Philip Roth

Indignation

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Indignation Summary

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Indignation is an American historical novel by Philip Milton Roth. Published in 2008 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the book concerns a young man in 1950’s America and the effects of the Korean War on his life. The book has been generally applauded by critics for looking at how American history directly affects vulnerable individuals, which is a question Roth asks in many of his books. Roth was a highly respected novelist who won the Man Booker International Prize in 2011 for his lifetime achievements in fiction. He died in May 2018.

The main character is a boy called Marcus Messner. He’s a college student in his sophomore year at Winesburg College, Ohio. He’s Jewish and originally from Newark, New Jersey. What’s significant about Indignation is how Marcus tells us his story. He originally tells the reader that he’s dead and narrating these events from the afterlife, but we later learn that he’s been unconscious the whole time after suffering serious injuries in combat during the Korean War.

Marcus originally studied at Robert Treat College in Newark, but he recently transferred to Winesburg. He doesn’t have a good relationship with his father and wanted away from him. Marcus’s father is a kosher butcher in New Jersey. He’s paranoid and constantly worries over his son’s safety, given the Korean War and the very recent events of World War II. He doesn’t believe that Marcus is ready to face the world on his own and assumes Marcus will struggle. It’s not a mid-life crisis so much as genuine fear because of everything.

Marcus, however, knows he’ll never make anything of himself unless he finds his own way. When Marcus arrives at Winesburg College, he settles in reasonably well. He changes dorm rooms once because his roommate is disruptive and irritating, but otherwise he doesn’t have problems.

It’s not long before Marcus meets another student, Olivia Hutton. He meets her in history class, and he watches her from afar for a while. He asks her on a dinner date and they have a great time at a fancy restaurant. They continue seeing each other. Marcus’s mother worries about their relationship and wants him to return home. She says that his father only frets because he loves him.

Marcus refuses to go home. At first, he’s shocked by how sexually forward Olivia is, but when he discovers she previously tried to commit suicide and has a difficult past, he understands it more. Just like Olivia, Marcus is very vulnerable, so they have something in common.

However, Marcus has trouble with his new roommate when he makes nasty comments about Olivia’s sexual history. The Dean, Hawes Caudwell, intervenes and wants to know why Marcus has problems with his room assignments. This is a strict, conservative, Christian college and Marcus already feels out of place. He’s not only Jewish, but an atheist, and he clashes with Caudwell over their ideologies.

Shortly afterwards, Marcus develops appendicitis and goes to hospital. When his mother visits, she tells him that his father is becoming increasingly paranoid and delusional, and she doesn’t know what to do. Her focus, however, changes when she meets Olivia and sees the scars on her wrists from attempted suicide. She’s convinced Olivia won’t be a good influence on Marcus now and makes him promise to stop seeing her.

When Marcus tries to make up with Olivia after his mother leaves, he discovers that she’s left the college because of a mental breakdown. She’s also pregnant, but Marcus knows he can’t be the father. He’s left feeling bitterly disappointed and worries that his mother was right about Olivia after all. In a temper, he complains to Sonny, head of the Jewish fraternity, about attending chapel every week when he’s not even Christian. Sonny arranges for someone to attend in Marcus’s place in exchange for payment.

It’s not long before Caudwell discovers Marcus is paying someone to attend chapel for him. He meets with Marcus and expels him for his dishonesty and disobedience. Sonny and the others, however, aren’t caught doing the same thing, and Marcus doesn’t report them. Instead, Marcus leaves and looks for a new purpose in life.

Marcus could go home to his parents, but he doesn’t want to deal with his father. He’s also not interested in pursuing Olivia anymore. Instead, he’s drafted into the US Army for their efforts in the Korean War. During combat, he’s gravely injured, and he assumes that he’s dead. That’s why he tells the reader that he’s narrating the story from the afterlife.

However, he slowly regains consciousness and learns he was out because of a strong morphine drip. He didn’t die, and he still has the rest of his life ahead of him, depending on what he wants to make of it. In this way, Indignation is not only about the trauma of war and history on an individual, but how you can recover and move on from your past.