In a period of less than five years, Philip Roth has published four short novels in rapid succession: Everyman (2006), Indignation (2008), The Humbling (2009), and Nemesis (2010).[1] Roth himself claims that these are his last novels – “To tell you the truth, I’m done” – and plans to spend his remaining years rereading “all of my books beginning with the last, ‘Nemesis.’”[2] For Roth, “What the stories all have in common . . . is the cataclysm. Here are four men of different ages, brought down.”[3] The protagonists in Roth’s four novels are confronted with death in their lives whether it is by aging, war, polio, or suicide. According to Victoria Aarons, these novels “show the consequences of the thwarted desire to live out counterlives, wishful yearning of characters who imagine themselves living other lives, other selves.”[4] Fearing death, these characters attempt to reinvent their lives but fail and therefore judge their lives severely as one marked by past mistakes and missed opportunities.

In this essay I explore the body as a site of how Roth’s characters encounter the world as one of disappointment, decay, and death. Most of the literature about the body in Roth’s writings has focused on the question of gender and, to a lesser, ethnic and racial identity.[5] For example, Debra Shostak and Kai Mikkonen examine how the body is a metaphor of sexual, gender, and ethnic identity in The Breast, while Hobbs incorporates the philosophies of Jean Baudrillard and Judith Bulter to consider the body as a symbol of meaning for masculine identity in American Pastoral.[6] David Gilotta adopts a different perspective of the body as a comic manifestation of Roth characters struggling with their moral dilemmas; and David Rampton envisions the body as a type of political community that sabotages itself by committing “stupid acts.”[7] Although these approaches reveal insight about Roth’s views about identity and morality, I believe that a phenomenological approach, as informed by Merleau-Ponty, provides us a more encompassing perspective about the body in Roth’s works.

Rejecting the Cartesian separation of mind and body, Merleau-Ponty looks at the “body image” as a site of meaning for our lives: our experience of our own bodies and their significance in our activities as living entities.[8] For Merleau-Ponty, the body image exists neither in the physical nor mental realm of our existence but rather as a singular entity that comprises our identity, our actions, and our community. Our body image therefore includes such experiences as space, time, motion, sex, speech, freedom, and other selves:

Insofar as, when I reflect on the essence of subjectivity, I find it bound up with that of the body and that of the world, this is because my existence as subjectivity is merely one with my existence as a body and with the existence of the world, and because the subject that I am, when taken concretely, is inseparably from this body and this world.[9]

In other words, our identity (subjectivity) is embodied in the world through our bodies; and our bodies are infused with a consciousness of that world in which we inhabit. [10]

By being engaged in pre-reflective practices, the body possesses experiential depth and specificity which eludes reductionist approaches of empiricism or idealism.[11] The body image therefore makes us aware that we are both part of the world and coextensive with it: we constitute the world but are also constituted by it.[12] Accordingly, we are able to find meaning in the world when we are able to perceive, feel, and act as well as being acted upon by it.[13] The body image is a medium that is implicated in our experience of the world and by which we give it meaning. It integrates our experiences into a singular whole.

With this approach informing my analysis, I explore how the body is both a source of hope and betrayal for the protagonists’ aspirations and ambitions. I show particularly how the acceptance of our bodies can lead to a sense of responsibility toward our communities while a rejection of them yields social isolation and existential despair. When the protagonists refuse to accept their bodies as a source of vitality in their lives, the result is that they cut themselves off from their communities: Everyman’s substitution of sexual desire for his fear of death, Bucky’s rejection of Marcia because his body is wrecked by polio, and Axler’s decision to commit suicide after failing to reinvent his life. Because Marcuse’s relationship to his body is ambiguous, I primarily focus on Everyman, Nemesis, and The Humbling as these protagonists’ choices about their bodies are clear. Thus, by adopting this phenomenological perspective, I hope to build upon and expand beyond our current understanding of the body in Roth’s writings.



When recovering from heart surgery at home, Everyman reflects about his philosophy of life, rejecting religion as “hocus-pocus” and instead adopts what he would have called his autobiography, if he were a writer, “The Life and Death of a Male Body” (31).[14] For Everyman, “There was only our bodies, born to live and die on terms decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us” (31). This seemingly bleak view is reinforced at his funeral, when his daughter’s last words repeat Everyman’s maxim: “There’s no remaking reality . . . Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes” (6). Life for Everyman consists of nothing more than our bodies. Reinforcing this philosophy are the key events in his life which are centered on his body: his hospitalizations, his sexual affairs, and his death.

Critics have reached the same conclusion in their accounts of the novel. Aarons summarizes these views as the novel being a combination of the physical and spiritual in an “agnoistic redoubling of each in the other” that results in an “ironic opposition to any sharp bifurcation of the material world and that which is driven, if futilely, to overcome its limitations and disappointments.”[15] My interpretation of the novel continues in this same vein of thought but enlarges it by showing specifically how the body can be a source of both bliss and betrayal of Everyman’s aspirations. If the body is only reality that exists, then it is incumbent for us to have our desires and aspirations to be aligned with them if we wish to have a meaningful life; otherwise, we continually will face frustration, disappointment, and emptiness. The problem for Everyman is that he refuses to align his aspirations to the condition of his body, thereby creating havoc for himself and those around him.

This unwillingness to coordinate the demands of his body with his view of the world is shown in Everyman’s surrendering to his sexual impulses, believing that new sexual encounters will defend him against his body’s traitorous aging. When he is almost fifty, Everyman’s begins an affair with his nineteen-year secretary and later with a twenty-four Danish model, Merete, who eventually becomes his third wife. Instead of accepting the decaying of his body and the responsibilities that are attached to it, Everyman’s risks his family for the belief that sexual conquest will somehow delay the inevitability of death. It was “Only in passing did it occur to him that it might be somewhat delusional at the age of fifty to think that he could find a hole that would substitute for everything else” (62).

