The Human Stain  

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"The Human Stain is the third in a trilogy, following American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, in which Roth explores American morality and its effects. Here he examines the cut-throat and, at times, petty, atmosphere in American academia, in which "political correctness" was upheld. Roth said he wrote the trilogy to reflect periods in the 20th century - the McCarthy years, the Vietnam War, and President Bill Clinton's impeachment - that he thinks are the "historical moments in post-war American life that have had the greatest impact on my generation."" --Sholem Stein

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Human Stain (2000) is a novel by Philip Roth set in late 1990s rural New England. Its first person narrator is 65-year-old author Nathan Zuckerman, who appeared in several earlier Roth novels, and who also figures in both American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998), two books that form a loose trilogy with The Human Stain. Zuckerman acts largely as an observer as the complex story of the protagonist, Coleman Silk, a retired professor of classics, is slowly revealed.

A national bestseller, The Human Stain was adapted as a film by the same name directed by Robert Benton. Released in 2003, the film starred Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Wentworth Miller and Gary Sinise.

Synopsis

The story is told by Nathan Zuckerman, a writer who lives quietly in New England, where Coleman Silk is his neighbor. Silk is a former professor and dean of faculty at nearby Athena College, a fictional institution in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. Silk is accused of racism by two African American students over the use of the word spooks, using the term to describe their absence from the classroom (like ghosts) rather than in the racially derogatory sense. The uproar leads to Silk's resignation. Soon after, his wife Iris dies of a stroke, which Silk feels is caused by the stress of his being forced out of the college. Silk begins a relationship with Faunia Farley, a 34-year-old local woman who works as a janitor at the college and is illiterate. Silk is criticized by feminist scholars at the college for this.

It is slowly revealed through Zuckerman's musings that Silk is an African American who has been "passing" as a Jew since a stint in the Navy. He completed graduate school, married a white woman and had four children with her. He never told his wife and children of his African American ancestry. As Roth wrote in the novel, Silk chose "to take the future into his own hands rather than to leave it to an unenlightened society to determine his fate".

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