Grasping the 'Raw I': Race and Tragedy in Philip Roth's 'The Human Stain'

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Abstract
Philip Roth’s novel 'The Human Stain' recounts an instance of racial passing: its protagonist, Coleman Silk, is African-American but light-skinned enough to pass as white. Coleman’s decision to pass and his subsequent violent death, I argue, confront us with complex ethical questions regarding unjust social roles, loyalty, and moral luck. I also argue, building on Hegel’s definition of tragedy, that 'The Human Stain' is a particularly modern tragedy. The novel highlights conflicting role obligations, inadequate conceptions of freedom, and the tensions of cultural paradigm shifts—all characteristics typical of modern tragedy. I claim that parsing 'The Human Stain' as a tragedy deepens our understanding of the novel as well as drawing our attention to its philosophical significance.
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Archival date: 2013-11-25
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