When his second wife, Phoebe, confronts Everyman about his affairs, she explains to him how one should live with an aging body and why Everyman refuses to do so:

Yes, passion is gone, she’s older and not what she was, but to her it’s enough to have the physical affection, just being there with him in the bed, she holding him, he holding her. The physical affection, the tenderness, the comradery, the closeness . . .But he cannot accept that. Because he is a man who cannot live without (67).

The “without” is not just the sex but what it represents: the delaying of decaying and death, albeit temporary in the moment of climax and conquest. Merete’s erotic boldness overpowers Everyman’s better judgment of being loyal to his wife and daughter because he allows it: the thought of death is momentarily banished in the sexual act (68).

Everyman’s willful blindness to human goods other than sex – companionship, friendship, and love – not only destroys his family but leaves him with Merete whom he discovers is vain, useless, and has immigration and tax problems. Everyman “had replaced the most helpful wife imaginable with a wife who went to pieces under the slightest pressure” (68). Before his affair, Everyman’s fifty-year old body encompasses a diversity of human goods and relationships that provide him a meaningful life, but he now has replaced them for a sexual liaison “founded on boundless desire for a woman he had no business with but a desire that never lost its power to blind him and lead him, at fifty, to play a young man’s game” (53).

Everyman’s substitution of sex for death appears again when he moves into a retirement home in New Jersey. Attempting to seduce a young woman jogger, Everyman asks her, “How game are you?” (72) But unlike with Merete, Everyman is not successful and does not even enjoy the flirtation: “But lost was the pleasure of the confidence, and with it the engrossing playfulness of the exchange” (73). Although he feels the “sublime singularity, that marks a fresh sexual encounter or love affair and that is the opposite of the deadening depersonalization of serious illness,” Everyman suffers from anxiety because he recognizes the futility – and absurdity – of someone his age craving to touch a much younger body. When the jogger disappears and is never seen again, Everyman continues to endure his “longing for the last great outburst of everything” rather than reconcile himself to his bodily condition (73).

Everyman’s refusal to accept the condition of his body is due to his fear of dying. Earlier in his life, at Martha Vineyard with Phoebe, Everyman muses to himself:

Why must he mistrust his life just when he was more its master than he’d been in years? Why should he imagine himself on the edge of extinction when calm, straightforward thinking told him that there was so much more solid life to come? Yet it happened every night during their seaside walk beneath the stars. He was not flamboyant or deformed or extreme in any way, so why then, at his age, should he be haunted by the thoughts of dying? (20)

It is difficult to determine whether this dread of death comes from his boyhood hernia surgery, the death of his childhood hospital bedmate, his fears of World War II, his military service in Korea, or just the basic human desire to deny the inevitable fact that he will die. What is clear is that Everyman “hungered for something stable all the while he detested what he had. He was not a man who wished to live two lives” (20). These contradictory aspirations make Everyman confused about his own body: on the one hand, he wants stability in his body, while, on the other hand, he despises that stability because he knows it is only temporary. The results of this schizophrenic existence are broken marriages, neglectful parenting, and a lonely retirement.

Because of his rejection of the body, Everyman compartmentalizes his life, although it is contrary to what he had wanted: “The young man who started out hoping never to live two lives was about to cleave himself open with a hatchet” (61). By detaching sex from other human goods, Everyman lives a split existence, with Merete satisfying his erotic desires and Phoebe his marital needs. His body consequently is divided between these demands but is held together under the illusion of the lie, a refusal to accept reality as it is. This is Phoebe’s chief complaint against Everyman that one can “weather anything . . . even if the trust is violated, if it’s owned up to” (66). The problem with Everyman is that he does not own up to his lies – “You probably think your lying is in the nature of a virtue, an act of generosity toward the dumb cluck who loves you,” as Phoebe accuses him (67). In spite of being confronted with the truth directly, Everyman continues to believe in the lie that death can somehow be delayed by sexual gratification.[16]

It is only at the retirement home where Everyman recognizes that the body requires goods other than sex for a genuine meaningful life: “When you get older, it’s what’s inside that matters, and people stop caring how you look” (48). The relationship he forms with Millicent Kramer initially begins in painting but ultimately leads to a sharing of life experiences and realizing that pain will now be at the center of his existence: “Nothing anymore but pain” (51).[17] But this pain can be alleviated not by sex but by companionship, as Millicent notes that only her deceased husband’s voice would help subsidy her pain (50). Over time Everyman absorbs these lessons, although he occasionally steers from them in his condemnation of his sons (54) and failed seduction of the jogger (73). He starts to make plans to move back to New York City to live with his daughter for companionship (73-74); he visits his ex-wife Phoebe who is debilitated from a stroke (75-77); he reconnects with his former work colleagues to see how they are (77-85); and he even attempts to reach out to his brother, Howie (86-87). By accepting the decaying state of his body, Everyman looks for companionship, friendship, and love, as this is now what his body demands: “He neither possessed the productive man’s male allure nor was capable of germinating the masculine joys, and he tried not to long for them too much” (87). It is these relationships, particularly the one with his daughter, which prevents him from committing suicide, like Millicent (89-90).

What sustains Everyman is his remembrance of these relationships. When he visits his parents’ grave, Everyman remembers them not in a sentimental fashion that denies the reality of pain and death but realistically, seeing the body as a site of memory that connects him to the past, present, and future.[18] The bones of his parents “were the only solace there was to one who put no stock in an afterlife and knew without a doubt that God was a fiction and this was the only life he’d have . . . Here alone contentment was attainable” (92).[19] Everyman’s bones come from his parents, while his daughter’s bones come from him: “This was what was true, this intensity of connection with those bones” (93). Everyman’s life is one not entirely of his own making: his fate is largely determined by those who precede and follow him, making him connected to a community of the past, present, and future.

