Averi Mukhopadhyay /Defining the Self: From Philip Roth’s The Human Stain to Amitabha Bagchi’s Above Average

Averi Mukhopadhyay

Research Scholar, Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences,

IIT Roorkee, Uttarakhand, India


‘Self’ remains one of the most urgent- as well as hotly-disputed topics in literary and cultural studies. Its root is embedded in identity. It has been argued that embracing racial, ethnic, or gender identities implies an acceptance of roles that have been defined by oppression by the dominant culture like racism. Black racism, a variety of racism has its root in America’s long history of slavery. There have been continuous efforts by the black people in America to put an end to the evils borne by slavery like racial segregation, disfranchisement, exploitation and violence against them, and to seek better lives with the strategy of public education, legislative lobbying, direct action and civil disobedience. Moreover, there is the most alluring American dream of radical self-creation, whereby, Coleman Silk, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain (2000),for the most part of the book is seen as deconstructing and challenging his existing Negroid origin and indulging in a ‘rite of purification’. Amitabha Bagchi’s protagonist in Above Average (2007), Arindam too, engages in a lifelong battle to understand the meaning of ‘self’. It is a coming of age story, where Arindam continuously analyses the various encounters he has with different people.   Bagchi through the confused tangle of ambitions and aspirations of the youth, friendship, love and lust moves towards the definition of the ‘self’. The paper would study the different modes by which both the authors invent, define and recreate the image of the ‘self’.

Key words: Self, racism, civil disobedience, self-creation.


Campus novel, as defined by Chris Baldick in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, “is a novel, usually comic or satirical, in which the action is set within the enclosed world of a university (or similar seat of learning) and highlights the follies of academic life” (33) in a simple language. In other words, campus novel is an important genre of contemporary fiction, more precisely of popular fiction. Popular fiction as a part of ‘popular’ literature is very different from ‘pure’ literature in terms of both manner and matter. The writers of popular literature use unpretentious language to write on subjects appealing to the masses. And for the past fifty years, campus novels have been catering to the masses by offering a full social history of the university, the scandals and headlines of higher education- class, political infighting, feminism, sexual harassment, political correctness. Interestingly, in these past fifty years, campus novels have shown a remarkable shift in focus as well. From the depiction of the university as a small, enclosed and idyllic place in the 1950s and the 1960s campus novels, the discussion on the spread of higher education in the 1970s and the 1980s novels, to the darker and bleaker vision in the novels of the late 1990s and the early twenty first century, campus novels did change and evolved considerably. The questions of existence and self-definition which haunt the present generation have now become the important themes of these novels. The latter one specially has become a predominant motif and rightly so. According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, ‘self’ is “a person’s nature, special qualities; one’s own personality” and as per the Merriam- Webster Collegiate Dictionary, ‘self-definition’ refers to the “evaluation by oneself of one’s worth as an individual in distinction from one’s interpersonal or social roles”. Hence, when the major American novelists like Francine Prose, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth started writing extensively on the themes of general human concern like ‘self-definition’ in campus novels, the theme took on such literary gravitas and grandeur that it has called for exploration and detailed studies.

Philip Milton Roth (born March 19, 1933), novelist, satirist, and recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 and the inaugural Franz Kafka Prize in 2001, is esteemed as one of the finest and most awarded writers of modern America. His literary legacy includes more than thirty books of which the important ones are, Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), The Professor of Desire (1970), I Married A Communist (1998), The Human Stain (2000), The Humbling (2009) and Nemesis (2010). The Human Stain which won the United Kingdom’s WH Smith Literary Award for the best book of the year is a fitting final part of the novelist’s trilogy comprising American Pastoral (1997) and I Married a Communist (1998). Interestingly, Roth’s novels are regularly set in Newark, New Jersey, and all of them explore both intensively and extensively the intensely autobiographical character, the Jewish and American identity vis- a-vis the challenging task of defining the self.

