Philip Roth’s Indignation

Lost in adaptation


in Features


How to best come to terms with the fiction of Philip Roth seems an almost idle question. What need do we have of any special terms? Can’t it simply be the old problem of how best to talk about the books we read, and some of those we come to love? And is it hagiography we might be after, or a stern desire to avoid any hint of such? Shouldn’t Roth take his unabashed stance and his licks with the others: Mailer, Bellow, Malamud, who are at once his compeers and his opponents, even in part his creation (think of the character of Lonoff in The Ghost Writer)? But more than a shadowy suspicion colors the problem. Could it be that Roth is the greatest of all his generation of American novelists, even with a nod to others such as Updike and Delillo? Would he himself be willing to play the games of genius and fortune and pace setter and the varied counters by which we measure literary achievement? In his work the (authorial) self is always trying to make the (existential) self answerable to the snares and glitter of ambition, irony, and self-delusion (not to mention self-abasement.) It might be the better part of wisdom to let Roth deal with his own artistic legacy, for after all his recently announced retirement from the life of writing suggests that he has come to terms with his own final self-estimations.

The highest compliment we can pay our novelists is to insist that they knew what they wanted to say. By such a measure Roth tops the list. At least the list that includes those who flourished in the post-war period, when the ’60s brought us not a new novel, but a novel that challenged the new by asking what we could and should talk about when it came to the fate of the country as shadowed by individuals made singular by their sense of a new right and wrong. Some light is shed on these questions in a critical book-cum-biographical study that recently appeared from Claudia Roth Pierpont, Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books. Such a sense of right and wrong led in many directions, but in a number of memorable instances it led to a strong sense of indignation. With the 28th of his 30 novels, Roth has made another discovery about himself and his fiction: he was finally the spokesman for indignation. It has been a long and winding road that took him into and through a known landscape, a set of struggling men, and a world perhaps less that hostile but in no way comforting. Indignation may not be his greatest novel (that is probably American Pastoral) but it is one of his most condensed, lyrical, and calmly assertive.ps_molesworth_roth_ap_004

Every reader of Roth, and others besides, will recognize the type. A young man comes of age by struggling against family values and ends by staking his identity in an on-going struggle against yet larger and more constricting values. Marcus Messner tries to deal with his father, who owns a butcher shop in Newark, and who has become, not senile exactly, but a shadow of his authoritarian role, consumed as he is by a fear that his son is not ready for maturity and is hedged round with possible disasters. In such an all-around frightening world as the father imagines, Marcus can only think of escape. Here escape for the self-regarding young man means a college education. But that new setting — first in a college near home, then a college hundreds of miles away from the family owned Kosher butcher shop in Newark — is not quite the fulfillment of Messner’s dream, which is nothing more nor less than a chance to realize himself through the self-expression of writing. The dream is broken by several actors and forces, and he dies just at the moment his maturation is commencing. There are a number of WASPy snooty room-mates, a college dean drenched in bad faith, and a suicidal young woman who is both yielding and elegantly destructive, of herself and Marcus as well. Eventually a series of incidents, and some strong indiscretions by Marcus when faced with authority, leads to expulsion from the college and an almost instant draft into the army (the fate of the student deferment arrives as the disaster his father had feared), where death awaits him and his own not very thoroughly learned existentialist dread is finally fulfilled. This thematic leads Marcus to reflect on the apparent logic of causality, recognizing this as the way things lead on to things. But the secondary axiom – the real lesson – is that the small insignificant things eventually lead to the big destructive ones. This is one of the pulsing cores of Roth’s agnostic irony, where the longing for transcendence recurrently disenchants.

Questions of Form: The Novel Version

Roth stands squarely in the traditions of the modernist novel in which a basis of realism is taken by immersion in irony to the very limits of the style. In Portnoy’s Complaint this was illustrated by the novel’s closing, where the analyst says, “And now may we begin?” This reduces the Freudian ego’s struggle for truth to a wisecrack, shattering the tonal consistency. In The Ghost Writer the plausibility of Anne Frank’s survival from the Nazis is ambiguous in a way that is both pathetic and surreal. Both these novels challenge the several conventions of realism: culminating conclusions, plausibility in presenting the space-time continuum, and the probabilistic rendering of daily life, to name some of the more prominent. There is also the latter-day crisis: how to render the first-person narrator a believable figure while positioning him outside the story and yet one of its supportive formal features. Roth has also challenged realism with instances of surrealism and with the opposing conventions of metafiction.

