Advances in Literary Study
Vol.04 No.03(2016), Article ID:68922,7 pages

The Motif of Betrayal in Philip Roth’s “American Trilogy”

Mingai Zhang

Nanjing Institute of Technology, Nanjing, China

Copyright © 2016 by author and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution International License (CC BY).

Received 4 July 2016; accepted 22 July 2016; published 25 July 2016


Philip Roth displays numerous cases of betrayal in his “American trilogy”: Seymour’s betrayal to his father; the mutual betrayal between Seymour and his wife; the daughter’s betrayal to Seymour and his wife; Coleman Silk’s betrayal to his mother and his wife; the mutual betrayal between Ira Ringold and Eve Frame; the betrayal of a paramour, friends and former neighbours to Ira Ringold, etc. Meanwhile, Roth reveals the causes and effects of the betrayal in the trilogy. Through the stage of betrayal, Roth shows a clear picture of American social life.


Philip Roth, “American Trilogy”, Betrayal

1. Introduction

The three novels―American Pastoral (1997), I Married a Communist (1998) and The Human Stain (2005)―are called as “American trilogy” of Philip Roth (1933~). In the trilogy, Roth portrays various acts of betrayal in American society. The causes, effects and natures of betrayal vary. Some acts of betrayal are detestable; some are sympathy-worthy, and one is even praise-worthy.

2. Betrayal

In American Pastoral, Seymour Irving Levov, a Jew, betrayed his father in two things: one was marrying Dawn Dwyer who was a Catholic, and the other was buying a house in Old Rimrock. Before Seymour married Dawn Dwyer, his father had wished him to marry a Jewish girl, firmly opposed to his marrying a pagan. The father was worried that if a man and a woman of different religious backgrounds married, their offspring would have trouble in identity recognition: “How are you going to raise a child? As a Catholic? As a Jew? No, you are going to raise a child who won’t be one thing or the other” ( Roth, 1997: p. 386 ).

When Seymour planned to buy the house in Old Rimrock to inhabit, his father tried to stop him. The father believed Old Rimrock was a place where racial discrimination was common: “This is a narrow, bigoted area. The Klan thrived out here in the twenties. Did you know that? The Ku Klux Klan” ( Roth, 1997: p. 309 ). He wished Seymour to buy a house in New stead, a suburb of South Orange, where many Jews lived. But the father’s opposition failed to change the son’s idea. “What was impractical and ill-advised to his father was an act of bravery to him. Next to marrying Dawn Dwyer, buying that house and the hundred acres and moving out to Old Rimrock was the most daring thing he had ever done” ( Roth, 1997: p. 310 ).

Seymour betrayed his father in his marriage and where to buy a house, but he did his best to be obedient to his father in other aspects. However, his daughter Merry Levov’s betrayal to him was complete. To Seymour, “He lived in America the way he lived inside his own skin … Yes, everything that gave meaning to his accomplishments had been American. Everything he loved was here ( Roth, 1997: p. 213 ). “Nevertheless, to Merry, being an American was loathing America” ( Roth, 1997: p. 213 ). The daughter was opposed to capitalism, opposed to her parents, the “capitalist dogs”, opposed to the Vietnam War launched by capitalist politicians. She blew up the local post office with a bomb, killed a doctor who came shopping, and destroyed Seymour’s American dream.

After Merry bombed the post office and escaped, Seymour’s wife Dawn Dwyer had an affair with Bill Orcutt, an architect, which thoroughly ruined Seymour’s American dream. Whereas in the conjugal relation between Seymour and Dawn, the first betrayer was Seymour. At the earlier time of Merry’s escape after the explosion, Seymour began an affair with Sheila Salzman, who betrayed Seymour on the whereabouts of Merry.

In The Human Stain, Coleman Silk, a black, in order to pass to a white, filled in the registration form as a Jew for his pale skin when he was enrolled in the army. He hid his black identity from Iris Gittelman, a Jewish girl who didn’t believe in Judaism, so as to marry her, pretending that his parents were both dead and he had neither a brother nor a sister. He broke off with his mother, never seeing her afterwards. Coleman betrayed his mother resolutely, leaving his mother agonized for losing her son; he betrayed his wife from the beginning to the end, letting her be unaware that she married a black. Betrayed by her son, Coleman’s mother bitterly scolded the son: “You think like a prisoner… You’re white as snow and you think like a slave” ( Roth, 2005: p. 139 ).