If ever there are some few writers in English from the other side of the globe who can possibly parallel the breadth and depth of Roth’s intellectual brooding in a campus novel, one of them would certainly be Amitabha Bagchi (born 1974) from India. Many decades younger than Roth, Bagchi is a relatively new writer with only three books to his credit, namely Above Average (2007), The Householder (2012) and This Place (2013). As such, unlike Roth’s novels which have received wide critical acclaim, Bagchi’s novels are much neglected. Critics like David Braunerin in his book Philip Roth interpret the Roth books as typical of the author’s interest in “characteristics conventionally associated with postmodernist writing” (9). Debra Shostak and Brian Finney assert the poststructuralist position of Roth. A critic like Jeffrey Charis Carlson explores the question of the self in Roth’s novels. In stark contrast to the critical reception of Roth’s novels are Bagchi’s novels. The “honesty and truthfulness” of his stories and the “understated quality of the emotions” are appreciated by writers like Amitav Ghosh only on book jackets. Yet, Bagchi has been able to carve a niche for himself with the deft handling of the theme of self-definition in his debut novel, Above Average.

This paper seeks to study the similarities and differences between Roth and Bagchi’s novels with regard to this theme of self-definition. By comparing the novels of Roth and Bagchi, this paper aims to grasp the temporally and culturally distant speculations of the former on ‘self’ through the text of the latter. To address the question, this paper surveys Roth’s The Human Stain using its most analogous counterparts from Bagchi’sAbove Average as inter texts.

Roth’s novel, The Human Stain comes to us from a relatively distant place. It is a discourse that emerges and exists in a milieu that is over-determined by a sustained critique of white racism firmly grounded in ethnicity. The Human Stainis is about Coleman Silk’s rebellion against the unenlightened American society. Silk, a former professor and Dean of faculty at Athena College, a fictional institution in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts is accused of using a racial epithet ‘spooks’ for two African-American students. The outrage leads to the resignation of Silk as well as the death of his wife, Iris. Soon after he gets involved with Faunia Farley, a 34-year-old local woman who works as a janitor at the college and is illiterate. Silk is criticized by feminist scholars at the college for this.

Bagchi’s novel’s place is certainly too different from that of Roth. Instead of Silk’s futile attempt to overthrow the stigmatized African- American racial identity and pass for a White, Bagchi’s protagonist, Arindam Chatterjee solely introspects to attain a new definition of the self. Arindam floats from the middle- class security of his home in east Delhi to the fiercely competitive world of the IIT and onward to the East Coast of the US. Above Average reflects Arindam’s dream to become a drummer of a rock band. This is in short, a story of adulthood being forged out of adolescence; a story about wanting, always wanting and where some of these demands, ambitions and aspirations are attainable, some are not and the rest hanging tantalizingly in between.

This phenomenon of wanting is much more pronounced in case of Silk. His racial secret is rooted in a deep-seated psychic malaise, but at the same time, his ability for self-invention is, at least in part, triggered by the socio- cultural and political ethos of the first half of twentieth century America. It is a well-known fact that racism, in its many varieties, has been part and parcel of the human condition since time immemorial. In fact, one such variety, black racism, has its roots in America’s long history of slavery and its concomitant consequences like racial segregation, disfranchisement, exploitation and violence against the Negroes/ blacks residing in the country. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) was established in 1909 to end such race discrimination through litigation, education, and lobbying. “Despite the dismantling of the legal system of American racial apartheid…”, as Matthew Wilson points out in his paper, “Reading The Human Stain through Charles W. Chesnutt: The Genre of the Passing Novel”, “the American racial imagination remains largely intact”, and the whites “continue to insist on… racial binary, continue to maintain and police the colour line” (138).In other words, whiteness has always been the most important element of an ideal and coveted identity in America. Consequently, this has given birth to the most enticing American dream of radical self-creation.