The novel concludes with Everyman learning about the mechanics of interring from the graver digger and thanks him for “a good education for an older person” (97). He tips the grave digger for “the concreteness” of the lesson, and appreciates that he was “so careful and considerate when you dug my parents’ grave” (97). Because the grave digger knows whom he buries and how to do it, Everyman takes comfort in the knowledge that he will be interned not only with care but with a human connection to the last person who will see his bones (96-97). His body will be accorded the dignity for which he hopes when he dies.[20]

Thus, Everyman’s philosophy of the body tells us that we should accept the condition of our bodies as they evolve over time.[21] The failure of Everyman to do this leads him to believe that sexual gratification will somehow prevent his death, or, at least, his thinking about it. But by elevating sex at the expense of other human goods, Everyman neglects other values that the body needs, such as companionship, friendship, and love. It is only when he realizes that he requires people in a non-sexualized way does Everyman begins to accept the philosophy of the body as one of pain, decay, and death – an acceptance that guides him to the recognition that he is part of a community of “bones” that weaves together his past, present, and future.



The subject of the body appears again in Nemesis, although critics have focused on the topics of self-invention, anti-Semitism, and the typologies of tragedy.[22] All of these themes persist in the novel, but it is perhaps the questions of responsibility and community that is most predominant. In the backdrop of World War II, the Jewish communities of Newark and Indian Hills are terrorized by a polio plague, with children dying or becoming maimed. When asked by Mr. Michaels why did his son had “to get sick and die . . . Where is the sense in life,” all Bucky Cantor can reply is “It doesn’t seem to have any” (326). Bucky has no answer to the question “Why does tragedy always strike down the people who least deserve it” (327). This question, in turn, asks us not only who is responsibility for such events but also to whom does one have a responsibility during such times.

Unlike the protagonist in Everyman who is an atheist, Bucky believes in God but only to condemn it as being responsible for a series of horrible episodes in his life:

God killed my mother in childbirth. God gave me a thief for a father. In my early twenties, God gave me polio that I in turn gave to at least a dozen kids, probably more – including Marcia’s sister, including you, most likely. Including Donald Kaplow. He died in an iron lung at Stroudsburg Hospital in August 1944. How bitter should I be? You tell me (438).

Throughout the novel Bucky’s denounces God as cruel, evil, and arbitrary: grieving at Alan’s funeral (341); reflecting on his mother’s death (366); disagreeing with his fiancée, Marcia (341, 436); and speaking about his life with Arnie Mesnikoff (433-40). For Bucky, God ultimately is responsible for events like the death of his mother, the dead and crippled children of polio, and, perhaps, for even the Holocaust itself.

Arnie, who does not believe in God, can only speculate about Bucky’s gnostic understanding of it:

Only a fiend could invent polio. Only a fiend could invent Horace. Only a fiend could invent World War II. Add it all up and the fiend wins. The fiend is omnipotent. Bucky’s conception of God, as I thought I understood it, was of an omnipotent being whose nature and purpose was to be adduced not from doubtful biblical evidence but from the irrefutable historical proof, gleaned during a lifetime passed on this planet in the middle of the twentieth century. His conception of God was of an omnipotent being who was a union not of three persons in one Godhead, as in Christianity, but of two – a sick fuck and an evil genius (438).

What is interesting in this passage is not Bucky’s equation of God as a monster but that his knowledge of God comes from the experiences of his own life and not from religious tradition or personal faith. For Bucky, knowledge about God comes from a personal encounter with the world; and it is through his body that Bucky encounters world most vividly. It is his body that fundamentally constitutes Bucky’s identity throughout the novel: his rejection of military service in World War II because of his poor eyesight (308); his career as physical education teacher, playground supervisor, and waterfront director; and, finally, his role as a polio carrier and victim. The body is the way that Bucky encounters the world and forms his identity that creates a sense of responsibility to his community, such as standing up to thugs (310-11) or visiting parents’ homes when one of his students had died (324-29, 340-44).

Bucky’s sense of responsibility comes from his community of family and friends. It is informed by his “ideals of truthfulness and strength fostered in him by his grandfather, ideals of courage and sacrifice that he shared with Jake and Dave, ideals nurtured by him in boyhood to place himself beyond the reach of a crooked father’s penchant for deceit” (372). But when Bucky quits his job as playground director to join Marcia at Indian Hills, he feels that he has betrayed these ideals: “Here [in Indian Hills] he had everything that Dave and Jake were without and that the kids on the Chancellor playground were without and that everyone in Newark was without. But what he no longer had was a conscience he could live with” (391; also see 372, 392-93). Because Bucky equates his able body with his identity and ideals, he feels a strong sense of responsibility to his Newark neighborhood and believes that he has betrayed them when he departs for Indian Hills.

Bucky’s belief of being responsible for the Chancellor children does not stem from his contractual obligation to school – as he quickly offers the rationalization of wanting to join his fiancée at Indian Hills to break his contract – but rather, as a fit person, he believes that he has a moral obligation to his community, for all he wants to do is “to help kids and make them strong” (442, 372-73). However, it is unclear what Bucky would have been able to accomplish if he were to stay in Newark, as the playgrounds would be shut down after he had left for Indian Hills (400-1). But, in Bucky’s mind, his leaving of Weequahic is an abandonment of his ideals, although these ideals are understood only in terms of a healthy body.

When Bucky learns that he is the polio carrier, he believes that he is responsible for the death and destruction in Weequahic and Indian Hills (424, 430); and, with his body maimed, he thinks that he is no longer a suitable marital partner for Marcia. Explaining why he broke his engagement, Bucky says: “I owed her her freedom . . . and I gave it to her. I didn’t want the girl to feel stuck with me. I didn’t want to ruin her life. She hadn’t fallen in love with a cripple, and she shouldn’t be stuck with one” (433). When Marcia visits him at the Sister Kenny Institute, Bucky describes himself in only physical terms – “Look . .. This is what I look it” – and accuses her of being “irresponsible,” wanting to act as the “noble heroine” if she were to honor their engagement (435). Because his identity and ideals are so closely tied together with his conception of an able body, Bucky cannot envision himself of ever being an asset in his community but only as a liability that needs care.

