Grasping the “Raw I”: Race and Tragedy in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain

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Lydia Moland

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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Author Biography

Lydia Moland

Lydia Moland is an assistant professor of philosophy at Colby College. Her research interests involve connecting the history of philosophy, especially Hegel, with contemporary ethical and political theory. Currently, she is beginning work on a project that investigates the ethical nature of our inherited commitments, including family relations, nationality, and race.