blacks. Called into the dean's office--his old office—and told a complaint charging racism has been lodged, Silk is stunned, then enraged. He tells the dean:

"I was referring to their possibly ectoplasmic character. Isn't that obvious? These two students had not attended a single class. That's all I knew about them. I was using the word in its customary and primary meaning: 'spook' as a specter or a ghost. I had no idea what color these two students might be. I had known perhaps fifty years ago but had wholly forgotten that 'spooks' is an invidious term sometimes applied to blacks. Otherwise, since I am totally meticulous regarding student sensibilities, I would never have used that word. Consider the context: Do they exist or are they spooks? The charge of racism is spurious. It is preposterous. My colleagues know it is preposterous and my students know it is preposterous. The issue, the only issue, is the nonattendance of these two students and their flagrant and inexcusable neglect of work. What's galling is that the charge is not just false—it is spectacularly false."

It doesn't end there though. The dean sets up a formal hearing. Faculty members begin tiptoing around, most aligning themselves against their demanding, autocratic former dean. Silk abruptly resigns. Iris—Mrs. Silk—abruptly has a stroke and dies. He seeks out a writer, Nathan Zuckerman, that he knows lives in the area.

Coleman was at the side of my house, {Zuckerman says,} banging on the door and asking to be let in. Though he had something urgent to ask, he couldn't stay seated for more than thirty seconds to clarify what it was...I had to write something for him—he all but ordered me to…I had to write about this "absurdity," that "absurdity"—I, who then knew nothing about his woes at the college and could not even begin to follow the chronology of the horror that, for five months now, had engulfed him and the late Iris Silk: the punishing immersion in meetings, hearings, and interviews, the documents and letters submitted to college officials, to faculty committees, to a pro bono black lawyer representing the two students . . . the charges, denials, and countercharges, the obtuseness, ignorance, and cynicism, the gross and deliberate misinterpretations, the laborious, repetitious explanations, the prosecutorial questions—and always, perpetually, the pervasive sense of unreality. "Her murder!" Coleman cried, leaning across my desk and hammering on it with his fist. "These people murdered Iris!"

Zuckerman turns him down, but the two men stay in touch. And Silk begins writing the book himself, planning to title it Spooks. Ultimately, Zuckerman does write Coleman's book, and it is the one we are reading.

A couple of years pass, during which Silk takes up with Faunia Farley, a woman half his age who's a janitor at the college and, on weekends, at the post office, who lives at a farm in exchange for milking cows, who claims to be a victim of childhood molestation by her stepfather, who purports to be illiterate, who was married to a PTSD-afflicted Vietnam vet who stalks her because he believes her responsible for the deaths of their two children in a housefire. Yoiks! One night, this former husband, Les Farley, barges into Silk's house to threaten both him and Faunia. So Coleman turns to Atty. Nelson Primus for advice, which advice (and more particularly the way in which it is delivered) so enrages him that he tells the lawyer, "I never again want to hear that self-admiring voice of yours or see your smug fucking lily-white face."

Primus is mystified. "Why 'lily-white'?" he wonders.

Cut—three pages later—to 1943 in East Orange, NJ. Ernestine Silk is recounting for her brother Coleman an overheard conversation between their parents and Dr. Fensterman, a Jew and a prominent surgeon. He offers the Silks $5,000 if his son Bertram is helped to become valedictorian of the East Orange High School Class of 1944. The help needed? Coleman, who is first in the class, must boot a course to allow Bertram, now second in the class, to slip past him into first. Bert needs to be the best of the best to beat the tight quotas designed to keep Jews out of the top medical schools. The irony? The Silks are Negroes, victims of even greater discrimination in all things than Jews.

And so, on page 86, we're told what Coleman's secret is; but that's far from the totality of it. As the story unfolds, we learn how Coleman learns just how easy it is for him to pass for white, thanks to a tryout his boxing coach, a Jewish dentist in East Orange known as Doc Chizner, arranges with the Pitt boxing coach.

Doc was sure that, what with Coleman's grades, the coach could get him a four-year scholarship to Pitt, a bigger scholarship than he could ever get for track, and all he'd have to do was box for the Pitt team.
Now, it wasn't that on the way up Doc told him to tell the Pitt coach that he was white. He just told Coleman not to mention that he was colored.

"If nothing comes up," Doc said, "you don't bring it up. You're neither one thing or the other. You're Silky Silk. That's enough. That's the deal." Doc's favorite expression: that's the deal. Some¬thing else Coleman's father would not allow him to repeat in the house.

"He won't know?" Coleman asked.

"How? How will he know? How the hell is he going to know? Here is the top kid from East Orange High, and he is with Doc Chizner. You know what he's going to think, if he thinks anything?"


"You look like you look, you're with me, and so he's going to think that you're one of Doc's boys. He's going to think that you're Jewish."

Coleman Silk passes for white. He does it with Iris, with his children, with his academic colleagues, with everybody. To do it, he makes calculated choices. Iris suits him because of her hair, "that sinuous thicket of hair that was far more Negroid" than his own. He totally abandons his birth family, depriving his mother of her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren. He never tells his daughter, who just may have to explain to a future white husband how it is their newborn child is black.

[The Human Stain] is full of wrinkles, all sorts that you might not imagine as you contemplate the ins and outs of a Negro passing for white. Once you make the choice, and the ancillary hard choices that follow—lying to your spouse throughout a close and intimate marriage, cutting yourself from your parents and siblings (and them from you), contriving and maintaining a false family history—you can't go back.

