Book Review

19/03/2012 § Leave a comment

Indignation by Philip Roth

Philip Roth is one of the most intriguing modern writers, willing and able to explore man’s darker side in a pointedly dark and descriptive manner.  In Indignation, Roth adeptly deals with the anger and indignation one feels when being forced to do something one doesn’t want to do.

Indignation centers around Marcus Messner during his college years.  The story is told in the first person, and hints at the confessional style of poetry, though it is not in the poetic format.  Marcus gives some background of his life, as a Jewish boy helping his dad in his dad’s kosher butcher shop. Marcus is quite fond of his dad, and enjoys working with him.  In fact, he is even somewhat saddened to leave for college.  However, once he leaves for college, his father begins to slowly go crazy with worry over Marcus, fearful that his son will fail college and then be drafted into war and die.

These concerns aren’t wholly far-fetched, seeing as how the book is set in the 50s.  However, the father’s concern for his son proves suffocating to Marcus, who goes from his first college at Robert Treat in Newark—which Marcus praises as place where he enjoyed tremendous intellectual growth—to Winesburg College in Ohio, where he finds himself being stifled intellectually by the old-fashioned, almost dogmatic presence of religiosity and conservatism on campus.

Marcus has a difficult time adjusting to Winesburg, going through two sets of roommates in a matter of months.  In the first case, he was assigned an all-Jewish dorm, wherein the oldest dormmate was a bit of a jerk, often blasting classical music on into the wee hours of the morning, thus depriving Marcus of the sleep he needed.  In the second case, Marcus’s roommate insults his girlfriend, calling her a slut, leading to a fight. Marcus then moves into the least desirable dorm room on campus, where he is finally by himself, and is finally able to study in peace.

During this time, he works a job as a waiter at a local restaurant , and has rocky relationship with Olivia Hutton.  Hutton had once tried to commit suicide by slitting her wrists, and has the scar to prove it.  Marcus is both fascinated and repulsed by this, especially since he failed to observe her scars on their first date.  Marcus becomes infatuated with Olivia after she tells him that she is attracted to his intensity.  On their drive back from the first date, Olivia initiates sex with him; this confuses him because of his sexual inexperience.  Naturally, Marcus makes things awkward with her, especially after he learns that she was lying when she told him that he was her first.

Marcus also catches the attention of the Dean for changing dorms three times, and also for failing to attend chapel.  Marcus meets with the Dean, who wants to know if everything is alright.  Marcus tries to assure that everything is, in fact, perfectly fine, but their conversation devolves into a shouting match, in which Marcus defends his atheism, and tries to defend his need to live alone.  It is during this time that Marcus realizes that his father is trying to interfere in his life, in order to keep him safe.  The meeting ends with Marcus puking all over the Dean’s office.

It turns out that Marcus’s appendix had burst, and so he spends some time in the hospital recuperating.  Olivia comes to see him, and to patch up their relationship.  Marcus’s mother also comes by, and tells Marcus that she wants to divorce his father because he has become completely paranoid about Marcus’s future.  Whereas his father was once a strong, supremely confident young man, he has now turned into a shadow of his former self, constantly worried about imagined troubles his son might face.

Marcus pleads with his mother to remain married to his father, and she reluctantly agrees.  As she leaves the hospital, she begs Marcus to break up with Olivia since Olivia is obviously a troubled girl.  Marcus refuses initially, but then eventually dishonestly capitulates to his mother’s request.  As soon as he is released from the hospital, he goes back to college to resume his relationship with Olivia, only to find out that she’s gone.

After that, Marcus observes a panty raid that happens on campus after the first snowfall.  This leads to a large number of expulsions, and then eventually a crackdown on troublemakers.  Marcus eventually gets expelled because of his refusal to attend a double amount of chapel services as punishment for his earlier behavior.  He ends up serving in Korea, where he gets wounded.

Roth seems to use this story as a sly critique on overprotective parents, who desire to shield their children from the darker aspects of life.  While this goal may be noble, it has the potential—as seen in Marcus’s life—to live children ill-equipped for their transition to the adult world.

Roth also seems to dwell on the awkwardness that comes with being an independent, responsible person in a world where people want you to submit to their authority, even though their rules are built on the assumption of irresponsibility.  Marcus takes a brave, though ultimately futile stand against what he perceives to the illogic of his persecution, as evidenced primarily by his speech in the Dean’s office.  Funnily, though, his speech would be better directed towards his father, who seems to not trust Marcus even though he has spent his whole life proving his loyalty and trustworthiness.

Also, Roth spends quite a bit of the book dwelling on the theme of misguided love.  This is first seen in Marcus’s father, who allows his desire for what’s best for his son to turn into paranoid infatuation, blowing up over minor, inconsequential things.  The problem is that he loves his son too much, and this blinds him to the fact that his son can be trusted to do what’s right.

Marcus makes the exact same mistake with Olivia, allowing his infatuation with her, no doubt predicated on the fact that he lost his virginity to her, to blind him to her past promiscuity and obvious personal problems. Because he is so infatuated with her, he allows himself to buy into her dishonest self-characterization, preferring to believe his romantic notions of her than to accept the reality that she is a very broken person.

Like other Roth works, this is a rather dark, depressing, and contemplative read.  Roth pulls no punches in describing the depravity of the human spirit.  However, he does seem to see the humor in the hypocrisy of life, and so there is a darkly funny undertone throughout the whole book.  Indignation is a fairly short and compelling read, and is thus highly recommended.


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