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

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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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