Marcia accuses Bucky of misplaced responsibility because he equates his identity and ideals only with an able body:

And you’re not just a cripple! Bucky, you’ve always been this way. You could never put things at the right distance – never! You’re always holding yourself accountable when you’re not. Either it’s terrible God who is accountable, or it’s terrible Bucky Cantor who is accountable, when in fact, accountability, belongs to neither. Your attitude towards God – it’s juvenile, it’s just plain silly (436).

For Marcia, it is the personality of Bucky and not his body that she loves: “Can’t you believe that it’s you I love, whether or not you had polio? Can’t you understand that the worst possible outcome for both of us is for you to take yourself away from me?” (437) Bucky rejects this offer of companionship and love because he is unable to see himself other than as a deformed body. But it is not his maimed body that is the fundamental problem: it is his attitude towards his body that terminates his engagement, as Marcia correctly diagnoses: “You think it’s your body that’s deformed but what’s truly deformed is your mind” (436).

Marcia’s view that neither God nor Bucky is responsible for the polio outbreak is brought up again by Arnie and Dr. Steinberg. When Bucky visits Dr. Steinberg to ask permission to marry Marcia, he inquires Dr. Steinberg about the nature of polio. Dr. Steinberg informs him that “Polio is still a mysterious disease” and that a virus is responsible for people dying or being damaged by it, not “boys’ playing ball” (354-55). Nevertheless, the responsibility of “looking after all those boys, especially at a time like this” is a large one for Bucky. Because of this responsibility, Dr. Steinberg warns Bucky that “We can be severe judges of ourselves when it is no way warranted. A misplaced sense of responsibility can be a debilitating thing” (354-55).

When compared to Arnie Mesnikoff, we see that Bucky has fulfilled Dr. Steinberg’s prophecy by becoming debilitated not from the polio but by his misplaced responsibility. Arnie, who also suffered from polio, manages to salvage a good life for himself with a family and a career that retrofits buildings to make them wheelchair accessible (427). By contrast, Bucky lives a life of social isolation, blaming himself for the death of his students. Pleading at the end of their conversation not to blame himself for the polio epidemic, Arnie tells Bucky: “Don’t be against yourself. There’s enough cruelty in the world as it is. Don’t make things worse by scapegoating yourself . . . you were a totally blameless one” (442).

Looming in the backdrop of this novel is FDR who is mentioned at the beginning, middle, and end of the novel.[23] He is seen by the country as polio’s most renowned victim. But FDR refuses to allow polio to relieve him of communal responsibility: he becomes president during the Great Depression and World War II and establishes the March of Dimes, an organization that raises money for research for a polio cure and help families who suffer from it (304). It is difficult to think of someone who contributes more to his community than him. In fact, it is polio that makes FDR a better leader, as he becomes more empathic to ordinary people’s plights after stricken with the disease.[24] Rather than perceiving his bodily condition as a source of bitterness, FDR sees it as an opportunity not only to connect with regular people but also as a way to demonstrate to the public that he is a man of firm character and ideals rather than a pampered, rich, pretty boy.

By contrast, Bucky is “the very antithesis of the country’s greatest prototype of the polio victim, FDR, disease having led Bucky not to triumph but to defeat” (429). Bucky’s defiance to accept his debilitated body leads him to social isolation, as he sees himself as a liability to his community. This separation from his community is evident at the end of the novel with his grandmother deceased (429-30) and his friends either dead from World War II (406) or moved away to Englewood (441-42). Not “much of a socializer,” Bucky spends his days at the movies, the park, or at Ironbound for a “good Portuguese meal” (441). With his engagement ended and no one left in his life, Bucky only has God, against whom he inconsolably rails.

Bucky, along with the other characters, therefore present us three options about the question of theodicy: 1) God exists but is cruel because it is responsible for evil (Bucky); 2) God exists but is not responsible for evil (Marcia and Dr. Steinberg); and 3) God does not exist and therefore cannot be responsible for evil (Arnie). Given that the narrative is from Arnie’s perspective, it would appear that the third option is the preferable one, especially as it comports with Everyman’s protagonist’s views about God. However, if the third option is correct, this leaves open the question about human responsibility for evil, such as the polio epidemic, which Marcia, Dr. Steinberg, and Arnie all reject.[25] Is Bucky right in maintaining that he is responsible for the death and maiming of the children at Weequahic and Indian Hills?

Bucky is wrong to believe this because he assumes that he can be completely responsible for the condition of his body. But, as Marcia, Dr. Steinberg, and Arnie argue, we are both responsible and not responsible over our bodies. We are responsible to a certain extent that we can decide to engage in certain activities that are conducive to physical health like joining the summer playground program or scrubbing Italian-infected spit from the sidewalk (311); but we are not responsible to illness that may overtake our bodies, even though we have done everything possible to prevent it. Like the communities in which we live, we are both responsible and not responsible for the body politic. We can participate and sometimes guide communal action but we are also subject to its laws and values over which we sometimes have no influence. It is this paradoxical position, being both responsible and not responsible simultaneously, that eludes Bucky and explains his vindictiveness towards himself, his community, and his God.

However, the one thing that Bucky is unable to cut himself off from is the memory of Marcia’s love for him: “I cut myself free of many things, but I was never able to do that with her. All the years later, and there are times that I still think I recognize her on the street” (431). Marcia’s “memory has endured” in Bucky, as he keeps her note of “my man,” recalling the time when he promised her that “I was her man forever” and when she sung him a lullaby over the telephone (431-32). He was stunned “by so much happiness” and “With all that love of hers, how could I ever be stopped?” (432).

