Everyman Summary

Philip Roth


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Everyman Summary

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Everyman by Philip Roth was published in 2006. It won the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction the following year, and was Roth’s third novel to win the prize. The novel is loosely based on a 15th century morality play of the same title, in which the protagonist is summoned by Death to account for his life before God.

The story opens on an unnamed, thrice-divorced elderly man who dies of a heart attack in the middle of an operation, one of many he’s undergone. At the funeral are past colleagues, fellow residents of the retirement village, his three children Nancy, Randy, and Lonny, his older brother Howie and Howie’s wife, the unnamed man’s ex-wife Phoebe, and his private nurse and lover Maureen.

The narrative moves back in time to when the man, the novel’s “everyman,” was in his thirties. He takes a vacation to Martha’s Vineyard with his new lover, Phoebe. Their affair had broken up his unhappy first marriage, but the man is happy with Phoebe. Feeling guilty about leaving his wife and children, his thoughts turn to the meaning of oblivion, and he returns to New York to seek medical attention. It turns out that his appendix burst and he might have died had he not sought a hospital.

22 years of good health pass before the everyman becomes ill again. He believes watching his father slowly die is what is making him ill, but he in fact has heart disease. He undergoes an operation, which is when he meets Maureen, a nurse Maureen. During his recovery, she lifts his spirits more than his wife does, and the two begin their affair.

The everyman’s father dies, and once again his thoughts turn to oblivion. Everyone, religious or not, must face death. After nine years of good health, the everyman has another heart surgery. After 9/11, he moves out of New York City and into a retirement home, where he takes up painting. He misses his daughter Nancy, but not much else about the city. He doesn’t get along well with his sons, Randy and Lonny. At the retirement home, he’s hospitalized every year for heart problems.

While at the retirement village, the everyman teaches painting classes. One of his students, Millicent, commits suicide and once again, he must face the inevitability of death. By comparison, his brother Howie enjoys good health and the everyman becomes envious. Their relationship suffers as a result. He stops painting. The everyman is also lonely without a wife or female companion of any kind. He tries to seduce a passing jogger, but fails. His marriage with Phoebe ended with an affair with and new marriage to a young model named Merete. The marriage was not a good one as Merete was vain and unable to emotionally support him in his illnesses.

Without painting or women to keep him company, the everyman becomes depressed. Phone inquiries he makes of past friends and colleagues lead to news of terminal illnesses and deaths. The calls depress him further, and it’s soon discovered he needs another heart surgery.

Lonely, in poor health, and feeling shunned by most of his family, the everyman is ready to confront his mortality. He visits the cemetery where his parents are buried and, though not religious, finds comfort in the physical presence of their bones beneath the earth. He strikes up a conversation with a gravedigger who explains in detail the process of digging and filling graves. He faces his surgery in a good mood, but dies in the middle of the operation.

More than anything else, Everyman is about the inevitability of death. The main character is constantly facing the mortality of others—his parents, colleagues, and neighbors at the retirement village—as well as his own. Indeed, the entire novel is colored by the initial scene of his funeral; everything the reader knows about the everyman is in the context of his impending death.

The book explores the theme of stoicism, the ability to endure pain and suffering without complaint. Fearful of oblivion, the everyman feels he has no choice but to think positively for as long as possible. If he needs an operation, the man says, then it’s good because it will keep him alive. As he grows older, it becomes harder and harder to feel this way.

Lastly, the story touches on the idea of lust as a source of vitality. The everyman has three failed marriages under his belt, all fueled by the lust he feels for the next woman. At the retirement home, after his failed attempt at wooing a young jogger, the everyman succumbs to despair, no longer able to use lust to sustain him. He dies soon after.