Silk while trying to escape the “great American menace” of racism (Roth 106), was also acting within America’s “great frontier tradition” of “accepting the democratic invitation to throw your origins overboard if doing so contributes to the pursuit of happiness” (334). He grew up into adulthood endowed with the will to sculpt a self-hardened by secrecy. According to Elaine Showalter, Silk’s every act of defiance was, “a “No in Thunder”, a heroic act of civil disobedience in the face of political correctness” (104). His initial interest in boxing served as a trope to configure his idée fixe of self-invention that would radically redefine his identity. Silk was intimated of his racial identity, first by Chizner, the man who had accompanied him for a match involving the Army and the University of Pittsburg. Moreover, it was on Chizner’s advice that to secure a four year old scholarship for boxing from the University of Pittsburg, Coleman Silk did “not… mention that he was coloured” (98). Strengthened by the lie, Coleman triumphed over his opponent in the ring. Yet, he wanted “to do something more that day than merely win” (99). He tried to figure out the reasons behind such a desire:

Was it because the Pitt coach didn’t know he was coloured? Could it be because who he really was was entirely his secret? He did love secrets… The power and pleasure were to be found in the opposite, in being counter puncher, and he knew that with nobody having to tell him and without his having to think about it. (99- 100)

He did attend Howard, the all-black university at his father’s insistence. But an incident of racial insult at Woolworth where he was refused a hot dog for being a “nigger” compelled him to quit Howard.Quitting Howard, Coleman decided to seek the draft immediately, even if it meant lying about his age. Further, he was guilty of the baleful move of misinforming the draft board that he was white, taking advantage of his light complexion. In creating, transforming and trans- figuring a new identity from African- American to Jewish- American, Silk exploited his complexion to stake his claim on the American dream. Dean Franco in his article, “Being Black, Being Jewish, and Knowing the Difference: Philip Roth’s The Human Stain; Or, It Depends on What the Meaning of ‘Clinton’ Is” puts the issue in perspective, “Coleman’s whiteness and Jewishness are established by the erasure of his blackness- an identity itself contingent, the being of which is a being- under- erasure” (91). Consequently, when once again he was subject to racist attack and that too in a whorehouse in Norfolk, he in his wrathful imagination orchestrated America into ‘the other’ which he thought could be hoodwinked only by strategically playing the game its own way. Hence, ensuing from his secretive self, the lies of Silkeventually facilitated his upward mobility.

In undertaking this project of deconstructing and defining the self, Silk appropriately bartered his freshly minted self in the heady carnal world of desire and women. Therefore, after considerable deliberation, he entered into a matrimonial alliance with Iris Gittleman, the daughter of unconventional Jewish parents. Hoping to achieve “identity negotiation” with the near certainty of his marriage to Iris, Coleman took up the galling task of distancing himself from the past and all that it signified. As already mentioned in the preceding pages, Silk’s endeavour towards defining the self is very much unlike Arindam of Above Average. For Arindam’s quest for the meaning of the self in relation to others around him is not founded on secrecy, rather on self-invention and self-definition by introspection.

That is to say, the whole book is about the importance of various events in Arindam’s life, the window that they opened for him. Arindam had the tendency to pick up certain incidents from his life and analyze them over and over again. In that sense, he was not different from anyone else. It could be that the way he structured his analysis is somewhat similar to how mathematics is done. Often he made and accepted a hypothesis and then had to abandon it later when some new information appeared, or when his deductive machinery was able to detect an inconsistency within it.

The stories about the intelligence of Kartik, a fellow IITian, got re-evaluated when Arindam himself interacted with Kartik. “Kartik’s incredible stories were part of a performance that he was expected to give for Bagga and Karun’s benefit; a performance that they wanted to watch as much as he wanted to give” (Bagchi 20).   Arindam understood the simple fact that “we all lied in one way or the other. Some lied brazenly like Kartik, others went about it more subtly. Some lied just to others” (20), as Arindam’s friend, Bagga did when he was asked the reason for not writing the JEE. He fabricated the story of how he had gone to deposit the fees for the exam but due to some problem he had to make some correction and return afterwards. When he returned the counter was closed and incidentally all this happened on the last date of fees submission. Everyone believed Bagga’s story, including Arindam. It was only years later that he realized Bagga’s lie. This gave Arindam a significant push to unravel the truths and falsehoods of his own life, whereby he “realized that it was not enough to catch a liar in his lie, it was much more important to figure out whether he believed the lie himself” (20).

