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Loss and Return: A Cultural Interpretation of the Jewish Identity in the Counterlife

Author: LiuRuiFang
Tutor: LiZuoBo
School: Central South University
Course: English Language and Literature
Keywords: Philip Roth The Counterlife Jewish identity loss and return cultural connotation
Type: Master's thesis
Year: 2009
Downloads: 165
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Philip Roth,succeeding Saul Bellow,Issaac Bashevic Singer and Bernard Malamud,is the most prominent Jewish American writer.He is also a controversial writer in that his early novels mostly place emphasis upon mocking Jewish tradition and culture and portraying the protagonists’ deviation from their Jewish identity.However,since the late 1980s,a fundamental turn can be discerned in Roth’s writing,which is mainly embodied in his novel The Counterlife,or specifically speaking, in Roth’s re-examination of Jewish tradition and culture and of contemporary Jewish American’s ethnic identity.Thus The Counterlife serves as the turning point in Roth’s literary creation.In this novel,Roth depicts the transforming process of the Zuckerman brothers-Henry and Nathan’s loss of and retum to their Jewish identity.The cultural issue of Jewish identity as revealed in this novel corresponds precisely to the theory of "the third generation return" proposed by the American scholar who conducts on Jewish immigrants Marcus Lee Hansen in the 1930s. Hence,based upon Hansen’s theory of "the third generation return",this thesis presents a cultural interpretation of the issue of Jewish identity which The Countlife centers upon.In addition to the introduction and conclusion,this thesis is composed of four chapters.Chapter 1 is designed to trace the cultural origins of the Jewish identity,analyze the identity crisis of modern American Jews,and reveal the Jewish identity consciousness in Roth’s works.Chapter 2 mainly explores the transforming process of Henry’s loss of and return to his Jewish identity and the reasons for this change. Henry’s loss of the Jewish identity is mainly embodied in abandoning the belief in Judaism and violating Jewish morals.But after returning to Israel,the Jew’s homeland,Henry finally returns to his Jewish identity by denying his previous American identity,observing Jewish traditions,and re-examining his ethnic identity.The geographical shift and reflection on his own ethnic culture and tradition are the main reasons for his final return.Chapter 3 focuses on Nathan’s loss of and return to Jewish identity and the reasons for this change.The disregard of Jewish traditions,the different attitudes towards American and Israel,and the objection to Jewish traditional circumcision explain for Nathan’s deviation from his Jewish identity.But influenced by anti-Semitism in England,Nathan comes to be aware of his Jewish identity during his stay there,then abides by Jewish traditions,and finally confirms his Jewish identity.The geographical transfer and discrimination he suffers in England result in his final return to the ethnic identity.The theme of the loss of and return to Jewish identity as depicted in The Counterlife bears profound cultural connotations,which is explored in Chapter 4.The author of this thesis holds that Henry and Nathan’s loss of their Jewish identity is a deviation from Jewish culture and traditions,while their ultimate return shows their re-examination of and abidance by Jewish culture and tradition.Roth’s depiction of the theme of Jewish identity in this novel reflects his own reconsideration of the Jewish ethnic identity,and reveals his meditation upon the Jewish tradition and culture as a Jewish writer, and his deep concern about the living conditions of modern American Jews.The cultural interpretation of Jewish identity in The Counterlife may contribute to the understanding and appreciation of this difficult yet noteworthy novel from a cultural perspective.

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