The novel I Married a Communist is filled with betrayal. “I Married a Communist’s great theme is, of course, betrayal, and the novel is thick with all manner of mendacity, hypocrisy, and double dealing―both personal and political” ( McDonald, 2014: p. 394 ). The hero in the novel, Ira Ringold, coming from a poor family in Newark, once leading a vagabond life, was an ordinary laborer and a communist. Because his resemblance in appearance to Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), he became an actor playing Abraham Lincoln in a radio drama called The American Radio Theater, later became famous and married Eve Frame, a star in silent movies and radio dramas. Abettd and coerced by her friend Katrina Van Tassel Grant and Katrina’s husband Bryden Grant, Eve published her book I Married a Communist, which disclosed Ira’s being a communist. Eve’s betrayal resulted in Ira’s losing his job as an actor. Assisted by his sis-in-law, Ira made a counterattack to Eve. He asked a newspaperman to collect and make known to the public Eve’s family origin and matrimony experiences that were widely different from what she claimed, thus ruined her career as a star.

Eve betrayed Ira, and she was betrayed by her daughter Sylphid, the child of Eve and Carlton Pennington, one of her former husbands. Sylphid set herself against Eve in all respects of life. From time to time, Sylphid abused and beat up Eve, forcing her to have an abortion to the child of Eve and Ira. Sylphid deserted Eve and joined her father in France when Eve was greatly in need of her, leaving Eve dead in loneliness.

In I Married a Communist, besides Eve, Ira was betrayed by his lover Pamela Solomon, a Jewish girl of a middle-class family from London, who came to America in pursuit of a free life without restraint of a traditional family. She didn’t believe in marriage, and before her love affair with Ira, she had been a lover of a married man in the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra for two years. She betrayed Ira, lying to Eve that Ira wanted to seduce her.

Moreover, Ira was betrayed by other people who were his friends and former neighbors. A friend of Ira, Horace Bixton, reported Ira and his friend Nathan Zuckerman to the Federal Bureau of Investigation that they propagandized against the Korean War and reviled the USA, which caused Nathan’s losing Fulbright Scholarship. Many of Ira’s former neighbors, old men and farmers who knew Ira reported to the FBI that Ira propagandized to them against capitalist evil. Ira was nearly drowned by the flood of betrayal. But to Johnny O’Day who introduced Ira into the Communist Party, Ira was also a betrayer, who “betrayed his revolutionary comrades and betrayed the working class. Bought off. Totally the creature of the bourgeoisie” ( Roth, 1998: p. 288 ).

Betrayal was aggressive everywhere and appeared as though it had become a fad whose stigma no longer existed, just as Ira’s brother Murray said: “To me it seems likely that more acts of personal betrayal were tellingly perpetrated in America in the decade after the war―say, between ‘46 and ‘56―than in any other period in our history…When before had betrayal ever been so destigmatized and rewarded in this country? It was everywhere during those years, the accessible transgression, the permissible transgression that any American could commit” ( Roth, 1998: p. 264 ). In Murray’s mind, his wife’s death resulted from his betrayal to her. Because he refused to move away from Newark after a riot occurred there, his wife was killed on her way back home, her skull being knocked open with a brick by robbers.

3. Causes and Effects of Betrayal

The causes of betrayal are multifarious: “For whatever reason: survival, excitement, advancement, idealism. For the sake of the damage that can be done, the pain that can be inflicted. For the cruelty in it. For the pleasure in it. The pleasure of manifesting one’s latent power. The pleasure of dominating others, of destroying people who are your enemies…Of course there are those who betray because they have no choice” ( Roth, 1998: pp. 262-263 ).