Similarly Arnie remembers Bucky at the end of the novel not as an embittered, lonely, polio victim but as “a young man of convictions, easygoing, kind, fairminded, thoughtful, stable, gentle, vigorous, muscular – a comrade and leader both” (444). Bucky demonstrates to the children how to throw the javelin, an act that “none of us had ever before seen an athletic act so beautifully executed right in front of our eyes” (446). He “seemed to us invincible” and it was through him that “we boys had left the little story of the neighborhood and entered the historical saga of our ancient gender” (446).

These two accounts of remembrance yield different results: for Bucky it becomes a source of constant resentment against his body, his life, and his God, while for Arnie it becomes a source of meaning to treasure and motive him to do better things. The difference between these two is that Bucky equates only a healthy body with his identity, ideals, and responsibilities towards his community, whereas Arnie accepts his debilitated state to formulate a different identity, ideals, and responsibilities. Unlike his college roommate Pomerantz, who also is a polio victim and later commits suicide, Arnie “got weaned away from railing at my fate” and accepts his body as it is and the life that it offers (440). This lesson is lost to Bucky and is the real tragedy in the novel. It is the rejection of Everyman’s maxim – “There’s no remaking reality . . . Just take it as it comes.” – which explains Bucky’s downfall in refusing to accept his body.[26]


The Humbling

The theme of memory and the body manifests itself again in The Humbling where Simon Axler loses “his magic”: he can no longer act on stage, a skill that requires both the body and memory to work together (227). Although it is not clear as to the cause of his malady, Axler’s reaction to his lost gift is a combination of Bucky’s bitterness with Everyman’s substitution of sex as a transformative elixir (232). Like the two other protagonists, Axler refuses to accept the new condition of his body which results in hurt feelings, ruined lives, and finally death itself.

Having been abandoned by his wife, Axler is “alone in the house in the country and terrified of killing himself” (231). Checking himself into a psychiatric hospital, Axler undergoes treatment but becomes fascinated with the suicide patients. Although the patients drone on about the various reasons as to why one would commit suicide, the underlying theme is about control: suicide is “the one thing you can control,” attests one patient (233). When your “life is falling apart, it has no center,” the one thing that you can have control over is your body (233). In these conversations, Axler rediscovers his ability to speak publicly, stating “suicide is the role you write for yourself . . . . You inhabit it and you enact it. All carefully staged – where they will find you and how they will find you. . . .But one performance only” (234).

Axler’s equation of suicide, the ultimate control over one’s body, with his profession, as a theater actor, makes sense, as he encounters the world primarily through the stage. The problem with Axler is that he encounters the world only in this way, unable to distinguish life from acting. This explains why at the end of the novel he is unable to commit suicide until “one last time to make the imagined real he would have to pretend that the attic was a theater and that he was Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplev in the concluding scene of The Seagull” (298). Although his benchmark of courage comes from life and not from the theater, Sybil Van Buren is not a sufficient model of action for him. Axler must resort to the theater, the world of make-believe, as a way to act in the world, pretending “that he was committing suicide in a play” (298). It is only at that moment that Alxler is able to kill himself.

When Axler is discharged from the hospital, he meets his agent, Jerry Oppenheim, and makes a strange confession that his inability to act “isn’t a matter of confidence . . . I always had a sneaking suspicion that I have not talent whatsoever” (243). Axler does not think he is a fraud but rather that the talent to act does not belong to him: “a fluke that a talent was given to me, a fluke that it was taken away. This life’s a fluke from start to finish” (243). Whereas Bucky equates his identity and ideals with an able body and therefore feels responsible to his community, Axler has the opposite view in that he does not identify with his body (except as an actor) and consequently does not take any responsibility for his actions, achievements, and even his own death.

This neglect of taking responsibility for one’s body is mentioned again when Axler speaks to his doctor in the hospital: “Nothing has a good reason for happening . . . . You lose, you gain – it’s all caprice. The omnipotence of caprice. The likelihood of reversal. Yes, the unpredictable reversal and its power” (235). Like Arnie and Everyman, Axler rejects theological answers for his predicament. But unlike these two characters, Axler thinks that reality can be transformed, contrary to Everyman’s maxim (6). When, in the second section of the novel appropriately called The Transformation, Axler attempts to alter reality through his acting, he only finds disaster which culminates into to his suicide.

After his conversation with Jerry, Axler becomes a recluse in the country, waking up every morning to “emptiness” with a focus only on his suicide until Pegeen becomes his lover; or, more accurately, Axler became Pegeen’s lover, as “She turned her Montana lover into a man. She’s turned me [Louise Renner] into a beggar. Who knows what she’s turning you [Axler] into” (250, 271). Peegen’s previous lover, Priscilla, literally transforms herself into a man by “taking hormonal injections to promote facial hair growth and deepen her voice,” while Louise Renner transforms herself from a successful academic into a jilted lover and stalker (255, 269-72). Axler believes it is Pegeen’s sexuality that makes her “potent” in transforming her lovers, but Louise corrects him: “it’s not her sexuality on its own that does it – it’s us. It’s we who endow her with the power to wreck” (271).

Like a good actor, Axler believes that he knows the nature of his relationship with Pegeen and is in control of it, having converted her from lesbianism and change the way she appears (259-60). He even thinks Pegeen is sincere when she announces to him that, despite their age difference, she wants to have a child with him (286). It therefore comes to a shock to Axler when a few days later Pegeen abruptly terminates the relationship, stating “It’s not what I want. I made a mistake” (291). When asked why she even began a relationship with him in the first place, she simply says: “It was what I wanted to do. I wanted so much to see if I could do it” (292).