In Indignation Roth employs a metafictional device in answering the question, “Who is this first-person narrator who knows so much about Marcus Messner?” (Spoiler alert!) It is revealed that Marcus is dead, and relates the novel “from the other side,” as the quaint 19th century phrase puts it. In describing how he is able to do this, Marcus lays out his totally secularist version; the afterlife is chiefly a dark hole of memory from which floats up all sorts of incidents that have no more plausibility or significance than they did in “real” life. Random is as random does, and does. There is sequence but no rational shape, a message spelt out in the book when, in a long dialogue with the dean at Winesburg College, Marcus glosses Bertrand Russell’s classic essay, “Why I Am Not A Christian.” In some obvious ways, Marcus is a rigid non-conformist in a world that hasn’t yet discovered the hippie esthetic or the craze for existentialism. Meanwhile he lacks the strength of character or will to serve as even a precursor of those social and cultural transformations; like an ambiguous first-person narrator, the novel happens to him while he is testifying to it for our sakes.


But this device is not quite so neat. The novel asks us to remember a specific memory, namely the moment when Marcus is wounded in Korea, bayonetted by a North Korean soldier, and in a morphine-induced haze, purportedly tells his life story as he comes fitfully to terms with a version of it, which is the novel we have just finished reading. The Korean scene and its recollections are consistent — and yet not so — with the post-death musing, related earlier in the book, about the nature and purpose of mortality and memory. It is as if Roth has broken twice over the narrative framework of the book’s almost-all-containing realism. What unites the two structural devices, the essayistic digression and the death scene reflections, is their “take” on life’s meaning in the form of a denial of it. Would it be possible to take such a sophisticated narrative form – or this set of re-boxed forms – and turn it into a movie? Probably not. With Indignation Roth has taken liberties with the canons of realism, but managed to avoid the stricter limits of the genre of the bildungsroman, the sometimes corrosive effects of a too-easy irony, the always tempting lures of fashion, or the easy exits of surreal whimsy.

Questions of Theme: The Movie Version

Roth has enjoyed little success in having his novels adapted into films. Goodbye Columbus and The Human Stain are worthy exceptions to this, the former showing Richard Benjamin at his best and the latter saved by an excellent performance from Anthony Hopkins. With the recent appearance of the film adaptation of Indignation it becomes apparent where the trouble lies. Most noticeably, there are two major shortcomings in the depiction of the story’s failed authority figures, Messner’s father and Dean Caudwell. Added to these there are a much more profound shortcoming in the narrative framing of the story and a near-total deletion of the novel’s concluding rhetorical performance. These shortcomings will be dealt with below, but there is also the question of just how good a maker of sentences and scenarios Roth has managed to be. The movie version of Indignation, however, must also deal with this writerly skill, which it cannot equal. As Anthony Lane says in his New Yorker review of the movie, “this is [James Shamus’s] first movie . . . and the rhythm of the story telling feels careful and courteous to a fault.” Put positively, the book has a relaxed eloquence which the movie catches only fitfully.

Much of Roth’s temperament is distilled in the character of the elder Messner. He suffers, not a midlife crisis, but more a change of life, worried to the point of neurosis that his son will come to great harm. Much of the worry centers on the sinister aura of the Korean War, which Roth uses as the main socio-historic context for the novel. The pathos arises when we see how the father allows his own anxiety to disrupt any emotional support he might give his son and thereby weakens the boy’s sense of self worth. But the movie version falls short of the depiction in the novel, where Roth’s sly irony has the father essentially transformed into a stereotypical Jewish mother. In fact, Marcus sees his mother slowly but surely take on the role of moral guide, a transformation that culminates in a passage in the book where he praises his mother in terms that some will find sentimental. Her strength comes from her suffering, but her love for Marcus rings true.


