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Conflicts Ancient and Modern in the Human Stain

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Conflicts Ancient and Modern in the Human Stain

In Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, Roth utilizes multiple conflicts and allusions within the story to explore human nature and the reasons that people choose the paths to settle conflicts. In the opening and closing scenes, many conflicts are being discovered as well as resolved. The conflicts include white versus black, right versus wrong, ideology versus ambition, and loyalty versus betrayal. Roth uses the Berkshire community and the small Athena College in 1998 as a microcosm of the world in which he uses these conflicts, as well as classical and literary allusions to bring to light all of the possible decisions of the past and outcomes of the future.

In the opening scene the protagonist, Coleman Brutus Silk is introduced through the eyes and words of the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman. Silk is an former professor of Greek and Latin as well as the dean of faculty at Athena college located in the Berkshires of New England. During one of his classes, Silk makes a classical allusion to the conflict between the powerful King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles over the maiden Briseis in Homer’s epic, the Iliad. Agamemnon steals Briseis , who is a war prize of Achilles, after he returns his own captured maiden, Chryseis, back to her father. Achilles is enraged by Agamemnon’s actions and vows to never assist the Greeks in their quests again. Silk is unknowingly describing, symbolically, the situation that he will be in only a few months into the future. Silk soon resigns from the college after being labeled a racist and his wife of more than forty years, Iris, passes away during the debacle. As a man of over seventy-one years old, he should have honored his wife and lived out the rest of his life in peace. Like a Agamemnon though, he was enticed by a younger woman. As Agamemnon says of Briseis, "Clytemnestra (the wife of Agamemnon) is not as good as she is, neither in face nor figure," so thinks Coleman Silk of Faunia Farley, the thirty-four year old woman whom Coleman is beginning to have an affair with (Roth 4). In the process of taking on this new lover though, Coleman has attracted a warrior not unlike Homer’s mighty Achilles. Faunia’s ex-husband, Les Farley, is a Vietnam veteran that has suffered heavily from post traumatic stress disorder. He made himself into a nearly mindless killer while in Vietnam "hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls," (Homer 1 l. 3). The stress disorder and the recurring memories of Vietnam caused him to beat and injure Faunia during their marriage. Farley now stalks Faunia all the time, following her wherever she goes. He still feels an obligation to Faunia, even if it is just to terrorize and humiliate her because he blames her for leaving their kids alone in her home while they suffocated during an electric fire. He threatens all that come too close to her, as did Achilles. Achilles told Briseis, "no man so long as I am alive above earth and see daylight shall lay the weight of his hands on you," and without words, Faunia knew this is what Les intended to do for her (Homer 1l. 88-89).

Not until the final scenes of the play does the reader discover that Silk totally disowned his family so that he could live a life free from any connection with them. He decides that instead of going through life as an African American, which he and his family were, he will instead have everyone know him as a white Jew. His betrayal of his family and his race appear very similar to the act carried out by his namesake, Brutus, dear friend and murderer of Julius Caesar. The reason for Coleman’s decision can be traced back to his determined father and Coleman’s first experience in higher education. To satisfy the wishes of his demanding father, Silk enrolls at Howard University in Washington D.C. Silk hates the university and hates being surrounded by oppression in the dominantly African American school. As soon as his father dies, Silk tells his family that he is joining the navy as a white man. After serving in World War II, Silk returns home and continues his education, still acting as a white man. Ten years later, when he has decided to marry Iris, he tells his mother that he is breaking all contact with her and the family forever, and he will tell everyone that his family is dead. He is symbolically "murdering her on behalf of his exhilarating notion of freedom!" (Roth 138). Brutus also murders someone that he loved for the reason of freedom. He murders Caesar as to gain freedom from Caesar’s ambitions, his power, the love the people had for him. Brutus says in defense of his actions "Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more," ( Shakespeare Act III scene I, l. 21). Coleman thought as Brutus did,

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