For Axler, Pegeen’s explanation reduces their relationship as “an experiment, right down to the end. Another adventure for Pegeen Mike” (292). But Axler should not be upset by Pegeen’s impulsive decision, for he had predicted this outcome earlier, when, after she initially had accepted to enter into a relationship with him, he reflects:

She will say whatever she needs to say, he thought, even if the dialogue verges on soap opera, to keep it going because she’s still aching, all these months later, from Priscilla shock and the Louise ultimatums. It’s not deception her taking this line – it’s the way we are instinctively strategic. But eventually a day will come, Axler thought, when circumstances render her in a much stronger position for it to end, whereas I will have wound up in a weak position merely from having been too indecisive to cut it off now. And when she is strong and I am weak, the blow that’s dealt will be unstoppable (259).

He also is forewarned twice by Louise, once, as mentioned earlier, and at another time on the telephone, being told that Pegeen is “utterly ruthless, utterly cold-hearted, incomparably selfish, and completely amoral” (269). Nevertheless, Axler ignores these warnings and decides to take the “risk” of entering into a relationship with her (259, 292).

Part of the reason why Axler decides to start such a relationship is that he has nothing to lose at that point in his life with his wife gone and career abandoned. Another reason is that Axler lacks companionship and craves for it: “She’s also brought him a glass of water to drink. Nobody had brought him a glass of water for a long time” (253-54). But perhaps the most important reason is that Pegeen is “a substitute” of his acting (292). The problem with this substitution is that over time Axler begins to believe that the relationship with Pegeen will actually work. At the beginning of their relationship, Axler correctly diagnoses that it will probably not last (259); later, he believes it will endure in spite of her parents’ concern (267-68, 294-96) and her sexual affairs (274-75); and, finally, he thinks that he can start a new life with her with a family and rejuvenated career (286-90). It is this belief that his acting can overcome the limitations of the body – the age difference, the ability to have children, Pegeen’s sexual orientation – that makes Axler blind to Pegeen’s true nature.

For, although Axler thinks he is the dramatic lead in this play, Pegeen is the actual star with Axler reduced to the role of audience member, as Louise had warned him: “It’s we who endow her with the power to wreck” (271). Pegeen’s power resides in her ability to elicit from people the power to make her the lead actor in their lives and delude them to think that they are living the life they want to as opposed to how it really is. Like Louise before him, Axler also makes this same mistake. Contrary to what Axler may think, it is Pegeen, not him, who assumes the lead role in the novel.[27]

This flight from acknowledging reality as it truly is demotes Axler to an audience member. Attempting to salvage some sort of dignity after being rejected, Axler decides not to kill himself in Pegeen’s study, for “The culprit wasn’t Pegeen. The failures were his, as was the bewildering biography on which he was impaled” (297). Axler at last realizes that the roles had been reversed in his relationship with Pegeen – she the actor, he the audience member – and that he is not going to let her have the final say in his life, which is why he kills himself in the attic rather than in her study.

Thus, The Humbling is not only about Axler’s mistaken belief that acting can overcome the limitations of the body in its age, biological reproduction, and sexual orientation but also how not accepting our bodies can reduce us to audience members rather than actors over our own lives. In this sense, Axler’s faith in acting is similar to Everyman’s substitution of sex for death. But whereas Everyman sees the body as a repository of memory which enables him to be connected to his community, Axler has no memory as he has lost “his magic,” making him a socially isolated, suicidal individual.



Depending upon our attitudes towards our bodies, we can either become connected or isolated from our communities. Everyman’s unwillingness to accept his decaying body, substituting sex for death, alienates both himself and his family. It is only when he rejoins the bodies of his parents, their “bones,” does he accept that his life will be one of aging, pain, and death. This acceptance of his body makes him realize that it requires a diversity of goods and relationships to make a meaningful life, which is why he reaches out to his family, former work colleagues, and the future grave digger. At the end of his story, Everyman has become a member of the communities of his past, present, and future by remembering and accepting the “bones” of his existence. Reality is not “remade” but re-thought by his acknowledgement that life is “decided by the bodies that had lived and died before us” (31).

Whereas Everyman eventually realizes and accedes to his fate, Bucky never achieves contentment. While Everyman changes his attitude from denial to acceptance towards his body, thereby moving from social isolation to communal membership, Bucky persists in his belief that he is responsible not only for himself but to his community. Bucky errs is his conviction that he can assume complete responsibility over his body and thereby his community. When his body becomes debilitated from polio, Bucky cuts himself off from his community because he sees himself now as a liability instead of as a source, albeit a different kind, of companionship, friendship, and love.

It is delusional to think that Bucky, or anyone, is responsible for the polio epidemic, as Arnie Mesnikoff points out. Our bodies provide us a paradoxical existence in that we are both responsible and not responsible for them, just as we are both responsible and not responsible as members of our communities. It is this paradox that eludes Bucky and accounts for his social isolation except for his memory of Marcia. By contrast, Arnie accesses his memory as a reservoir of inspiration to rejoin the community of his past (Bucky showing the children how to throw a javelin), present (conversation with Bucky), and future (his children and career to make buildings more wheelchair accessible).[28] Unlike Bucky, Arnie accepts his debilitated body that provides him a different identity, ideals, and responsibilities to himself and his community. Although Bucky shares many of the same ordinary characteristics of Everyman, it is Arnie who has the same attitude towards his body that Everyman eventually adopts.

While Bucky is mistaken in taking too much responsibility over his body, Axler commits the opposite error by not taking any. Like Arnie and Everyman, Axler believes that life is governed by chance but he differs from them in that he attributes his lost “magic” to life itself. Axler takes no responsibility for his lost ability in acting, for he only encounters the world as a type of theater. It is this belief that acting can remake reality that leads him to believe that he can overcome the limitations of his body in his relationship with Peegen. Regrettably for him, this path transforms him from an actor to audience member with him winding up socially isolated and ultimately suicidal.

Roth’s novel, Indignation, also explores the consequence of social isolation but this time with a young man who attempts to remake himself without the need of his community: his desire to leave his family (110), his move to three different dormitory rooms (147), his rejection of the social fraternities (122), and his unwillingness to attend chapel service (154-57) all make Marcus as socially isolated as Axler or Bucky.[29] Having to be part of a community with its duties and obligations is the cause of Marcus’ indignation which makes him intolerant of others (151-52). But unlike Bucky, who takes too much responsibility over his body, and Axler, who does not, Marcus is unsure how to relate to his body, whether it is dealing with Olivia, his classmates, Dean Caudwell, or himself (130).

