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On the Historical Representation and Literary Discourse of Philip Roth’s Later Novels

Author: LinLi
Tutor: YangRenJing
School: Xiamen University
Course: English Language and Literature
Keywords: Philip Roth New Historicism and Cultural Materialism Postmodernism
Type: PhD thesis
Year: 2008
Downloads: 664
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Stephen Greenblatt, one of the representatives of New Historicism, puts forward the idea that literary texts are cultural artifacts that can tell people something about the interplay of discourses, the web of social meanings, operating in the time and place in which the text was written. And they can do so because the literary text is, itself, part of the interplay of discourses, a thread in the dynamic web of social meaning. For new historicism, the literary text and the historical situation from which it emerged are equally important because text, which refers to the literary work, and context, which are the historical conditions that produced it, are mutually constitutive: they create each other. Like the dynamic interplay between individual identity and society, literary texts shape and are shaped by their historical contexts (Tyson 627). The New Historicism and Cultural Materialism, which has these as some of its strategic analyzing principles, provides a suitable critical method for the understanding of Philip Roth’s later novels. The full disclose of Roth’s insightful depiction of the specific Jewish American history and the American national historical contexts can help to clarify the contents, and themes of his novels.Philip Roth (1933—) has been regarded as one of the most prominent contemporary Jewish American writers. From the moment that his debut book, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), won him the National Book Award and earned him attacks from the Jewish community, Philip Roth has been among the most influential and consistently controversial writers of our age. Now he is the author of twenty-nine novels, numerous stories, two memoirs and two books of literary criticism. He has won the Pulitzer Prize, the American National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award for his fiction. Most of the awards are given to him for his novels published since 1986.From this year on, Philip Roth’s writing has undergone great changes. His fifteen novels published after The Counterlife have changed from the early realism and modernism to postmodernism. Historical representation and postmodernist literary discourse permeate these novels, such as The Counterlife (1986), Deception: A Novel (1990); Patrimony (1991); Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993); Sabbath’s Theatre (1995); American Pastoral (1997); I Married a Communist (1998); The Human Stain (2000); The Dying Animal (2001); The Plot Against Animal: A Novel (2004); Everyman (2006) and Exit Ghost (2007). Profound themes and insightful perceptions situated in the broad historical context have marked his later novels that require a close examination.The themes Roth has been concerned in the course of his literary career are varied. Nevertheless, Roth is unafraid to mine the same territory over and over again, to deepen his investigations rather than just broaden them. Therefore, there is a good deal of consistency about all of his works. His novels, stories and non-fiction writing all seem to be intricately conjoined. When examined closely, they all point to a relatively historical sense. His novels resonate with the American history from the 1940s to the present and the history’s impact on the twentieth-century American life. Therefore, throughout the dissertation, the focus of discussion has been set on the historical representation of Self, social conflicts in the U. S., and the postmodernist literary discourse applied in his later fiction.Most of the characters in Roth’s novels suffer from conflicts of identity when their entire self-image, or even part of it, doesn’t match up with the idealized version prompted by the cultural milieu to which they belong. His characters struggle to accommodate contending impulses and desires, to negotiate some kind of inner peace or balance of power, or perhaps just to maintain hostilities at a low destructive level, between the ethnical and social yearnings and the implacable, singular lusts for flesh and its pleasures. His characters always struggle between the measured self and the insatiable self. Henry, Nathan Zuckerman, and Mickey Sabbath all belong to this kind of characters.Roth tires to define and quest for the hard-to-define multiple selves in contemporary multi-cultural America, whose fates are always defined by history and culture. At the same time these selves are unavoidably driven by desire and death instincts which are especially evident in his latest novels. He depicts different experiences of his characters. Some give in to dismay, becoming misanthropic shells, appearing round shouldered and burdened, as though in flight from a captured city. Henry in The Counterlife is a representative. Some reach out and grab whatever they can get their hands on, whatever momentarily salves their pain. Seymour Levov in American Pastoral and Coleman Silk in The Human Stain all have done such kind of things. Some latch onto an ideology and some embrace nihilism, like Philip Roth the character, Pipik, and other characters’ choices in Operation Shylock. Some manage to negotiate a tense balance between their opposing desires and drives, finding a way to live in the unsure and devalued universe. Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theatre and Kepesh in The Dying Animal are examples of such kind of experiences.Roth investigates into the individual in extreme situations, in conflict with powerful and corrupt political systems and the unpredictable historical events. His work speaks of the subtle ways in which the character loses his Self, such as conformity, the ambitious American Dream, banality, blind patriotism and trivialization. He depicts the futile attempts that characters try to cut loose from what binds and inhibits them. Roth in fact questions and scrutinizes the authority which influences the very fates of his characters.Philip Roth at the same time has been an incisive observer of the American social and political scenes. His greatest accomplishments lie in his ability to probe into the American consciousness and reveal the major conflicts between the society and the individual, between men and women, between the need for security and the desire for adventure, between the myth of American culture and reality. He moves from the specific to the universal, detailing the psychological and sociological peculiarities of life in twentieth century America and linking them ultimately to universal issues of human identity. He delineates the predicament of the individual engaged in a severe struggle against all the internal and external forces of control and points out the universalities of the human condition. He successfully depicts contemporary Americans’ American Dream and the disillusionment of the Dream.Philip Roth has published twenty-nine novels within about fifty years since 1959. His novels move from realism represented by Goodbye, Columbus, then to modernism, which Zuckerman Unbound is a typical example, and to postmodernism which is the typical characteristic of the novels published after The Counterlife. His new writing style in a way reflects the changes of literary discourses in American literary and critical world. Indeed, postmodernism marks the major characteristics of his sixteen novels published after 1986. In The Counterlife and Operation Shylock, Roth takes up a variety of perspectives on the issues of the state of Israel and the American Jewishness which have been under hot discussion in the world and which have engrossed him during that period. The discussions are in clear opposition to one another and at times along a continuum. Roth applies metafiction techniques and doubleness to present the multiple points of view. In Sabbath’s Theatre, carnival performance is used. Roth also blurs the links between biography, fiction, and history. Postmodernist depictions of love and death are also one of the main characteristics in his latest novels.This dissertation, "On the Historical Representation and Literary Discourse of Philip Roth’s Later Novels", applies the theories of New Historicism and Cultural Materialism to portray Philip Roth’s historical representations of Self’s identity and of social conflicts. It also analyses the postmodern literary discourse in his latest novels. It situates Roth’s novels in the broad historical context and argues about his portrayal of characters’ conflicts between the society and the individual, between men and women, between the need for security and the desire for adventure, between the myth of American culture and the reality.In Introduction, Roth’s important position in the literary world is emphasized. Comments from different Roth scholars are presented in order to show the various aspects critics have been focusing on Roth’s novels. Therefore, a fact has been disclosed. Few critics have chosen the six important prize-winning novels as a whole and discuss the outstanding historical representation and postmodernist literary discourse of Roth’s works, though they have in one way or another realized its great importance. Besides, the term applied in the dissertation, New Historicism and Cultural Materialism, has been analyzed in detail. The structure and the contents of the dissertation are briefly analyzed in Introduction.Chapter One deals with Roth’s two novels published immediately after 1986. They are The Counterlife and Operation Shylock, both of which are Philip Roth’s milestone works. Roth uses metafictional techniques to analyze the fragmented Self and the multiple selves of modern people, especially the fragmented souls that Jewish Americans feel in contemporary American history. Traditional realism is not enough for a contemporary writer to reflect the conflicts which modern man faces with. The complicated contemporary history cannot be presented by just narrating one person’s opinion. Metafictional self-reflexiveness and multiple points of view are being applied to present the fragmented Self in the contemporary world.Chapter Two is to focus on Roth’s historical representation of social conflicts in his novels. It also discusses the restrictions of histories on the fates of human beings. The protagonists in The Counterlife and Operation Shylock are concerned with the Jewish sufferings and alienation. These Jewish Americans keep talking about the Holocaust, Diasporism and Zionism. Their lives, including their marriage, their work and even their identity are defined both by the Jewish American history and the history of the state of Israel. However, the protagonists in American Pastoral and The Human Stain try to resist and get rid of their ethnic roots. The results waiting for them are the unavoidable tragedy of the loss of their identities. In those two novels, American history after World War II, such as the Vietnam War and the rebellions in the 1960s and the 1970s, and the Political Correctness of the 1980s and 1990s, are the events which keep haunting and influencing the lives of the protagonists.Chapter Three discusses the postmodern literary discourse of Roth later novels. The Counterlife published in 1986 is Roth’s most ambitious and meticulously structured novel. It marks the beginning of the peak phase of Roth’s literary career. While Roth engages in a sustained examination of the relationship between American and Israeli Jews, he starts to use a lot of evident postmodernist techniques. Postmodernist techniques in the sixteen novels published between 1986 and 2008 are impressive. Mctafiction, carnival performances, the hybrid of history, biography and fiction can be traced in those novels. By applying the postmodernist techniques, Roth investigates into the issues of ethnic identity, the state of Israel, the Holocaust, sexuality, American history, and the human essence.In Conclusion, Roth’s great literary accomplishments are highlighted. His ability to delve into the American consciousness and to reveal its major conflicts are generalized. It is believed that the Jewish and American history that Roth has handled artistically in his novels, his outstanding writing style and his insightful ideas about the essence of human existence have turned out to be a rich literary heritage for readers both in the United States and all over the world.

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