Literature Analysis: Chapter 4 Part 1

Political, Psychological, Socio-cultural Dualism and Postmemory in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America

Ng Lay Sion

  1. Plot Review (Chapter 4 Part1)

In January 1942, Alvin is discharged from the Canadian army and returns to Newark, America. Monty, the rich Jewish uncle of Philip, blames Herman for his failure to stop Alvin from going to the war, which results in the loss of his left leg. Opposed to this, Herman claims that it is President Lindbergh’s anti-Semitism that had urged Alvin to join the Canadian force. Drawing on these arguments, Philip poses a hypothetical question. However, his father’s ambivalent answer to his question changes Philip’s perception toward his father. Soon the Roth family departs to Montreal train station in order to pick up Alvin. Despite Philip already being aware of Alvin’s disabled condition, he is stunned by Alvin’s appearance. This further reminds Philip of a man he knows with no legs whose name has the same number of letters as Philip’s himself. This uncanny feeling so overwhelms Philip that he can barely sleep at night. Also, sharing the same room with Alvin and his artificial leg terrifies Philip and in order to escape, Philip begins to follow the non-Jews on the street again. However, soon he discovers how different his facial structures are from the non-Jews. On the fourth night, Philip finally sees Alvin’s stump and with Sandy’s help realizes it can be turned into a rat-like creature. Following the plots, there are several aspects that are worth exploring. First, in the political aspect, there is the dualistic discourse between Lindbergh and Roosevelt. Secondly, in the psychological aspect, there is Philip’s splitting of his self from the other. Thirdly, in the social aspect, there is Sandy’s able-bodied status and Alvin’s disability. At last, there is the post-memory of the Jewish holocaust, which is represented through the symbolic image of the stump.

  1. Political Dualism: Lindbergh’s Peace and Roosevelt’s War

            It is suggested that the argument between Monty and Herman can be divided into two opposite political discourses: Lindbergh’s peace and Roosevelt’s war. Representing the former viewpoint, Monty claims, “You should never have let him go, Herm. He runs away to Canada to become a war hero and this is where it lands him, a goddamn gimp for the rest of his life,” implying that this is a consequence of supporting war/Roosevelt (124). On the contrary, Herman argues that it is Lindbergh that forces Alvin to go to war: “Alvin can’t bear your president,” “that’s why he went to Canada” (124). He further criticizes Monty’s priority towards money over his Jewish identity by claiming: “Not so long ago you couldn’t bear the man either. But now this anti-Semite is your friend…The stock market is up, profits are up, business is booming—and why? Because we have Linbergh’s peace instead of Roosevelt’s war” (124). Nevertheless, what Monty later says is indeed, important as Lindbergh is elected by the majority of the nation not because of his anti-Semitism but rather his promise of “no war”: “We’re out of the war, and we’re staying out of the war. Lindbergh’s done me no harm that I can see” (124). As to Lindbergh, his criticism about Jews is based on his belief that Jews develop no national interest in the country, which might disharmonize the unity of American society. Whereas Herman’s criticism of Lindbergh is grounded on his anti-Semitic speech; as for Bess, it is her skeptical perception towards Christians that urges her to dismiss Lindbergh’s power. As Graham suggests, “Just as Philip’s family and neighborhood feel oppressed by the possibility that an anti-Semite could win the nation’s highest office, so too does the dominant power structure associate Jews with selfish, even hostile dissonance in the midst of national harmony” (130). Thus, a sense of dualism is reinforced under this black-and-white political environment and each political side seems to assume that the other has a secret and aggressive plan: “my father, my mother, me, and the Democrats, as opposed to Uncle Monty, Aunt Evelyn, Sandy, and all the Republicans currently enjoying their countrymen’s love” (135).

