Contemporary Literature Responses

Advantageous Secrets in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain

            By nature, humans attempt to understand one another. Individuals judge each other based on characteristics they perceive, believing their assumptions valid. But sometimes these generalizations are stereotypical in nature. People feel isolated by the way society labels them. Philip Roth’s novel, The Human Stain, illustrates how humans respond to this dilemma; they hide secrets in order to create social advantages for themselves.

When Coleman Silk decides to hide his African American heritage by declaring himself a white Jew, he learns the value of keeping secrets. His boxing coach, Doc Chizner, instructs him to keep his heritage to himself: “He [Chizner] 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.’” (Roth 98). The question of categorization, whether or not Coleman is colored, is negated; he’s not a race, he is Silky Silk, the irreducible singularity of a person (Hungerford 4). Instead of aligning himself with an ethnic group that suffers discrimination at the hands of society, Coleman sees himself as a distinct individual who defies definition. This self-affirming coping mechanism allows him to not degrade himself because he is black. He views himself as a person with many facets and not just one based on his race. By keeping this knowledge secret, he flies under the racist radar. Using this technique allows Coleman to have a private consciousness, one which gives him the right to make his own decisions; we can decide when to decide (Hungerford 7). Instead of being at the mercy of society’s standards and judgments, Coleman lives his own life as he pleases. He stands as the master of his own destiny, unfettered by others and their viewpoints.

Works Cited

            Hungerford, Amy. “Philip Roth, the Human Stain.” Open Yale Courses. Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. 31 March 2008. Lecture.

Roth, Philip. The Human Stain. New York: Vintage International, 2000. Print.

Why Remain a Slave?

            In Edward Jone’s The Known World, the reader catches a glimpse of nineteenth century slavery in all of its struggles involving African Americans. Most would argue that slavery, with its limitation on freedom and harsh working conditions, should have been abandoned as soon as possible. Why would anyone desire such a difficult life, always answering to a superior who does not have your best interests at heart? But Jone’s novel argues that there is one strong reason to remain in slavery: connection with others.

Elias desires to marry Celeste due to her affectionate ways towards him. On page 101, the narrator says “He had been safe…on the road to freedom, but then he remembered that there was something way back in slavery that he had forgotten and so he ran back to slavery.” Elias limits his own personal freedom, something that any African American would die for during the time, simply so he can bond with Celeste. He views human affection as something so important even if it involves endangering your own liberty.

Having marital relationships seems to even be a coping mechanism in slavery, according to the narrator. On page 72, Stamford remembers some advice: “’Without all that young stuff, you will die a slave.’” “Young Stuff” refers to young women in this context. The advice admonishes Stamford that the best thing for a slave is to be in a relationship of some sorts. Otherwise, they will die a slave and all alone, no one helping them along the painful road they must walk.

Another instance of this idea occurs on page 346. The narrator says that “Hope and family” look after Augustus as he dies. Since the word “Hope” is tied so closely with family in this case, it signals the relation between the two ideals that help slaves endure their hardships. In other words, hope is family, the one thing a slave can lean on in the nineteenth century. Hope’s name becomes an allegory in this way.

The one argument against these instances is an old but fresh one: having personal relations with others is no excuse to deprive oneself of liberty. So the debate is still as fresh as ever. Is it truly better to be a slave for the sake of others rather than be on your own and free? How this question is answered determines how we as humans view each other in a global community where individualism and collectivism clash constantly.

Reason and Religion in Julia Alvarez’s Saving the World

            By the time the Enlightenment gained ground as a philosophical movement in the world, religion came under serious skeptical attack. This was especially true around 1803, the time period in which half of Alvarez’s novel takes place. Enlightenment thinkers stressed that religion was the enemy of reason and that the world needed a new kind of faith; people only needed to place their faith in reason rather than God as a means to understand the world. When Isabel first prepares to meet Don Francisco Balmis, she thinks to herself that she has many doubts concerning the Virgin Mary (page 32). Despite the fact that she has served the church orphanage for many years, she doesn’t always feel comfortable with what she believes. Yet on page 34, she seems to find an agreeable solution between what she believes and reason, namely medicine. She compares Jesus’ birth from a stable to the salvation being offered to those suffering from smallpox. Francisco’s solution to smallpox is just as needful to people as the redemption that Christ offers. The vaccine originates from a cow in a stable, so it is linked to the biblical story of Christ’s birth. It seem that Isabel has found a compromise between the things she sees and the things she doesn’t. Faith in God and humanism can go hand in hand. On page 64, Isabel comments that science was a handmaiden to religion. This compromise helps the reader understand Isabel’s worldview, namely, that religion and reason can be used to promote social justice around the world.

Truth and Lies in Sherman Alexie’s War Dances

            For generations, people turn to absolute truth as a means to live on Earth as well as connecting with their fellow human beings. It is often the sign of integrity and nobility that people uphold the truth by being as brutally honest as they can be, even if it is difficult to bear. Yet at times, the line between telling the truth and lying blurs, creating complex emotional situations. Whether or not to tell the truth is entirely dependent on what is at stake for an individual.

On page 50, the narrator receives some important information about a long-lost grandfather: he died in the field of battle. As the narrator is hearing about his grandfather’s courage, the storyteller says “I was thinking of making something as beautiful as I could. Something about love, forgiveness, and courage and all that. But…I didn’t want to lie to you.” In this case, storytelling, or fiction, can be seen as a way of lying to people about real life events so as to encourage some emotion in them. Writers are not always truthful; they may want to stretch the truth to comfort those in need. But for the storyteller in this example, lying is pointless simply because it is. It does the narrator no good to hear something about his grandfather that wasn’t true. It isn’t noble.

Yet the senator’s son in another of Alexie’s stories receives saving grace due to his father’s forcing him to lie. On page 96, the father tells his son that if he tells everyone the truth about how his son assaulted a homosexual, then his political career will be ruined. So they both must lie to save the father’s reputation, though this concept goes against everything the son has ever been taught.

On page 132, the narrator ponders if telling the truth just once after a life of lies somehow redeems you. He wonders about a man committing adultery against his wife saying that he always loved her. Is that true in light of his promiscuity? Most would say no. The narrator evens says that such reasoning can “only be the moral relativism of a liar, thief, and a cheater.” And so, ultimately, it seems that humans tell lies to save themselves out of situations or to feel better about themselves and others. As Ray Bradbury said in his short story “The Toynbee Convector,” “we are always lying to ourselves because we want to have hope for the future.”

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