Philip Roth

The Human Stain

  • 34-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 5 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with a Master's degree in Gender, Literature, and Modernity
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The Human Stain Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 34-page guide for “The Human Stain” by Philip Roth includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 5 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Self-Invention and the Constructed Nature of Identity and Evidence versus Truth.

Plot Summary

The Human Stain, published in 2000, is a novel by American novelist Philip Roth. The narrator of The Human Stain is Nathan Zuckerman, a writer, who tells the story of a series of events happening to his neighbor in rural New England in the summer of 1998. Nathan Zuckerman features in several of Roth’s novels, and The Human Stain is considered to be part of a loose trilogy that includes American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998).

In The Human Stain, Nathan Zuckerman’s neighbor, Coleman Silk, is a retired classics professor who left his position at Athena College in disgrace after supposedly using a racial epithet to refer to two African-American students. Professor Silk had never seen these two students, so on the sixth week of class, while taking attendance, he asked, “Does anyone know these people? Do they exist or are they spooks?” (6)

Professor Silk insists he meant the term to refer to their ghost like existence, as the students had not attended a single class. However, the term also has a history of being used a racial slur. Subsequently, Professor Silk’s twenty-year reputation is ruined, as his colleagues and students accuse him of being a racist. Professor Silk (also the former Dean of Faculty) resigns in indignation and obsesses over the injustice by keeping boxes of documentation and writing a draft of his novel entitled Spooks.

On the day of arranging his wife Iris’s funeral in 1996, Coleman Silk goes to his neighbor’s house and begs Nathan Zuckerman to write the story of the spooks incident. This begins a friendship between the two men. Two years later, Coleman Silk, age seventy-one, tells Nathan Zuckerman that he has been having an affair with a thirty-four–year-old woman named Faunia Farley, who is illiterate and works as a janitor and a farmer.

Coleman Silk and Faunia Farley think that they are keeping their affair a secret. However, an anonymous note mailed to Coleman assures him that “Everyone knows you’re sexually exploiting an abused, illiterate woman half your age” (38). He discovers the sender to be former Athena College colleague and perceived nemesis Delphine Roux. Coleman’s beloved daughter, Lisa, also seems to have found out about the affair and refuses to talk to her father. Coleman’s lawyer, Nelson Primus, urges Coleman to end the affair. Throughout the novel, the real-life scandal of then-President Bill Clinton’s affair with a much-younger White House intern named Monica Lewinsky serves as a backdrop.

Faunia’s ex-husband, Lester Farley, begins to stalk Coleman and Faunia, even confronting them at Coleman’s house. Lester has been released from the VA hospital after being institutionalized upon the deaths of his children and assigned to a support group of fellow Vietnam veterans. Still haunted by his experiences in Vietnam, Lester goes along with the activities of his support group while raging on the inside. At a final confrontation during a viewing of a travelling exhibit of the Vietnam Wall, Lester decides he is completely dead inside, that he died in Vietnam, and that truth is what makes it okay. Believing this truth also provides Lester with the motivation to kill Faunia and Coleman. Lester plans and executes his plan late at night. He forces Coleman’s car to run off the road and kills both Faunia and Coleman.

The final chapter details the funerals for Faunia Farley and Coleman Silk. At each funeral, Nathan Zuckerman discovers the secrets they had been keeping and the ways in which both characters invented their own, respective identities. At Faunia’s funeral, Nathan discovers that she kept a diary and lied about being illiterate. At Coleman’s funeral, Nathan meets Ernestine Silk, Coleman’s sister, and discovers that Coleman was an African-American man. Coleman had “passed” as a white man since he signed up for the U.S. Navy, when he was nineteen.

Although Nathan does not learn this fact until the conclusion of the novel, the second chapter of the novel reveals the truth about Coleman’s racial identity. In this chapter, titled “Slipping the Punch,” the reader learns about Coleman’s upbringing in East Orange, New Jersey, his brief career as a boxer, and his love affair with Steena Palsson, who leaves him upon learning that he is African-American. Coleman then decides to continue passing as white and marries Iris Gittelman, with the express intention of never telling her his secret. After Coleman tells his mother of his decision and breaks her heart, Coleman’s brother, Walter, forbids him from contacting their family. Nathan learns later from Ernestine that she spoke to her brother occasionally over the years, but she still had no relationship with Iris or the Silks’ children.

Nathan is convinced that Lester Farley is responsible for the deaths of Faunia and Coleman. He reports everything he knows to the police, but nothing comes of it. In the final scene of the novel, Nathan confronts Lester while Lester is ice-fishing. They have a vague conversation that is never explicit but harbors threatening undertones, speaking of secrets and the importance of keeping them. As Nathan walks away, he feels determined to finish the novel and move far away from Lester Farley.

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