            Drawing on Monty’s anti-war argument, Philip suggests a hypothetical possibility to his father: “what if Roosevelt is president again? Then there would be a war”; “if there was a war, […] and if Sandy was old enough, then he would be drafted to fight in the war…then what happened to Alvin could happen to him” (124-5). Regarding this, his father gives him a rather ambivalent answer: “Son, anything can happen to anyone […] but it usually doesn’t”; “Except when it does” (125). Unable to interpret his father’s answer, Philip then develops a skeptical view towards Herman’s perspective: “I began to wonder if my father knew what he was talking about” (125). This changing perception of Philip towards Herman implies that Herman’s authority is changed from a heroic, masculine father to a powerless father. In a symbolic sense, this corruption of a father figure represents the corruption of the reasonable world, which serves as a key to foster the irrationality of Philip.

  1. Psychological Dualism: The Splitting of Philip’s Self and the Other

            Due to the political dualism that has arisen in the Roth family, Philip is asked by his parents to keep a secret: he cannot tell Alvin about Sandy’s engagement with Lindbergh’s Just Folk Program (125). Holding on to this “secret” increases the psychological stress inside the young Philip. Furthermore, sharing one room with the disabled Alvin seems to terrify Philip’s psyche: “No! Alvin can’t stay here—he has only one leg!” (109). Although his mother suggests that they could exchange beds (Bess sleep with Alvin, Philip sleep with Herman) or he could also exchange beds with Sandy (in which he sleeps on the daybed in the sun parlor), Philip can say nothing and refuses these suggestions due to the pressure imposed by the political dualism that has arisen in the Roth family: “What would I prefer it? I’d have loved it. But how possibly could Sandy, who was now working for Lindbergh, share a room with someone who had lost his leg going to war against Lindbergh’s Nazi friends?” (133). This dualistic political discourse becomes a psychological burden or anxiety inside Philip due to his inability to speak about it—it is transformed into a form of “secret”—which results in insomnia.

            The arrival of Alvin in Roth’s family is striking, as everyone in the house remains anxious, especially the young Philip. When Philip throws his arms around Alvin, he is disgusted by the bad smell that comes from Alvin’s mouth (127). Also, the skeletal-like body of Alvin together with his stump that is hidden under his left trouser overwhelms Philip. Terrified by this uncanny feeling, Philip is incapable of looking at Alvin: “I’m unable to describe the rest of his outfit because the fear of gaping merged with the terror of seeing to prevent me from ever looking long enough to register what he wore” (128). This unfamiliar outlook of “Alvin the stump” reminds Philip of the “colossal freakishness” of a man without legs whom he sometimes saw in front of his father’s office on Saturday mornings (127). When Philip discovers the name of this friendly man without legs has the same number of letters as his name, he is dominated not only by a sense of terror but also a sympathetic emotion, which urges him to think of himself as “the stump of a man”: “The grotesque injustice of a man’s being halved had not merely happened, which was incomprehensible enough, but happened to someone called Robert, as commonplace as a male name could be and six letters long, like my own” (128). Supposedly, this complex emotion once again strikes Philip when he tries to encounter Alvin and his stump:

“I didn’t know any longer what to make of my brother, but then I didn’t know what to make of myself, so busy was I trying to remember to conceal everyone’s secrets while doing my best to suppress my fears and trying not to stop believing in my father as well as in the Democrats and FDR and whoever else could keep me from teaming up with the rest of the country in adoring President Lindbergh” (126-7; underline mine).

The description above reveals Philip’s psychological dilemma that is deeply linked to the dualistic political discourse in the family. However, Philip tries to hide his terror and fear by behaving like an obedient and understanding boy while in front of his family: “I sat at the kitchen table folding Alvin’s underwear and rolling each pair of socks into a ball, determined to make everything turn out right by being the best little boy imaginable, much, much better than Sandy and better even than myself” (132). The more Philip tries to behave himself, the more he feels a sense of self-splitting inside him. This incapability to balance his social and individual self explains why Philip becomes more enthusiastic in following the non-Jews on the street.