The other character whose presentation lacks successful translation to the screen, Dean Caudwell, demonstrates Roth’s obsession with insincerity, at its peak when the dean’s rhetorical lubricity dominates. Accusing Messner of seeking escape when confronted with unpleasant situations, and suggesting that he is an anti-Semitic Jew, Caudwell is a cracker barrel Freudian “counselor” whose own neurotic symptoms are fully on display. But where not enough of the father’s “change of life” dominates the first part of the movie, in the case of the Dean the long set-piece is not sufficiently humorous or emotionally tight enough to deepen Marcus’s situation (though the performance of Tracy Letts as the dean fully deserves praise.) In both cases — the father and the dean — the failure is one of pace and rhythm. The dramatic materials we are given to characterize the father are too brief; the rhetorical performance that puts the Dean on display is too lengthy. In both cases Roth’s prose is much more compelling. Of course this may seem unfair to James Schamus, who both wrote the screenplay and directed, since the on-line review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes gave the film an 80% “Fresh” rating based on 60 reviews, with an average rating of 7.5/10, a good result when compared with other adaptions of Roth’s fiction. We can never know how we would have assessed the father and the dean if we had not read the novel before seeing the film, one of the recurrent bewilderments one faces when considering adaptions between fiction and film.

Differences & Deletions

But far and away the worst shortcoming of this filmic adaption is the way in which its narrative framing and shortened coda leave the final viewing experience one where the film’s changes only serve to heighten the novel’s brilliances. Schamus demonstrates real skill in his directorial debut, but perhaps its best effect is highlighting Roth’s achieved genius.

The movie begins with two brief scenes, clips almost. The first is a shadowy war scene where the combatants are nearly faceless, and we only learn at the end of the film that this is where Marcus dies at the hands of a North Korean soldier. The next thing we see is an old, grey haired woman, barely awake, who sits in a nursing home as an aide comes to wake her, and we see her lift her head and stare at the camera. Only later at the end of the film do we realize the woman is Marcus’s love, Olivia, and what appears in the very last frame of the movie is the vase of red and white flowers — used as a motif on the wallpaper — she brought to Marcus’s hospital room where he was recovering from an emergency appendectomy. The flowers in the nursing home wallpaper exactly duplicate the “real” ones. Schamus brings together the real flowers and the wallpaper replication of them as forming a culminating conclusion to the story. Cinematically it works, but it betrays a brave part of the novel. In Schamus’s version, the film’s story is seen by — or encompassed by — the sweet neurotic vision of Olivia. In Roth’s version, the novel’s deceased narrator shows us the events as if seen from the eye of God, but only if we realize the cosmos is empty.


There is yet another divergence between the novel and the film, in this case one of deletion. Roth chooses to describe in some detail a panty raid that occurs after a snowstorm hits the college. It seems in the novel like a fond farewell that Roth uses to mark the high point of the ’50s. It shows the students as silly, immature, and driven by a mindless peer pressure. Not content with that, Roth adds a counterpoint to the childishness in the form of an extended harangue addressed to the college community by the college president. In it, the president (whom the narrator praises as a serious man) shames the students by contrasting their life of ease and privilege with the arduous and deadly tours in Korea that their contemporaries are suffering. His rage outstrips the pomposity of the Dean’s “serious” talk with Messner earlier in the novel, and outweighs Messner’s somewhat priggish belief in his own moral rightness. Only a brief snippet of the president’s talk is shown in the movie, with but a glimpse of the panty raid, and nary a snowflake appears. (Curiously, almost no review of the film version mentions this deletion.) Joined together, the set pieces, which take up a total of 14 pages in the novel, are almost parodic versions of the pleasure principle and the reality principle (or the death wish, perhaps). The deletions also mean that perhaps the novel’s central irony — that the emotion in the title belongs more seriously to the college president than it does to the student from Newark — is also missing.

So, it is not surprising, but it is regrettable that Schamus can’t find the equivalent of Marcus’s secularist digression on the empty fate of memory and meaning, spoken dispassionately from beyond the grave. Nor can he figure out what to do with the two scenes of the panty raid and the harangue. These are, of course, bravura passages in the novel and show Roth at his deepest, a fitting coda in this modest-sized book, a vade mecum of ultimate irony, the story that goes on telling itself even as the storyteller only grows more and more deceased.

Finally, Roth has stayed true to the ironic realism that his fictional imagination offered him all the while pressing himself to go further. Trying to break apart or just seriously question the narrative frame was enough to make him even more ironic, even more a brilliant writer at times. He early and late courted the muse of comedy, but knew he had better do more than that – even if it meant that at times he would grow indignant. •

Screen captures taken from trailers for Indignation. Illustration of Philip Roth courtesy of Gregory Di Folco via Flickr (Creative Commons).


Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).