Marcus’ ambiguous attitude towards his body accounts for his confusion that he thinks that he is dead while actually he is under morphine. It is only in the second part of the novel, Out from Under, when Marcus truly dies and “memory ceases” (219). With his death, Marcus’ memory ends, thereby removing him from his community, a removal that causes grief with his family and a reflection of lost promise at Winesburg College, where he most likely would have graduated as class valedictorian (222). Marcus’ uncompromising attitude of self-reliance and disdain for his community highlights his father’s lesson to him: “of the terrible, the incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result” (222).

This lesson is known but not learnt by Marcus, as he tells his mother: “’Yeah, Ma,’ I finally said, storming off to my room, ‘the tiniest, littlest things do have tragic consequences. He proves it!’” (109) However, this lesson manifests itself in a crucial moment in Marcus’s life when he is caught hiring Marty Ziegler to attend chapel service for him. Instead of simply submitting a letter of apology to Dean Caudwell, Marcus swears at him (221-22). The result is that Marcus is expelled from college and is drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in Korea where he dies (222). The abolishment of the chapel requirements nineteen years later makes Marcus’s inflexible stance both poignant and ridiculous: poignant in the sense of the waste of such talent to war, ridiculous in the sense that such youth was destroyed by something so trivial (223).

These four novels are about how we are to confront disappointment, decay, and death in our lives, whether we are young, like Bucky and Marcus, middle-age like Everyman, or old like Axler. Each of these protagonists approaches their bodies differently, leading to different results in their lives. Searching for some sense of care, respect, and dignity in a world bereft of God, these characters show us that the paradoxical position of both taking responsibility and not responsibility for our bodies – knowing when we should be held accountable and when we should not – and accepting the current condition of our bodies with its diversity of goods and relationships can lead us to a meaningful life of companionship, friendship, and love. By adopting such an attitude, we can become open to the memory of the bodies before and after us, connecting us to our communities of the past, the present, and the future.


Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University.




[1] Exit Ghosts, another short novel, is published in 2007 and is the last one that features Nathan Zuckerman. I exclude this novel because including it would make the scope of the analysis unwieldy, as I would have to incorporate the nine “Zuckerman novels”: The Ghost Writer (1979), Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983), The Prague Orgy (1985), The Counterlife (1986), American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998), and The Human Stain (200).

[2] Nelly Kaprièlian, “Philip Roth: ‘Némésis sera mon dernier livre,” Les in Rocks July 10, 2012. Available at Accessed May 1, 2014.

[3] Claudia Roth Pierpont, Roth Unbound: A Writer and his Books (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013), 319. For more about the background on writing these four novels, refer to 284-89, 296-320 as well as the Roth interviews with Gross and Siegel. Terry Gross, “Philip Roth: On Writing, Aging and ‘Nemesis,’” Fresh Air October 14, 2010. Available at Accessed May 1, 2014; Robert Siegel, “Roth Returns with Life and Death of ‘Everyman,’” National Public Radio March 23, 2013. Available at Accessed May 1, 2014.

[4] She also includes Exit Ghosts in her analysis. Victoria Aarons, “Where is Philip Roth Now?” Studies in American Jewish Literature 31.1 (2012): 6-7.

[5] The literature on race and Jewish identity in Roth’s writing is numerous. A good bibliography of these sources can be found at The Philip Roth Society’s website at With respect to political identity, refer to Claudia Franziska Brüwiler, Political Initiation in the Novels of Philip Roth (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013).

[6] Debra Shostak, “Return to The Breast: The Body, the Masculine Subject, and Philip Roth,” Twentieth Century Literature 45.3 (1999): 317-35; Kai Mikkonen, “The Metamorphosed Parodical Body in Philip Roth’s The Breast,” Critique  41.1 (1999):13-44; Alex Hobbs, “Reading the Body in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral,” Philip Roth Studies 6.1 (2010): 69-83; also refer to Simon Richter, “Being the Breast, Being Without: Philip Roth, Matuschka, and Deena Metzger,” in Missing the Breast: Gender, Fantasy, and the Body in German Enlightenment (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 248-88.

[7] David Gilotta, “The Body in Shame: Philipl Roth’s Physical Comedy,” in Playful and Serious: Philip Roth as a Comic Writer, ed. Ben Siegel and Jay L. Halio (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2010), 92-116; David Rampton, “Stupidity’s Progress: Philip Roth and Twentieth Century American History,” in I Sing the Body Politic: History as Prophecy in Contemporary American Literature, ed. Peter Swirski (Kingston and Montreal: McGill Queen’s University Press, 2009), 12-46; also refer to Monika Hogan, “’Something so Visceral in the Rhetorical’: Race, Hypochondria, and the Un-Assimilated Body in American Pastoral,” Studies in American Jewish Literature 23 (2004): 1-14.

[8] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception , trans. Donald A. Landes (London and New York: Routledge, 2012). From the French original of 1945. For more information about Merleau-Ponty, refer to Merleau-Ponty Circle website at; and for an excellent account of the problem of the Cartesian division of mind and body, refer to John Sutton, “The Body and the Brain” in Descartes’ Natural Philosophy, ed. S. Saukroger and John Sutton (London: Routledge, 2000), 697-772.

[9] Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 408.

[10] Since Merleau-Ponty, phenomenologists have explored issues like intentionality, intersubjectivity, and questions of logic, language, and the mind. For example, refer to Tim Bayne and Michelle Montague, eds., Cognitive Phenomenology (Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 2011); Uriah Kriegel and Kenneth Williford, eds., Self-Representational Approaches to Consciousness (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006); Robert Sokolowski, Introduction to Phenomenology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Jean Petitot, Francisco Varela Pachoud, Bernard Pachoud, and Jean-Michel Roy, eds., Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Sciences (Palo Alta: Stanford University Press, 1999).