In American Pastoral, the dream of Seymour was to merge himself into the mainstream of American society and become a true American: “Wasn’t a Jew, wasn’t an Irish Catholic, wasn’t a Protestant Christian--nope, Johnny Appleseed was just a happy American” ( Roth, 1997: p. 316 ). For this, what he did first was to marry Dawn Dwyer who had titles of Miss New Jersey, Miss Union County, Spring Queen, and was a competitor for Miss America. Dawn, who came from a poor family of Irish immigrants, was a beautiful girl who succeeded self-reliantly. As a former Miss New Jersey, who had attractive appearance, elegant temperament and shining glory, and could embody American spirit of initiative and self-reliance, she was the ideal person for Seymour to marry. But the marriage was against the wish of Seymour’s father, who adhered to traditional Jewish culture and opposed his son’s marrying a heathen. The other act Seymour did to combine himself into the mainstream of American society was to buy the house in Old Rimrock and moved there to live. The big stone house which was built in 1786 was located in an area where people of the mainstream society gathered. It was the house that Seymour began longing to get at the age of 17, and possessing it symbolized one important step for Seymour to merge into the mainstream society. Seymour’s joking remark actually revealed his mind: “I want to own the things that money can’t buy” ( Roth, 1997: p. 307 ). To him, the house had extraordinary symbolizing significance―owning this house means embracing America and being combined with it―“Surrounded by white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) neighbors, Seymour thinks he has abandoned all things connected to his Jewishness and becomes one hundred percent American” ( Shih, 2012: p. 188 ). “What was Mars to his father was America to him―he was settling Revolutionary New Jersey as if for the first time. Out in Old Rimrock, all of America lay at their door. That was an idea he loved” ( Roth, 1997: p. 310 ). Thus, to this important matter, Seymour chose to betray his father.

Merry’s betrayal to her father Seymour first resulted from the clash between two different religions and cultures. The aftermath of Seymour’s betrayal to his father coincided with what his father predicted and worried about. “His father was right. That was what happened. They raised a child who was neither Catholic nor Jew, who instead was first a stutterer, then a killer, then a Jain” ( Roth, 1997: p. 386 ). Seymour’s parents were traditional Judaists; Dawn’s parents were pious catholics. Before Seymour got married, his father had talked seriously with Dawn about the future child’s religious relegation and they exchanged opinions on the cross, the sacrament, baptism, Jesus, etc. Merry was a fanatical Catholic for some time, whose bedroom was filled with ornaments related to Catholicism. Seymour tried to persuade her not to let her grandparents see these ornaments, and Merry complied. After Merry was born, Dawn baptized her in Catholic rite, which was opposed strongly by Seymour’s father, who believed “what lay behind Merry’s difficulties all along was the secret baptism: that, and the Christmas tree, and the Easter bonnet, enough for that poor kid never to know who she was” ( Roth, 1997: p. 389 ). In the dilemma of the conflict of two religions and cultures, Merry got confused and helpless, and gradually lost herself. “Without a grounded sense of herself, rooted in a specific cultural identity, Merry is condemned to the performance of the self’s loss, the self’s absence” ( Parrish, 2000: p. 95 ). Having lost herself, though living a comfortable life in a capitalist’s family with rich substances, Merry’s soul was in bitter agony. Losing herself and losing the confidence that an independent personality was based on, she stuttered, and her resentment to her parents gradually formed, the seed of betrayal silently germinating.

Besides, Merry abhorred capitalism, hated her parents who were capitalists. In the novel, Rita Cohen, the mouthpiece of Merry, expressed Merry’s fustigation to her parents as capitalists: “What do you pay the workers in your factory in Ponce, Puerto Rico? What do you pay the workers who stitch gloves for you in Hong Kong and Taiwan? What do you pay the women going blind in the Philippines hand-stitching designs to satisfy the ladies shopping at Bonwit’s? You’re nothing but a shitty little capitalist who exploits the brown and yellow people of the world and lives in luxury behind the nigger-proof security gates of his mansion” ( Roth, 1997: p. 133 ).