All the assumptions as to why Bobby, who was practically no match for Arindam, became such a good friend of his proved null and void. Similarly Arindam had yearned for a long time that Professor Kanitkar of IIT- Delhi should be apologetic for doubting his research aptitude. But when Arindam himself became a teacher he could sympathize with the professor. Arindam fell out with his only close friend at IIT, Neeraj, during their stay there. However, when years later Arindam received the news of the misfortune which overtook Neeraj, he instantly realized that their lives were ineluctably intertwined. “Suddenly I knew that Neeraj and I were linked by an unbreakable bond, that his pain would always be my pain, and my happiness would always be his happiness… we were each destined to suffer at other’s suffering” (302).

It can be said that Arindam’s encounters with Neeraj, Kartik and Bobby opened before him a hitherto unknown world that simultaneously helped him survive the trials life was to bring as well as allowed him to look within himself, “I could sense the desires and aspirations of everyone… I could touch the joy they had felt and the sorrow life had brought them, I could touch their fortitude and their despair, and, more than all of these, I could touch their hope… I wanted to embrace them all” (305). Unfortunately, Silk was denied the bliss of such an epiphany.   He always sought for an identity that refused to honour “the contract drawn up for (his) signature at birth” (Roth 155) and in the process “of purification” Silk imploded the image of the self and also that of American identity. He could never live up to his patently miraculous “cunning self-concoction” (129). He met a tragic end even before he could reveal to the world the secrecy of his birth as well as absolve himself of the racist slur.

Philip Roth’s The Human Stain can justifiably be regarded as a paradigmatic shift in fictional discourses negotiating identity. It goes beyond the limits of the conventional thematic ends of a passing narrative. In a daring move, Roth jettisons the discursive practice in American fiction of shying away from imaginatively embracing the other. In the novelist’s own canon, The Human Stain claims a distinct place by its marvellous artistic realignment and recreation of his signature novelistic concerns such as the predilection for counter lives, the power of invention through old age, sexuality and mortality.  This however, does not underrate the calibre of Amitabha Bagchi as a craftsman, who while constructing identity in Above Average has simultaneously invested the self with an unrestricted scope of reinvention. Yet, it may be said that Bagchi, bothered by the defective social structures which in turn is perpetuated by the education system, has produced a milder version of social criticism. But this is largely because both the writers struggled to make sense of their temporally and culturally determined existence using the tools available for them. And, certainly by highlighting the similarities and differences between Roth and Bagchi’s rendering on the theme of self-definition, their thoughts come to us in a more lucid, understandable and appreciable form.

Works Cited

Bagchi, Amitabha.   Above Average. Noida: Harper Collins, 2007. Print.

Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990.


Brauner, David. Philip Roth. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2007. Print.

Franco, Dean. “Being Black, Being Jewish, and Knowing the Difference: Philip Roth’s The

Human Stain; Or, It Depends on What the Meaning of ‘Clinton’ Is.” Studies in American

Jewish Literature 23 (2004): 88- 103. JSTOR. Web. 4 Apr. 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30029861

Roth, Philip. The Human Stain. London: Vintage, 2001. Print.

“Self.” Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. 8thed. India: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

“Self- definition.”   http://www.merriam-webster.com.Merriam-Webster, 2014. Web. 16 March, 2014.

Showalter, Elaine. Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and its Discontents. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2005. Print.

Wilson, Matthew. “Reading The Human Stain through Charles W. Chesnutt: The Genre of thePassing Novel.” Philip Roth Studies 2.2 (Fall 2006): 138- 150. Project Muse. Web. 20 Nov.2013.https://www.muse.jhu.edu/journals/philip_roth_studies/summary/v002/2.2


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