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Philip Roth’s Postmodern American Romance

Critical Essays on Selected Works- Foreword by Derek Parker Royal


Jane Statlander

The central thesis of this book is that Philip Roth’s work is most accurately viewed as postmodernist American Historical Romance, rather than marginalized as Jewish-American. Four works are analyzed in relation to this thesis and to the specific idea that Roth’s contribution is entirely within mainstream American literature and culture. Emphasizing the importance and influence of Hebrew Scripture, the author demonstrates that, paradoxically, Roth’s Jewishness locates him squarely within the canon of (a Hebraic) America and its letters.


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Chapter Three. Conversion Hysteria 37


Conversion Hysteria Beginning with the second word of its title, the story opens onto fundamental Rothian, and of course, American historical romance, characteristics. There are those of reversal, ambiguity, and deceit. Has the narrative converted, for example, “Jesus Christ” first back into the Jew he had been and then again into the Christian savior? Then there is the whole subject of displacement. The displacement here is fundamentally oedipal and is manifested in an (oedipally) literal sense: the mother, father, and child vie for the positions of power. However, in Roth’s texts, the mother totally controls the power plays and has the power the others can only envy. On the level of metaphor, Mother Power is translated into Text Power. Thus, the real subject of “The Conversion of the Jews” is the conversion of everything into language. The object of the language of the text, IS the text itself. Ozzie’s mother, the widow of a mysteriously absent husband and father of Ozzie, is the center of the wheel around which the spokes revolve. There is also, as is found in American historical romances and postmodernism, the emblematic use of the narrative’s figures whose names convey a specific and certain characteristic. Thus, there are Rabbi Binder, Ozzie, Mrs. Freedman, and Yakov Blotnik, the Holocaust survivor. However, as in American historical romance and postmodernism, guile, hoax, and the ambiguous confusion of fiction and fact confound the reader and a text that is fundamentally incomprehensible. What can we make of the story name? Taken...

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