In order to revenge her parents, she didn’t brush her teeth, didn’t comb her hair, almost ate nothing at home, but engorged badly outside home, growing into an obese and slovenly girl at the age of 16. After seeing on TV a Vietnamese monk burning himself to death to protest against the Vietnam War, Merry equaled the tribulation of the Vietnamese as the suffering of herself―the tribulation of the Vietnamese was caused by the war which was launched by the capitalist politicians who represented her parents, and her own suffering was caused by her capitalist parents. Anger and hatred bourgeoned in her mind. Bombing the post office, which deprived a doctor’s life, was not enough to quench the flames of anger in her mind, so she carried out another three explosions which caused another three people’s death. The betrayal and hatred to her parents accompanied her life.

At the earlier period of Merry’s escape after her bombing the post office, Seymour wished to break away from the present anxiety, gloom and agony through a romantic affair. Sheila Salzman, the lady who was the rectifier to Merry’s stutter, became his mistress. Seymour’s affair with Salzman didn’t make him get out of distress. “He was there for the illusion. He lay atop Sheila like a person taking cover, digging in, a big male body in hiding, a man disappearing: because she was somebody else, maybe he could be somebody else too” ( Roth, 1997: p. 412 ). But the extramarital affair couldn’t rescue Seymour from the misfortune.

Salzman betrayed Seymour in concealing the fact that she hid Merry in her home for the first three days of her escape, which made Seymour lose the possibility to retrieve his daughter. Sheila’s betrayal was out of professional ethics. She was Merry’s stutter rectifier who promised to keep secret for Merry’s privacy.

Dawn’s betrayal to Seymour had deeper factors. Dawn was a successful lady by self-reliance. Through her own efforts, she became Miss New Jersey in Spring Lake, and competed for Miss America in Atlantic City. After marrying Seymour, she made efforts together with him to realize their American dream. But the bomb Merry placed in the post office destroyed their dream. Dawn hoped to forget the past and start a new life. Thus, she decided to sell the big old stone house and build a new modern one, and she went to Geneva to have a cosmetic surgery. In order to revive her American dream, to merge herself into the mainstream society, she chose a shortcut--to become the woman of a member of the mainstream society. She chose Bill Orcutt, an architect, and became his mistress. Bill Orcutt was descended from a splendid family, whose ancestors were Protestant immigrants from Northern Ireland, who fought in the Independence War led by George Washington. Almost all of the offspring of Orcutt were eminent, who were either officials, or wealthy merchants, or bankers. Dawn was aware that after suffering from the daughter’s betrayal, painstakingly managing the glove factory after the riot in Newark, Seymour could not continue with her on the pursuit of American dream, but Bill would be the powerful pusher on her way to the dream, just as the soliloquy in Seymour’s mind: “Who will get her back to the dream of where she has always wanted to go? Mr. America. Teamed up with Orcutt she’ll be back on the track. Spring Lake, Atlantic City, now Mr. America. Rid of the stain of our child, the stain on her credentials, rid of the stain of the destruction of the store, she can begin to resume the uncontaminated life. But I was stopped at the general store. And she knows it. Knows that I am allowed in no farther. I’m of no use anymore. This is as far as she goes with me” ( Roth, 1997: p. 385 ). So Dawn chose to betray Seymour.

In The Human Stain, Coleman Silk’s betrayal to his mother and his wife was due to racial discrimination in American society. Patrice D. Rankine points out: “Random acts of systematic violence―slave beatings, lynching, and police brutality―served to mark the Negro body and reify American apartheid for centuries. Passing, although an individual choice, reifies the tragic reality of a social order” ( Rankine, 2005: p. 101 ). Racialism is long-lasting in America. Since the first group of black slaves was sold into American continent in 1619, racial discrimination has existed. Before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, slavery was legal in America, and citizens’ rights endowed by law were only given to European whites, but Indians, blacks and Asians were excluded. Until 1960s last century, European whites, especially WASPs, had enjoyed privileges in education, suffrage and jurisdiction, etc. Even non-Protestant Europeans, such as Jews, Irishes, Poles and Italians were also discriminated against, and blacks were more seriously despised.

When he was 14 years old, Coleman was a boxing training assistant in Doctor Chizner’s boxing training class, teaching Jewish children basic skills. But the parents of the white kids were not willing to accept coaching from a black. In Orange High School, some teachers showed prejudice against black students. When a white athlete was injured seriously and needed blood donation, his family refused to accept Coleman’s donation because he was a black.

