Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Hidden Identities

Philip Roth's The Human Stain richly develops the complexity of human life and relationships between people of the opposite sex. The main characters of the book, Faunia and Coleman, come from extremely different pasts, yet they each have dark secrets that allow a bond to develop between the two. The outside community, a small college town, passes judgment on Coleman as an old, retired professor using his power and position in life to exert control and influence over Faunia, the presumed illiterate and sexually promiscuous janitor for the college and town.
Coleman's hidden identity is that he is actually African-American although he lived his entire professional life as a Jewish professor. Faunia runs from her high societal, privileged past where she was molested by a stepfather to portray herself by choice as illiterate. Roth lets the reader in on these hidden identities. He shows the foolishness of the community and particularly the college professors and Roth's chairman, a sexy and flirtatious young overachieving woman. The facultys' foolishness comes in the erroneous judgments they make about both Coleman and Faunia.
Roth is harsh about judgmental behavior by others, particularly when it comes to relationships. He is so true about the senseless and irresponsible behavior of people to pass judgment on peers and friends. We can never know the depths of other people's lives and all that influences their decisions. Human life (the human stain as Roth describes it through Faunia) is so complicated, so complex. It is a mosaic that is continually be woven as we live. I don't think we can even fully understand why we always act in certain ways at certain times. However, it seems even more absurd when others pass judgment. Roth seems most critical of this when it comes to relationships. We all have our hidden identities and we should recognize they exist in others.
Roth uses the Coleman and Faunia relationship as a foil to the Clinton and Lewinsky relationship. I agree with the premise that the personal reasons that led to that relationship can never be known to all of us who so readily passed judgment on Bill and Monica. It really just is not that important. We should leave it alone. Who cares. It is so overdone. Let it rest. They are allowed to have their hidden identities and judgment should be left to someone in another world.


  1. I agree with Cat, especially that every human life has its own human identity and should be allowed to be kept hidden. However, in the case of Bill Clinton, he was not just another person in America but he was our president hence every person in the U.S thinks that Bill's life is his or her own business simply because the citizens voted him into office. The question of how much of own's "hidden identity" should be kept a secret is a question that many known people in the public eye have to face. Though Coleman was not an political figure, he was an important one in the eye of the school and of his students. Getting involved with the a younger woman in both cases, would cause controversies in the community. The community will ask questions and gossip because they think that it is their business to ask about the " hidden reasons" behind both scandals, regardless of the fact that they are in no place to pass such judgement.

  2. I agree with Manali's point that when considered to be a public figure, it is common for society to think that you owe an explanation of EVERYTHING about your life. This is also true of entertainers of all sort. I think that there should be a line between personal and political/public. But where that dividing line is, I'm not sure. I think that we should all have the right to determine what aspects of our lives we share with others. In terms of race that is an aspect that some have the ability to choose to disclose while others do not. Race to me is so ambiguous now that there is no real way to look at a person and label them a part of a particular race, hence the ability of some to pass as something other than what they truly are.
    I think that a secret in terms of your identity is a completely different topic than choosing whether to keep the actions of your personal life as just that, personal. For me attempting to equate certain issues or situations to those related to race never really work or carry the same weight.

  3. I hate to be cynical towards these posts, but the reality is that we as a human race will never be able to set a dividing line for our individual privacy. I believe that it is our human nature to be curious of each others' lives and compare them with one another. Unfortunately, this curiosity usually impacts in a very negative way. I completely agree with Cat that Pilip Roth was able to capture people's incorrect judgments on each other due to the fact that they are outsiders perfectly.

  4. This idea of people judging other people based on their appearance is a very important in many aspects of our lives especially, as manali stated, as it pertains to politics. On this topic, has anyone seen the commercials for the documentary asking "is Obama really black?"

  5. I have to agree with Annie that there is a difference in hiding your "race" and hiding your personal life. Although both your biological make-up and your actions are attributes that are unique to you, your decisions are something that can be changed. Whether you like it or not, your genes form who you are and it is important to be proud of exactly that. There is a part of me that understands why Coleman would make this decision, but it also shows his insecurity within himself. I would think for your own conscious fighting past the supposed bias and struggles ahead would make you stronger. To skim by almost in a disguise would cause extreme internal conflict, who are you really? What would you be like if you'd chose to embrace your race?

  6. "There is a part of me that understands why Coleman would make this decision, but it also shows his insecurity within himself."

    Maybe, but does it really? It has been a few years since I read the Human Stain, but I don't recall Roth ever really delineating him as insecure or weak (maybe fearful and hurt from the hard split with his first love?). Coleman strikes me as a person with a very strong individualist drive. He has goals for himself that he obstinately tries to achieve. To him, rejecting race is a means to an end. His decision to reject the racial identity he was born into and instead adopt a new one by passing seems a decision more out of frustration that the question "what race is he really" matters much more to everyone else than it does to him.

    "I would think for your own conscious fighting past the supposed bias and struggles ahead would make you stronger. To skim by almost in a disguise would cause extreme internal conflict, who are you really? What would you be like if you'd chose to embrace your race?"

    He wouldn't end where he wanted to be and be able to accomplish what he wanted. I guess part of the issue is “are these things more important to one's identity than more communal things like race.” Coleman Silk also has the burden of keeping the secret and everything that comes with that (leaving his family, etc.) He still is in a far from ideal situation with some unenviable commitments. It's hard to tell, but I think Roth's own views and inclinations regarding race are in line with error theorists like the early Appiah and Montagu.


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