            Ironically, this process of following non-Jews on the street further leads Philip into a cruel self-realization: “that my mother looked Jewish. Her hair, her nose, her eyes—my mother looked unmistakably Jewish. But then so must I, who so strongly resembled her. I hadn’t known” (134). In other words, Philip’s purpose of following the non-Jews is to release the psychological burden (which is mainly caused by the dualistic political discourses) inside him. But it turns out that he becomes more alien to himself—that now he knows that inside his Jewish skin resides an innocent American soul.

  1. Socio-Cultural Dualism: Alvin’s Disability and Sandy’s Able-bodied status

            The experience of going to war in the Canadian army was for Alvin an unfortunate journey, as he lost his left leg in the war. Due to his disabled condition, he will be “receiving a monthly disability pension from the Canadian government of a hundred and twenty-five dollars…and an additional three hundred dollars in separation pay (122). Also, as a handicapped veteran, he can receive Canadian citizenship if he applies for it. However, Alvin chooses to return to America even though Canada might be a more tolerant country for a disabled Jewish man. Refusing to become a citizen of Canada symbolizes Alvin’s refusal to recognize the failure of his own Americanization (as I have mentioned in the last presentation). Holding on to his own pride, Alvin attempts to gain no further assistance from anyone. As the nurse in the hospital claims, Alvin is “the world-champion hopper,” that he cannot let go of the “bitterness of loss,” which makes him an angry person: “I’ve seen the ones without any limbs angry, but nobody before ever angry like him”—“at how things turn out” (130). It is no doubt that Alvin blames Herman for his misfortune, as Herman is one of the reasons why he wanted to go to the war (Alvin attempts to prove his masculinity to Herman). This is why when Alvin sees Herman, “He showed no fear or any trace of weeping, and they surveyed my father with ferocity, as though it were the guardian who had committed the unpardonable act that had rendered the ward a cripple” (127). This anger is also reinforced by his acceptance of a disability pension from the Canadian government, since it means that officially or legally Alvin is a disabled person. The acceptance of a disability pension also fosters the self-victimization of Alvin, in which he sees himself as a victim so that he can blame others for his misfortune.

            What makes Alvin an “official” cripple is his artificial leg together with his stump. When Alvin claims that his stump is broken down, Philip is unable to comprehend so he asks his mother that “what does it mean that it’s broken down? Do I have to look at it? Will I ever have to touch it? Are they going to fix it?” (131). According to The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1989, disability is defined as “impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities” (6). Philip’s innocent question “are they going to fix it” implies the condition of “impairment.” Also, if one looks at the description of Alvin’s disabled condition by the doctor,

“He lost his left leg below the knee and was seriously wounded in his right foot. The right foot is healing and that should not leave him impaired. When his left leg is ready, he will be fitted with a prosthesis and taught to walk with it.” (90; underline mine)

One understands that Alvin’s “impairment” will be fixed by fitting his stump with a prosthesis. However, ironically, the medical technology on one hand facilitates the survival of disabled people while on the other hand it pathologizes them (Thomson 79). In Alvin’s case, he is pathologized not only by the medical gaze but also the normative norms that dominate the society. The meaning of “Impairment” only comes to make sense when it is compared with “a hypothetical set of guidelines for corporeal form and function arising from cultural expectations about how human beings should look and act (Thomson 6). This formation of normative norms can be traced back to the Enlightenment faith in rationality. Through establishing fixed categories and “routing the troubling paradoxes of contingency, indeterminacy, ambiguity, and impurity,” a culture of pathology is developed (Thomson 77).

