Everyman?

A Novel Cover

This week my book group discussed Philip Roth’s EverymanThe novel is loosely based on a 15th century morality play that some of the members also read.

Everyman starts at a gravesite at the funeral of the main character.  His children are gathered there, his second wife, and his brother.  His daughter and brother offer eulogies that provide our first glimpse into the hero’s life.  Dirt is dropped onto his coffin and the mourners leave.  This sentence concludes the graveside scene: “Of course, as when anyone dies, though many were grief-stricken, others remained unperturbed, or found themselves relieved, or, for reasons good or bad, were genuinely pleased.”

From there the book is narrated by the main protagonist.  So from his death we begin to learn about his life.  We begin to learn about the man as a boy, and through his life how his death evinces differing reactions in those left behind.  Roth’s protagonist is a largely selfish man, characterized as a “receiver” or more pointedly a “taker” by members of the group.  From a happy childhood where his mother and father, a Jewish owner of a jewelry store, did everything they could to provide for their two sons, comes a man who lives more for himself than others.  He marries three times (and has many affairs), leaving behind him two angry, betrayed sons and a doting daughter, and finds himself, in his 70s, alone, with failing health.  It is towards the end of his life that he begins to examine and reflect.  One beautiful passage, in my mind, is this one about aging and memory:

“But how much time could a man spend enjoying the best of boyhood?  What about enjoying the best of old age?  Or was the best of old age just that–the longing for the best of boyhood…”

Roth explores an average man with an average life, with hopes, dreams, fond remembrances, mistakes, and triumphs, a man who faces mortality and the approach of death with the unwavering will to live.

The conversation in my group really took off when one member railed against the way that women are portrayed in the novel.  We discussed the line between the protagonist and the author–whose view was being portrayed?  Readers familiar with other books by Roth said his other male characters (and possibly the author himself) see women in this way–as objects, ciphers, etc.  We only had one male group member at the meeting, so remarks were qualified with “We know not all men are this way,” etc.  But I am curious how Roth has been received by other groups, women and men alike.  And is the way Roth writes his male and female characters really representative of men today, or of his generation?  Whose “everyman” is he?  All intriguing points to discuss.

What the group did agree on was the beauty and depth with which Roth explored the themes of time and aging.  And you cannot deny the power of this now oft-quoted line from the book: “Old age isn’t a battle, old age is a massacre.”

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About the Author:

Misha Stone is a readers' advisory librarian with The Seattle Public Library. Follow her on Twitter at @ahsimlibrarian.

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