Philip Roth's 2000 novel The Human Stain deals with many controversial and heated topics, such as racism, divorce, political controversy and sensationalism. The way in which the book's central character, Coleman Silk, is destroyed through seemingly harmless acts is a powerful statement on the nature of racial politics. This is made even more complex by the eventual reveal of Silk's true secret, placing his predicament in a wholly new light. The effects of these events affect both Silk and many other characters in the novel in dramatic ways. In this essay, the characters of Silk, narrator Nathan Zuckerman and Silk's secret lover Faunia Farley will be examined in the light of the theme of racial politics and public controversy.
Coleman Silk, before the novel begins, is a well-respected professor at Athena College - a reputable, upstanding citizen in his seventies. However, as soon as he uses the wrong word to describe two black students who never attended class - "Do they exist or are they spooks?" - leads to a political uproar that results in the disgraceful collapse of his career and the death of his wife. Of course, all of the flak he takes for his particular remark, it is revealed in the end of the book that Silk is a black man who has effectively passed as a white Jewish man for his entire professional life. The irony of this secret, and what happens to him as a result, is a good indicator of racial politics as portrayed by the novel. Silk does not intend racism when he makes these remarks; he did not even know what the students looked like. He only meant to say "spooks" insofar as they were 'ghosts,' absent, invisible; however, due to the racially charged and politically correct environment of Athena, his remarks are put in a bad light.
During this entire controversy, he could have revealed who he really was, but he chose not to. The reasons for this are central to the theme of the book - the overcompensation of post-racial America would not have tolerated his deception. The political backlash that existed against him already would have backfired on that remark, telling him that he was ashamed to be black, and that is why he hid. To that end, Silk's secret cuts to the heart of the racial politics of the book - it did not matter to Silk that he was black; it would not have aided him, as the political narrative was already poisoned against him.
Delphine Roux, the woman in charge of the smear campaign against Coleman Silk, has her own secrets - she is effectively in self-imposed exile in America from her family, who wish to control her life. Furthermore, she lusts after Coleman Silk; this makes his affair with Faunia Farley even more provocative and enraging to her, as she is caught up in sexual jealousy. This is why she gives him the letter that "everyone knows"; she masks it as protecting Faunia from Coleman's sexual desires, but instead she subconsciously wants him for herself (Neelakantan, p. 17). She could not come right out and say this, or even admit this to herself; it would be politically inconvenient and add to the immature drama that surrounds him. To that end, she herself is held back by her own political correctness and her desire to be part of the bloodhounds that want to depose Silk for his words and behavior.
Faunia Farley, despite being an apparently semi-literate janitor at Athena College, is found to have rich relatives and is actually able to read, despite what she presents to people. Being a victim of sexual abuse, she seems to wish to hide away from the rest of the world by maintaining a low profile. Pretending to be dumb and insignificant is a response to her prior abuse, as being extraordinary gets people into trouble, as both she and Silk know. Her marriage to abused Vietnam veteran Les Farley is a response to that abuse, as they are two damaged characters that need each other. She refuses to take part in the inconsequential politics of political correctness that surround the times (Silk's resignation, the Clinton impeachment) and chooses to not play the social game at all by pretending to be illiterate.
All three of these characters react in various ways to the concept of righteous moral outrage which is echoed by the book's setting near the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Like Bill Clinton, Silk is taken down and ravaged because of relatively inconsequential acts that have no bearing on his ability or his capacity to do his job. His secret is a secret because the hounds of the media and those like Delphine Roux would take him down, sometimes out of schaudenfreude or because of their own desires or need for retribution (Safer, p. 211). Faunia has already accepted the flawed nature of this world and its ability to judge unfairly, and thus has kept her ability to participate in it a secret. Through her interactions with Silk, they find kindred spirits who do not want to play the game of politics any longer.
Neelakantan, G. "Secrecy and Self-Invention: Philip Roth's Postmodern Identity in The Human
Stain." International Fiction Review vol. 34, no. 1-2, 2007. Print.
Roth, Philip. The Human Stain. Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Print.
Safer, Elaine B. "Tragedy and Farce in Roth's The Human Stain." Critique: Studies in
Contemporary Fiction. vol. 43, no. 3, pp. 211-227. 2010. Print.