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Shame, Masculinity and Desire of Belonging

Reading Contemporary Male Writers

Aneta Stępień

This study considers male shame in contemporary writing by men, examining why shame is often considered a female emotion and therefore denied in men. The author’s comparative approach to the private experience of shame in novels by Hanif Kureishi, Philip Roth and Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki demonstrates the extent to which shame conditions male behaviour, protecting the powerful hierarchies existing between different kinds of masculinities. Using different conceptual analyses, the author exposes the damaging nature of the culturally sanctioned demand that men be «real men», which is often simply a call for violence. The book also examines shame more broadly as a means of social control, whether of women in patriarchal cultures or of people of different ethnic, sexual and class identities. Treating shame as both an individual and a social emotion, the author draws on perspectives from scholarship on shame in postcolonial, gender and feminist studies.

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Chapter 4: The Shame of Being a Man in Philip Roth’s Everyman and Portnoy’s Complaint


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The Shame of Being a Man in Philip Roth’s Everyman and Portnoy’s Complaint

In Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), the main protagonist, Alexander Portnoy, cries that he cannot stop being a good Jewish boy and become a man. At the same time, he repeatedly admits to the feeling of shame that appears inseparable from his identity, evident in the portrayal of his body as ‘superhighways of shame’.1 Shame as strongly linked to the experience of becoming and being a man features in Roth’s 2006 novel Everyman, where the ageing of the main protagonist is presented in terms of loss of virility. Everyman’s protagonist feels embarrassed by his physical transformation into vulnerability and weakness: ‘They were all embarrassed by what they’d become. Wasn’t he? By the physical changes. By the diminishment of virility. By the errors that had contorted him and the blows – both those self-inflicted and those from without-that deformed him’ (Everyman 91). In both texts, the male body of the main protagonist appears an abject that indicates the feeling of shame and self-loathing: Portnoy’s Complaint deals with the sexual urges and desires of young Alex Portnoy whereas in Everyman Roth provides the reader with the body plagued by various diseases and the ageing process. In these texts, the writer engages with the discourses of hardness and softness exposing the way in which these ideas become embodied in the images of the racialised male body. Referring specifically to Roth’s characters,...

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