Everyman by Philip Roth

Published 06/09/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

Perhaps this novel struck a cord because I’m not getting any younger, although I’m not as old the novel’s protagonist, who reaches the age of seventy-one.  Roth takes a novel approach in this short story (novella?) which begins with the funeral of the tale’s subject.  Obviously this opening sequence leaves the reader in no doubt that there will be no happy ending, and this is reinforced by a quotation from Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, itself a melancholy poem.  Furthermore Everyman can refer back to a medieval morality play where the living are summoned to death, or it can simply be an analogy for the lives of all of mankind.

Although the outcome is obvious, this tactic doesn’t stop the reader from wanting to know more.  (In Romeo and Juliet‘s prologue, Shakespeare lays out the bare bones of the play, but nobody walks out until the play is over.)  The protagonist of Everyman looks back over his life and recalls his childhood and parents, before we learn about his loves, marriages, affairs and philanderings, his children, career and retirement.  Different passages send him on various journeys of remembrance and we gradually learn, as he also realises, that he hasn’t been a terribly nice person.  Various operations in hospital contribute to his declining health until he reaches the point where he appears to be happy to embrace death, or to let it welcome him.

Two sentences made a strong impact on me: ‘Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.’  This appears to sum up his failing health, although we know that his older, more successful and healthier brother, Howie, would obviously think differently.  The second occasion is when the protagonist appears to be moving closer towards death and impulsively decides to visit the cemetery where his parents are buried.  ‘They were just bones, bones in a box, but their bones were his bones … The flesh melts away but the bones endure.’  It is obvious that he is a secular Jew, religion plays no place in his life, and he doesn’t believe in an afterlife, but the realisation that he is still connected to his parents is an epiphanic and painful one.  ‘He couldn’t go.  The tenderness was out of control.  As was the longing for everyone to be living.  And to have it all over again.’

I closed the book, but the story has left me with an ache.  Roth has a knack of setting out the human condition and pointing out that things could be different.  It’s up to us to follow the right path and make the necessary choices.  A funeral can (and should) be a celebration of an individual’s life and the final page of Everyman is that in a way.  We’ve learned how the protagonist lived his life and found out why the mourners at his funeral acted as they all did.

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