The Human Stain by Philip Roth

71 year old Coleman Silk, Dean of Athena College in New England, has been driven from his position by mischievous accusations of racism. After the death of his wife he takes up Faunia Farley, an illiterate milkmaid and cleaner at the college, who is half his age and has suffered a terribly battered life. Approaching the denoument, Roth uncovers the layers in the life of a man who has long harboured a profound secret.

Philip Roth ( is descended from first generation Jewish American immigrants from Galicia. His work is complex with multiple themes, but one is most certainly a religious sensibility. The Human Stain expresses something akin to the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. ( In this it is believed that all humans are warped through the inherited sin of Adam. All, therefore, are in need of redemption. In a summation of how the tragic consequences of the story have come about Faunia says the following:

‘That’s what comes of hanging around all his life with people like us. The human stain, she said, and without revulsion or contempt or condemnation. Not even with sadness. That’s how it is – in her own dry way, that is all Faunia was telling the girl feeding the snake: we leave a stain, we leave a trail, we leave our imprint. Impurity, cruelty, abuse, error, excrement, semen – there’s no other way to be here. Nothing to do with disobedience. Nothing to do with grace or salvation or redemption. It’s in everyone. Indwelling, inherent. Defining. The stain that is there before its mark. Without the sign it is there. The stain so intrinsic it doesn’t require a mark. The stain that precedes disobedience, that encompasses disobedience and perplexes all explanation and understanding. It’s why all the cleansing is a joke. A barbaric joke at that. The fantasy of purity is appalling. It’s insane. What is the quest to purify if not more impurity?’ (page 242, undernoted edition).

Roth skilfully shows how character imperfection works with circumstance to lead humans to their fate.

This novel is very much also about American society since the Vietnam War, and particularly about race and identity. Have a go at one of America’s most esteemed writers of recent times. First published  in 2000.

I find it hard to believe that this novel could have been filmed. There’s too much literary and psychological about it. Nevertheless, director Robert Benton had a go in 2003. ( With Anthony Hopkins as Coleman Silk and Nicole Kidman as Faunia Farley. Available on DVD at

384 pages in Vintage Press paperback edition.

ISBN 978-0099282198

Philip Roth

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