Thursday, January 11, 2007

Everyman's Loss, Our Loss, Our Gain

Standing near the gravesite at the funeral that begins Everyman, Nancy, the protagonist's daughter, addresses her father with "his own stoical maxim from decades back".

"There's no remaking reality," Nancy says, to her father's dead body, as she is about to throw the first clod of dirt onto his coffin. "Just take it as it comes. Hold your ground and take it as it comes."

Everyman is a book about loss, but, more importantly, to me, it's about how we deal with it-and Roth's Everyman, much as he might like to hold his ground and take it as it comes, cannot help but let the feelings of sadness wash over him. The loneliness, regret, and disappointment with which our main character lives his last days may be hard to take - but I think there is something essential about our experience of life more generally in this man.

The more women he sleeps with, the more he realizes he is essentially alone. The longer he lives, the more he appreciates his earliest years in his father's jewelery store- and the closer he gets to death, the more he clings to life, disappointing or no. The fact that the character has made many mistakes in his life - that he has not been the father he could have been, that he took his second wife for granted and later regrets the loss that resulted - does not make him extraordinary; nor does it make him inferior to any of us. He is human, all too human, and to the extent that his story depresses or angers those of us who read it - the question I think we should ask is how we feel about our own imperfections, our own failures, our own mistakes.

We cannot remake reality - but there's a few different ways we can proceed from that fact. The inability to remake reality only frees one from regret if one can truly accept the fact -and for the title character, mouthing it for many years as a "stoical maxim" is not tantamount to believing it.

But for all of life's difficulties and disappointments, there are also its gifts. The main character's relationship with his daughter - her love, specifically, is one of those in the book, one of its very bright, hopeful spots:

He never really stopped worrying about her, nor did he understand how it happened that such a child should be his. He hadn't necessarily done the right things to make it happen, even if Phoebe had. But there are such people, spectacularly good people - miracles, really - and it was his great fortune that one of these miracles was his own incorruptible daughter. Sometimes he was amazed when he looked around himself and saw how bitterly disappoint parents could be--as he was with his own two sons, who continued to act as if what happened to them had never happened before or since to anyone else--and then to have a child who was number one in every way. Sometimes it seemed as if everything was a mistake except Nancy. So he worried about her, and he still never passed a women's clothing shop without thinking of her and going in to find something she'd like, and he thought, I'm very lucky, and he thought, Some good has to come out somewhere, and it has in her. (76-7).

Yes, even this hopeful, thankful moment has its dark sides to it - the loss never hides too far from view.

But I don't know that we read, in the end, to be happy. Nor do we read to be sad or depressed - but if we can learn something about ourselves, and our own predicament, in our reading, than perhaps we have gained quite a good deal.

1 comment:

Betty & Bimbo said...

This is a beautiful commentary, thank you so much for posting it. Roth has long been one of our favorite writers - both his comedy and his portraits of contemporary life have profound implications that needn't scare us, only teach us to see and feel what we didn't before reading.