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[488] Indignation – Philip Roth

” What happened next I had to puzzle over for weeks afterward. And even dead, as I am and have been for I don’t know how long, I try to reconstruct the mores that reigned over that campus and to recapitulate the troubled efforts to elude those mores that fostered the series of mishaps ending in my death at the age of nineteen. ” (54)

It’s 1951 in America, the second year of Korean War. Marcus Messner is the earnest, dutiful boy whose only goals in his brief, truncated college career is to make straight A’s, to lose his virginity, and to become a lawyer. Unlike his contemporaries, Marcus, who helps out at his father’s kosher butcher shop and works very hard to achieve his goals, is very focused and intense.

I myself didn’t drink beer or anything else alcoholic, I’d never smoked, and I’d never tried by shouting and singing at the top of my voice to make a dazzling impressions on girls—as did any number of inebriates who brought their dates to the inn on Friday and Saturday nights. (25)

But his father seems to be mad with fear and apprehension. His overwhelming preoccupation with Marcus’ welfare and physical safety seems to be moving from the merely obsessive to the genuinely pathological. To escape his father’s suffocating stricture, he transfers out of Newark to a college in Winesburg, Ohio, where he asserts his independence from family, religion, and war propaganda in full force.

Transferring from Robert Treat to get away from my father’s unreasonable strictures. Not joining a fraternity in order to concentrate exclusively on my studies. Taking ROTC dead seriously in an attempt not to wind up dead in Korea. (52)

Other than breaking free from his father’s surveillance, Marcus gains little tranquility. In Winesburg he gets into disagreement with two roommates within the first month of the semester. Instead of reaching a compromise, he leaves. Twice he has moved—so much that his lack of social skills and isolation alert the dean. He falls in love with a girl who is a deeply unhappy person suffering from long-standing mental and emotional problems. He is flummoxed by her disappearance.

Indignation is the story of a young man’s education in life’s terrifying chances and bizarre obstructions. Marcus is singularly goal-oriented but also foolish. Other than making the grades he understands nothing in life, nor does he make the effort to befriend people. He wages war against his surrounding and refuses to get along with people when there is a difference of opinion. The centerpiece clash between him and the dean over social isolation and rejection of Winesburg’s religious tradition fully and duly nails his vulnerability, which, sadly, costs his tragic tragic fall.

Indignation is a vignette that captures the impact of American history on the life of the vulnerable individual. As for the naive 19-year-old, it’s the terrible, the incomprehensible way one’s most banal and incidental choices that achieve the most ironically disproportionate result. The cautious reader would know that the narrator is dead. The narrative is his last, morphine-fueled memories as he lies dying of fatal wounds. Apropos of his physical condition, the book reads like musings from the afterlife. Roth is fully in command with his economical prose.

233 pp. Houghton Mifflin. Hardbound. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

2 Responses

  1. […] [488] Indignation – Philip Roth […]

  2. I’ve yet to read any of Roth’s work but it seems to me that his characters are always living tortured existences in one way or

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