While he was a freshman at Howard University, a university for blacks, one Saturday he went off to visit the Washington Monument with his roommate. When they stopped at a store to buy a hot dog, he was refused and was called a nigger, which was the first time for him to be discriminated against bald-facedly. During World War II, as an armyman, when he went to a whorehouse for whites in Norfolk, his black identity was found out and he was thrown out, his forehead knocked into the ground, blood shedding on his face, wrists almost fractured.

At the age of 22, Coleman met 18-year-old Steena Palsson, a bright, vivacious, beautiful and sexy girl from Minnesota. Her father was an Icelander, and her mother was a Dane. Coleman and Steena were deeply attached to each other for two years. When he invited her to his home to see his family members, his black identity was uncovered. Though she deeply loved him, she couldn’t bear his black identity and left him.

These experiences made him strongly abominate racial discrimination, and the dream to free himself from racism sprouted in his mind. To make the dream to pass into a white come true, Coleman heartlessly broke away from his mother, had no choice but to conceal his black identity from his wife, and became a person living in illusion like a ghost.

In I Married a Communist, Eve’s betrayal to Ira resulted from Ira’s sexual betrayal to her and the abetment and coercion from McCarthyists Katrina Van Tassel Grant and Bryden Grant. After hearing that Eve prized up the drawers in Ira’s bedroom, Ira’s lover Pamela feared that Eve might find Ira and her intimate photos. Out of self-protection, she betrayed Ira and lied to Eve that Ira harbored evil intentions and wanted to seduce her. Helgi Parn, who was from Estonia, after she was drunk, announced that she performed fellatio on Ira while massaging him. These two things made Eve boil with rage.

Katrina Van Tassel Grant and Bryden Grant were insidious McCarthyists, whose mean intrigues Ira sniffed at, so they hated Ira badly and regarded Ira as a thorn in their flesh. They intimidated Eve that if she didn’t inform against Ira, they would ruin her career. Under the abetment and coercion from McCarthyists Katrina Van Tassel Grant and Bryden Grant, angered by Ira’s sexual betrayal, Eve published her book I Married a Communist, disclosed Ira’s identity of being a communist.

Ira’s sexual betrayal to Eve was mainly because of Eve’s abortion to their child. Ira desired to have a child of his own, so when Eve was pregnant, Ira was wild with joy. But Sylphid strongly objected to her mother’s giving birth to another child and threatened that she would strangle the child. Frightened by her daughter’s despotic power, she had to terminate the pregnancy, which made Ira rather sad and depressed, and had the thought of having a child with Pamela who admired him, and they soon became lovers.

Sylphid’s betrayal to Eve rooted from Eve’s marriages. Eve’s first husband Miller, a rude, tough guy, was a son of an attendant of a hotel. At the age of 16, Eve eloped with him to Hollywood to be actors. Eve’s second husband Carlton Pennington, Sylphid’s father, was a star of silent movies. Eve’s third husband Jumbo Freedman was a real estate speculator. Iar was Eve’s fourth husband. To Sylphid, Eve was a woman who deserted her daughter for men, and every marriage of Eve after Sylphid’s birth was betrayal to Sylphid. Therefore, Sylphid detested Eve, abused Eve as a “Jewish bitch”. Out of resentment to Eve, she set herself against Eve everywhere, betrayed Eve when Eve was in great need of her.

