Indignation (2008) by Philip Roth is an unnervingly tragicomical novel about a gifted young jewish man and his struggles to become and remain truly himself within the confines of a traditionalist society.
In addition, Roth is addressing the substantial topic of collective trauma by framing the story with the Korean war – laying bare and examining the fears and losses of innocent individuals, brought on by the reverberations of the causalities.
The novel is culturally relevant, intellectually challenging and written with wit as any book by the author. However – is the protagonist of this novel truly a magnificent hero, or yet another insufferably flawed Rothian character?
Marcus Messner is ever the dutiful boy who has always completed his chores, done his homework and never gotten home late. The boy even works in his father’s kosher butcher shop full time at one point to help support the family – albeit he finds the work te be quite disgusting.
Nevertheless, Marcus’ father suffers from growing paranoia and fear due to the stories he hears from other fathers and families. His obsession with keeping Marcus from stepping onto a dangerous path in life and excessive monitoring soon reach a point of no return.
“You are a boy with a magnificent future before you —
how do I know you’re not going to places
where you can get yourself killed?”
Considering the ending of the book (which I will not spoil at this point), Marcus’ father’s concerns and their results are quite ironic. But that’s a thing I will leave for the reader to discover. I’ll be see you in the comment section about that final development.
Soon after enrolling in Winesburg College in Ohio, Marcus discovers that the expectations put upon him by his parents are no less irritating than what the university code of of conduct entails. Not only should his social arrangements fall in line with certain requirements – his beliefs are also to be strongly adjusted.
Marcus’ thirst for an individualist existence leads into several conflicts and leaves him ideologically and logistically isolated from his peers – a result which perfectly satisfies the young man himself, but is, apparently, a dangerous condition in 1950s society.
““But may I ask, Marcus, merely out of curiosity,
how you manage to get by in life – filled as our lives inevitably are
with trial and tribulation – lacking religious or spiritual guidance?”
“I get straight A’s, sir.””
There are many other character quirks to be discussed when it comes to Indignation, but some information should be left for the reader to discover.
One of those instances is the character of Olivia, who in my opinion has little conscequence to the overall development of events, but is nevertheless a polarizing and therefore interesting acquaintance to be made.
Most interesting is Marcus’ relationship with his mother, certainly the underdog of character dynamics to shine a light on in this complex book. But the way she shields him in his youth, confides in him when in an emotional crisis, and finally feels ashamed for treating her child like a confidant – between mother and son lies the true love story of this novel.
…which, again, adds to the tragicomical side of the book, since Marcus is a jewish boy through and through for cherishing, appreciating – and obeying – his mother.
The contrasts between the protagonist’s massively inflated self-image, his ever so righteous crusade against those who wish to, in any way, influence him, and what actually ends up happening to Marcus, are subtly and masterfully drawn – so even for those who tend to strongly dislike him, the fact that Roth has produced a multi-faceted, morally polarizing and absurdly fascinating protagonist, is undeniable.
As is the case with the author himself – most readers either love or hate his books. I dislike most of his protagonists strongly, but simultaneously take great pleasure in Roth’s writing.
Fictional characters should not be created as monotonous. To get into their faults and weaknesses is a valuable and courageous trait when it comes to great novels.
Undoubtedly, Indignation is a very important piece of literature. The smart reader will know to appreciate it. Even if the protagonist ends up coming off just as insufferable as he perceives everybody else around him to be.