Philip Roth is a favorite author. [The Human Stain] is one of his best books, in my opinion. I give it two thumbs up.
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LibraryThing member PrincessPaulina

Throughout most of this novel I was convinced that it's a true story, despite knowing full well that it isn't; written from the POV of an objective observer, "The Human Stain" reads like investigative reporting despite being a work of fiction.

The "reporter" POV is beneficial because it allows Roth to fairly present all sides of the story; Zuckerman, the narrator, is not directly involved in any of the unfolding dramas, his objectivity serving to shed light on the other characters' impassioned actions.

True to the standards of balanced reporting in journalism, Roth is b determined to present all aspects of a story, which is where "The Human Stain" becomes fascinating. As in life there are no true heroes or villains in this book, rather a cast of characters who have each committed both heroic and villainous acts. The disgraced professor, his uneducated mistress, her vengeful war veteran ex-husband, and the scheming female academician are all handled delicately by Roth, keeping his characters from becoming cliches. Instead, he shows us both sides of each coin.

Roth's use of journalistic techniques initially distanced me from his fiction - I couldn't quite "get into" the characters' lives because they were so objectively introduced; however, my ambivalent impression dissipated by the middle of the book, and by the end I wished it were longer. There is so much food for thought, so many layers of truth to peel away (not to mention the evocative, brilliant writing) that I will definitely be revisiting "The Human Stain."
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LibraryThing member BrianDewey
Roth, Philip. The Human Stain. Vintage International, New York, 2000. Applied the 50-page rule and gave up on this book. Chapter 1 was interesting, and kept me going along with the plot & characters. Chapter 2 really took me by surprise. But I just couldn't make it through chapter 3. The writing was too random & self-indulgent. The pointless moralizing about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, the stream-of-consciousness passage about crows -- I'm out of college, I don't need to spend my time reading such disjointed rubbish.… (more)
LibraryThing member boomda181
Philip Roth uses Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and his possible impeachment for this American tale of blurring lines. Through Nathan Zuckerman, a novelist who lives outside of a small college community, we learn of Coleman Silk. Silk was a Dean at a New England University returns to teaching only to be forced out due to an off the cuff comment which was viewed as a racial slur by a few of his students. Zuckerman explores his friendship with Silk, Silk's spiral out of control upon leaving Athena College, his relationship with a 34 year old caretaker, and the skeletons in Silk's closet.

When I first began reading this book, I thought I was going to enjoy it, but I began to lose interest in the characters very quickly. I could not understand Coleman Silk, or his life decisions. I still find myself shaking my head at times.
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LibraryThing member gooutsideandplay
In a word, disgusting. Don't know why I finished it. Boring and self-indulgent.
LibraryThing member tsutsik
One of the best books I've read this year. I got hooked to the Zuckerman identy of Roth after reading 'exit ghost' - and I'm reading now more or less backwards the earlier books with Zuckerman. I'm suspecting now you can only really appreciate Roth if you have some life experience. I do remember I've tried to read a book of his when I was about 17 years old, but dropped it after twenty pages or so. (I can't remember the title, It was about a baseball team. Am bound to rediscover it soon).
This book is a tribute to Zuckerman's neighbour in upstate New York Coleman Silk; former dean of a college which he has almost single-handed brought to fame, but which has let him down after his allegedly racial abuse against two afro-american students. This provides a starting point for a really startling story about.. yes about what? I think about human identity and the ways we try to carve out a position for ourselves in the world, of making a success of ourselves. Central sentence for me: "The truth about us is endless..". The tragedy of Coleman Silk is that the way he has chosen to fulfil his life requires total obliteration of his former self and identity. Although the atmosphere is dark and sad, the compassion, almost love, which Zuckerman shows when telling the story was very moving.
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LibraryThing member michiy
My first Philip Roth. If I could be more technical, I'd give it a 4.25 stars. Enjoyed it quite a bit. I'm a little disappointed that I had already seen the movie (though not by choice). More than the plot or the writing, I earnestly enjoyed the way the story unfolds it's multiple layers. I found all the characters uniquely engrossing and a real pleasure to read. I agree with some of the others that it would be a good book to be discussed amongs others. When I finished the book, I begged my business partner to read it so that we could talk about it.… (more)
LibraryThing member DIANAIS
I was very pleasantly surprised by Philip Roth. This novel is one of the best written novels I've read in the last year, and probably the one closer to my style than any other written in the last ten years or so.
The story is set during a controversial time for America. A time when their president's private life became public scandal and also, a time when fear of discrimination is at its peak. Political correctness is driven to its most ridiculous edges.
In the novel, a college professor is unfairly accused of racial discrimination and this leads to his moral decay and brings up his darkest secret.
I strongly recommend this book as a clever satire of today's American society and an insightful story about human nature.
"The inevitably stained beings that we are..."
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LibraryThing member mrstreme
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.
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LibraryThing member kambrogi
My first book by Roth, it is heavy stuff: complex and disturbing, with a dense and difficult writing style that is also awe-inspiring. The characters and the story are powerful and thought-provoking, very much alive on the page. Reminiscent of [Sophie’s Choice], by William Styron, its narrator is removed from the action, and the tale deals with secrets and tragedies which are very much bound up with the worst problems of American society. An important read.… (more)
LibraryThing member librarianbryan
Great characterizations, especially the parts about how our moral selves are formed. If Roth could have been more deft with the plot at the end it would have got five stars.




0618059458 / 9780618059454


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