The betrayal of Ira’s friends and former neighbours to Ira was the result of the era of social unrest, was the aftermath of McCarthyism’s turpitude, machination, mendacity and persecution. “During the political witch hunts of the seven-year McCarthy era (1950-57), thousands of Americans were anonymously and secretly accused either of being a Communist or of being a Fellow traveller, someone philosophically sympathetic to Communism. As such, those men and women were subjected to aggressive investigations and interrogations about their political loyalty to the U.S., by government committees and by private-business agencies who sought to eliminate political subversion” ( Joseph R. McCarthy (1908-1957), a U.S. Senator from the state of Wisconsin, was a despicable liar who ungroundedly claimed so-called communist threat and ruthlessly persecuted large numbers of innocent personalities. In the era of persecution by Joseph R. McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), most Americans were anxiety-ridden, fearing they might be charged with being communists, for if they were suspected of being communists or communist sympathizers, they would be mercilessly persecuted. During the “better dead than red” hysteria of the period, “darkened by the treachery and web of betrayals which defined the McCarthy era” ( McDonald, 2014: p. 390 ), deceit, slander, rumor mongering, betrayal were quite common. The betrayal of Ira’s friends and former neighbours to Ira was a true portrayal of the evil consequence of hideous rascality of McCarthyism.

4. Conclusion

In his “American trilogy”, Philip Roth manifests a variety acts of betrayal existing in American society from the 1950s to the 1990s, reveals the causes and effects of betrayal, which arouses readers’ thinking about the influences of betrayal on social morality and people’s sensibilities. The trilogy reflects the reality of American society, “In each novel, memorialization serves as a vehicle for resurrecting an era in twentieth-century American history: the sixties in American Pastoral, the fifties in I Married a Communist, and the nineties in The Human Stain” ( Maslan, 2005: p. 382 ). Roth himself has described his works as “trying to understand and make credible much of American reality” ( Abbott, 2007: p. 438 ).

In the trilogy, many acts of betrayal were caused by social circumstances. Even though some of the acts of betrayal made people filled with regret and indignation, the social factors that caused betrayal should be disposed of with more measures and efforts. The betrayal of Ira’s friends and former neighbours to Ira was the aftermath of McCarthyism’s vile intrigues and wanton persecution, thus what really should be denounced was malicious and treacherous McCarthyism. Coleman’s betrayal to his mother “murdered” her mentally, let her unable to see her son in the rest of her life, and the pain of losing her son would accompany her for life. Coleman’s betrayal to his wife made her live in deceit and falsehood, unaware of marrying a black. “Through the centuries, many people saw black identity as an undesirable proscription, the rich contribution of blacks to American society notwithstanding. For those who were able, passing was in some ways a natural choice, given the desirability of whiteness in America’s hierarchical caste system ( Rankine, 2005: p. 102 ). To Coleman, who walked with great difficulty in a society of racialism, though his betrayal to his mother and his wife was inhuman and should be to blame, his choice was natural. But racial discrimination that forced his betrayal should be condemned strongly.

Seymour’s betrayal to his father resulted in his identity-missing daughter Merry, whose betrayal to her parents originated both from bewilderment brought by the clash between two religions and cultures and from the daughter’s hatred to capitalism represented by her parents. The daughter’s betrayal was the root of Seymour’s tragedy and ruined his dream to merge into the mainstream society. What Roth wants to show here is that inheritance of national culture is important to a nation’s existence, and being assimilated and losing oneself means disappearance of a nation, as Timothy Parrish points out that American Pastoral explores “the deleterious consequences of forsaking one’s Jewish origins” ( Parrish, 2000: p. 87 ).

Some acts of betrayal are out of righteous and kind-hearted motive. Murray’s betrayal to his wife was because a conscientious citizen didn’t want to give up his civism. Murray was a teacher of a high school, in which all students were blacks. After the riot occurred, all other white teachers left Newark, but Murray was unwilling to desert the black kids, so he remained and continued working in spite of being robbed twice. On her way back home, his wife Doris was hurt to death by robbers. “I can’t betray my brother, I can’t betray my teaching, I can’t betray the disadvantaged of Newark…And so who I betray is my wife. I put the responsibility for my choices onto somebody else. Dorris paid the price for my civic virtue” ( Roth, 1998: p. 317 ).

Unfolding an important picture of American society from the 1950s to the 1990s, Philip Roth’s “American trilogy”, in which the acts of betrayal have different origins and dissimilar results, is worth thinking, analyzing and researching.

Cite this paper

Mingai Zhang, (2016) The Motif of Betrayal in Philip Roth’s “American Trilogy”. Advances in Literary Study,04,41-47. doi: 10.4236/als.2016.43008


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