Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Philip Roth's The Humbling: A Review

While Philip Roth's latest novel The Humbling is definitely not on the same level as his earlier masterpieces American Pastoral and The Human Stain, its is still pretty good. Written in Roth's luminous style, The Humbling tells a story of Simon Axler, an aging actor who loses his capacity to act and is plunged into a depression as a result. His wife leaves him, and Axler sees himself as condemned to loneliness for the rest of his days. Then, he starts an affair with Pegeen, a lesbian who is 25 years younger than he is. When Pegeen gets bored with their relationship and leaves, Axler is devastated.

This novel offers a profound critique of the male chauvinist way of thinking and of the problems it causes to the men who try to hold on to the obsolete macho ideology. Axler treats Pegeen as a voiceless, malleable doll, who needs to be transformed into a version of womanhood he considers to be acceptable: "All he was doing was helping Pegeen to be a woman he would want instead of a woman another woman would want." Understandably, his efforts to "cure" Pegeen from being a lesbian through fancy clothes and expensive jewelry fail.

In his efforts to analyze his relationship with an independent, self-sufficient, intellectual woman from the vantage point of outdated chauvinistic beliefs, Axler makes himself look utterly pathetic. he expects Pegeen's parents to be happy about their daughter's relationship with him because he is rich and can 'take care of her', whatever that means: "Here is this eminent man with a lot of money who's going to take care of her. After all, she's not getting any younger herself. She settles down with someone who's achieved something in life - what's so wrong with that?" Later on, Axler expresses a belief that Pegeen is involved with him because of his erstwhile fame as an actor.

Axler forgets that, unlike decades ago, an educated professional woman has no need to be with a person of any age or any gender because of money, the imaginary need "to settle down," or because she needs anybody to take care of her. What Axler fails to understand - and what costs him very dearly in the end - is that Pegeen's only reason to be with him (or with anybody else) is her desire. Gone are the times when women like Pegeen needed to attach themselves to an older man for prestige, money, or protection. Today, a woman who makes her own living can choose the sexual partner(s) she wants based on nothing but her own feelings and desires.

Pegeen is not the only woman Axler misjudges on the basis of his outdated sexist beliefs. Sybil, a woman he meets in a hospital, is for him "helpless, frail, and child-like." He misunderstands Sybil's inner strength and determination and ends up completely clueless about her.

In his long career as a writer, Roth often was criticized for the sexism of his novels. In my opinion, The Humbling is the writer's attempt to atone novelistically for that.

P.S. After I finished this review, I checked out some of the other reviews on this novel. I was shocked to realize that most people who have reviewed it consider the novel sexist. Apparently, for some people the mere fact of mentioning a relationship between an older man and a younger woman is in itself sexist. According to this weird logic, in order to avoid being sexist we have to pretend that such relationships do not exist.


Anonymous said...

I like you blog particularly because of the type of views you added in the post script.

The hypersensitivity towards bigotry is ridiculous and counter productive. How the hell is it sexist to have a younger person desire and consumate a relationship with an older person? "Oh well in the past women were typically wed young and to old men- this book carries on that norm". Give me a break. The whole point of equality and freedom is choice. It is not that its wrong for a woman to be a housewive, to desire only to tend to the children and decide not to pursue a career, or to love and marry (or simply care for and associate with) an older man partially for his status or ability to provide. It is wrong to force or demand a person (in this case a woman) to do these things. The fact that some women like being houswives (or both work and raise children at different points in their lives) does not at all imply they are not feminists or are reinforcing the "old way". The very fact that they are able to CHOOSE to take either (any) path means they are feminists, they are for equality, and that by choosing to be a housewife they are advancing equality.

The contrary is as silly as saying its wrong for a person whose ancestors slaved in the American south to get a job farming cotton or that its wrong for a man to be the main provider for the family rather than insisting his wife earn equal money for form's-sake, regardless of their personal preferences.

Clarissa said...

Anonymous: I disagree with every word you say but I'm very happy you like my blog. :-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the kind words. Do you believe people have an obligation to live contrary to stereotypes or repressive cultural norms? As in my example, does a woman have an obligation to seek a career and equal or greater money than her husband? Is she not a feminist if she decides to not seek a career? I don't understand how this could be disagreed with given your other views. Calling upon people to act contrary to certain norms to reinforce their freedom or whatnot is just as harmful adn wrong in the abstract as the old prejudices/norms re: women in American society. People have a right to do what they want, and nobody should be called upon to abstain from conduct that isn't harmful to another's rights because others aren't comfortable with it. Believing a woman's place is in the home is the same as believe a woman's place is in the workplace, in the abstract. Both seek to restrict an individual from seeking happiness based on arbitrary and meritless criteria (sex).

Clarissa said...

Of course, I think people should make their own choices. Only, I'm in favor of informed choices. Do you know that housewives are the group of population that suffers the most from depression?

It's easy to dismiss these people by saying 'Oh, that's just their choice.' It's more difficult - but also more intellectually honest - to try and find out why anybody would make a choice leading to severe depression.

As to people having a right not to work if they want, there is no such right for men. If both men and women start leaving work in droves, then who is going to keep all these happy housewives and househusbands?