            Alvin’s disability becomes even more obvious when he is compared to Sandy’s healthy bodily appearance. Especially when Sandy returns from the farm in Kentucky, he is “some ten pounds heavier than when he’d left and his brown hair blondish from his working in the fields under the summer sun. He’d grown a couple of inches as well, so that his pants were now nowhere near his shoe tops” (91). However, metaphorically, from the lens of disability, Sandy’s joining the Just Folk Program can be seen as a failure of Americanization because what Sandy has become is not what the mainstream would expect, rather it is pushing Sandy to the marginalized categories, making him a “just folk,” which I suggest is another kind of disability. For instance, Sandy’s way of speaking becomes Kentucky style: he says “‘rimember’ for ‘remember’ and ‘fahr’ for ‘fire’ […] and ‘awalkin’ and ‘atalkin’ for ‘walking’ and ‘talking,’ and whatever you wanted to call that concoction of English, it wasn’t what we natives of New Jersey spoke (93). In this sense, one understands that the Americanization of Sandy is not really Americanization but a Folk-becoming process; somehow it is possible to say that this program has “mentally” disabled Sandy.

  1. Dualism: Jewish Rats and German Cats

            Sleeping in the same room with Alvin and his stump terrifies Philip: “I would involuntarily envision Robert on his platform and wearing his work gloves whenever I lay stiffly in the dark trying to force myself asleep: first my stamps covered with swastikas, then Little Robert, the living stump” (128). This horrible feeling that Philip has remains until the fourth night, when Alvin shows him his injured stump.

“What I saw extending down from his knee joint was something five or six inches long that resembled the elongated head of a featureless animal, something on which Sandy, with just a few well-placed strokes, could have crayoned eyes, a nose, a mouth, teeth, and ears, and turned it into the likeness of a rat” (136).

Philip’s associating Alvin’s stump with an “animal” and a “rat” reminds us of the famous cartoon called The First Maus (1972) by Art Spiegelman. The story begins as a bedtime story “about life in the old country during the war” (Spiegelman 105; qtd. in Hirsch 29). As one can see, the mouse is threatened by the cat who puts a gun into his mouth. This use of the cat and mouse as a symbol of German soldiers and Jewish people can be applied to Philip’s imagination (Philip’s extraordinary experience is also happening in the bedroom). Besides this, the image of Alvin’s stump and his missing leg can be linked to the artwork of Tatana Kellner’s B-11226: Fifty Years of Silence, an artwork that represents a post-memory of the Jewish holocaust. Regarding post-memory, Hirsch provides a definition by claiming,

“Post-memory” describes the relationship that the “generation after” bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before—to experiences they “remember” only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up. (5)

Thus, it is possible to suggest that through the images of Alvin’s injured stump combined with his own imagination, Philip comes to develop a sense of a “living connection” with the collective memories of the Jewish holocaust during War World Two. When Alvin is trying to put bandages on his stump, Philip once again “remembers” the grotesque and violent Jewish holocaust: “The stump—when he was through with it—again reminded me of a small animal, this time from sinking its razor-sharp teeth into the hand of its captor” (137).

From the analysis above, it seems that Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America can be seen as a post-memory work. Post memorial work, as Hirsch suggests, “strives to reactivate and re-embody more distant political and cultural memorial structures by reinvesting them with resonant and familial forms of mediation and aesthetic expression” (33). Perhaps Philip Roth attempts to use literature as a promoter of memory in order to share the “inheritance of multiple traumatic histories” with the reader so that everyone can share a sense of individual and social responsibility towards “a persistent and traumatic past” (33-4).

References:

Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory: Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust. New York: Colombia University Press, 2012. Print.

Graham, T. A. “On the Possibility of an American Holocaust: Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America.” The Arizona Quarterly 63.3 (Autumn, 2007): 119-149,151.

Kellner, Tatana. B-11226: Fifty Years of Silence. Rosendale, New York: Women’s Studio Workshop, 1992.

Roth, Philip. The Plot Against America. London: Vintage, 2004. Print.

Spiegelman, Art. The First Maus (1972), first published in Funny Animals, reprinted in Art Spiegelman, Meta Maus.

Thomson, R. G. Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature. New York: Colombia University Press, 1997. Print.

U.S. Congress, The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1989, 101st Cong, 1st sess., S. Res. 933. Washington, DC: GPO, 1989.

 

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