UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Philip Roth as moral artist at mid-career Phelan, James


As a serious young man in the nineteen-fifties and early sixties, Philip Roth believed writing fiction was an exalted calling with a high moral purpose. He was a committed social realist with a Lionel-Trilling-like ethics of fiction and a grand, unrealized ambition to write about public life. Then, fifteen years into his career, he wrote Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), a rollicking extravaganza of scurrilous comic invention and exaggerated grievance. Revelling in wildness and transgression, he found a voice that galvanized his talent as nothing before had done. Yet he still seemed to feel bound by his old ethical commitments. This was not the artistic breakthrough he had been hoping for. My paper considers how Roth works at reconciling his deep-seated sense of moral responsibility as a writer with his inescapable talent for imaginative recklessness in three novels, each of which marks a turning point in the middle of his career, Portnoy, The Ghost Writer (1979), and The Counterlife (1986). I take this moral/aesthetic problem to be an important preoccupation of Roth’s and make that preoccupation the basis for readings of the novels. In doing so, I try to show that his ethics and aesthetics are much deeply entangled than is usually acknowledged. In Portnoy he does all he can to contain Alex Portnoy’s rampaging monologue inside a morally proper narrative frame. With The Ghost Writer, he eschews his old ethics of fiction and makes a complex declaration of aestheticism by appropriating Anne Frank’s life story and voice to his pointedly reckless fiction. The Israel chapters of The Counterlife are a watershed in his career. In them, he puts his aesthetic wildness to work for his moral probity, while opening his fiction up to the public scene. He presents a dialogical, non-normative moral fiction investigating the question of Israeli settlement on the West Bank by imaginatively projecting himself into a range of ethically engaged Israeli subject positions and having the characters he invents debate the controversy in variations on his characteristic voice. In the mid-eighties as in the early sixties, Roth’s objective as a moral writer is the "expansion of moral consciousness."

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