[11] Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 57; The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1995), 453; also refer to Drew Leder, The Absent Body (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

[12] Phenomenology of Perception, 457.

[13] Nick Crossley, Intersubjectivity.The Fabric of Social Becoming (London: Sage, 1996), 101.

[14] Philip Roth, Nemeses: Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling, Nemesis (New York: The Library of America, 2013). All in-text page citations are from this book.

[15] Victoria Aarons, “’There’s no remaking reality’; Philip Roth’s ‘Everyman’ and the Ironies of Body and Spirit,” Xavier Review 27.1 (2007): 126; Bernard F. Rodgers, Jr. and Derek Parker Royal, “Grave Commentary: A Roundtable Discussion on EverymanPhilip Roth Studies 3.1 (2007): 3-25; Ranen Omer-Sherman, “Everyman,” Philip Roth Studies 2 (2006): 161-65; Nicholas Spice, “Tomorrow it’ll all be over,” London Review of Books May 25, 2006. Available at Accessed May 5, 2014. For a different, spiritual interpretation, refer to Janet L. Ramsey, “Learning from Everyman: Thoughts on Spirituality, Love, and Death in the Lives of Older Couples,” Couples in Later Life 31.3 (2007): 57-59; and for the medieval origins of the novel, refer to Velichka D. Ivanova, “Philip Roth’s Summoning of Everyman” in Velichka D. Ivanova, ed., Philip Roth and World Literature (Amherst, Cambria Press, 2014), 235-52.

[16] It is also worth noting that his career is in advertising, an occupation known for its “lies” and marketing beautiful bodies to sell things.

[17] An insightful account on how the body in both individuals and the communities confront pain can be found in Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[18] The disciplines of philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science have begun to explore the concept of “embodied remembering” where the body is a repository of all types of memory, e.g., autobiographical, routine activities, specialized skills. John Sutton and Kellie Williamson, “Embodied Remembering” in The Routledge Handbook of Embodied Cognition (London: Routledge, 2014), 315-25.

[19] It could be argued that the protagonist’s memories until this point have been an attempt to escape an acknowledgement of his own morality. Aarons, “There’s no remaking reality,” 122.

[20] Unfortunately for Everyman he forgets to align his attitude with his body at the end of the novel. After visiting the grave digger, he feels “buoyant and indestructible” before his surgery (98). When he dies from cardiac arrest, Everyman is “no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without even knowing it. Just as he’d feared from the start” (98). Although he learns the lessons of the Millicent Krammer, Everyman forgets them after he had learned how his bones were to be buried. This forgetfulness is underscored by Roth’s last sentence of the novel, “Just as he’d feared from the start” (98), which negates accounts that Everyman is “buoyant and indestructible” because of his newfound knowledge. If this were correct, then there would be no reason for Everyman to fear anything, especially as he had “from the start”; consequently it would appear that Everyman forgets the lessons that he had learned from the grave digger.

[21] Aaron argues that Roth attempts to use self-invention and the authorial voice as a type of “narrative transcendence” over the materialism of the body, even though these attempts ultimately fail. By focusing only on the body and ignoring the question about transcendence, I reach similar conclusions as Aaron but from a different starting point. Aarons, “There’s no remaking reality,” 126.

[22] Victoria Aarons, “Expelled Once Again: The Failure of the Fantasized Self in Philip Roth’s Nemesis,” Philip Roth Studies 9.1 (2013): 51-63; J.M. Coetzee, “On the Moral Brink,” The New York Review of Books October 28, 2010. Available at Accessed May 10, 2014. For more about the theme of self-invention in Roth’s other works, refer to Debra Shostak, Philip Roth – Countertexts, Counterlives (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004).

[23] For more about the community as the body politic in Roth’s writings, refer to David Rampton, “Stupidity’s Progress”; David Brauner, Philip Roth (Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 2007); Aimee Pozorski, Roth and Trauma: The Problem of History in the Later Works (1995-2000) (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2011).

[24] James Tobin, The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013).

[25] Although she does not include the body in her analysis, an illuminating account about the problems of shifting the responsibility of evil from God to humans can be found in Susan Neiman’s Evil in Modern Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).

[26]Buckley’s connection with Everyman’s ordinarinessis alluded to by Arnie’s description of him: “Bucky wasn’t a brilliant man – he wouldn’t have had to be one to teach phys ed to kids –nor was he ever in the least carefree. He was largely a humorless person, articulate enough but with barely a trace of wit, who never in his life had spoken satirically or with irony, who rarely cracked a joke or spoke in jest (443).

[27] Critics of The Humbling have concentrate on the sexual nature of the book, as “an old man’s sexual fantasy dressed up in the garb of literature,” but what they fail to recognize that it is Pegeen, not Axler, who not only have sexual affairs but also initiates the more explicit sexual acts as described in the novel, suggesting that the real dynamics of the play is the actor-audience relationship rather than the sexual one (273-74, 284). William Skidelsky, “The Humbling by Philip Roth,” The Observer October 25, 2009, 20; also refer to Michiko Kakutani, “Two Storytellers, Singing the Blues,” New York Times October 22, 2009, C25.

[28] Through the memory of Bucky’s throwing the javelin, Arnie also becomes part of the historical community of western civilization, starting with the Greeks and their idealization of the male body: Bucky “seemed to us invincible . . . . we boys had left the little story of the neighborhood and entered the historical saga of our ancient gender” (446).

[29] For different interpretations of Indignation, refer to Derek Parker Royal, “What to Make of Roth’s Indignation; Or, Serious in the Fifties,” Philip Roth Studies 5.1 (2009): 129-37; and Brüwiler, Political Initiation in the Novels of Philip Roth, 21-40.