The Counterlife Characters

This Study Guide consists of approximately 36 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of The Counterlife.
This section contains 762 words
(approx. 2 pages at 400 words per page)

Nathan Zuckerman

Nathan Zuckerman is a Jewish novelist in his mid forties. His many novels have met with a great deal of commercial and critical success, and he is best known for making jokes about his own Jewish-American background and family. By the time the novel opens, Nathan has already been married and divorced four times, each time to non-Jewish women. He does not seem to take much seriously; indeed, one could say that Nathan Zuckerman holds nothing sacred. He has a habit of taking detailed notes any time anyone tells him personal or confidential stories, and he seems to prize the compromising or embarrassing stories above all others. Nathan is not a mean or vindictive person. He simply believes anything is fair game for publishing since all stories are really just versions of another, so he is not really betraying a confidence by publishing another's story.

Throughout his life, Nathan has enjoyed an existence free from prejudice. He thinks those Jews that speak of prejudice often are likely paranoid. He considers the Jews he meets in the Israeli settlement to be fanatics. He even thinks his friend Shuki overreacts to some matters. Nathan reconsiders some of these ideas after a troubling evening in England. During this experience, his usual comedian approach to community and family identity leaves him, and he finds himself genuinely outraged.

Of the two brothers, Nathan is the most consistent in character, but this likely has to do more with his role as a principle narrator than in any defining character traits.

Henry Zuckerman

Henry is multiple characters in one depending on how Nathan as first person narrator or another third person narrator wants to present Henry. At the opening of the novel, Henry is a corpse. Henry is a man so obsessed with his adulterous affair that he risks his life to have surgery that will restore his ability to have recreational sex. In another version of the story, Henry survives the surgery but leaves behind a successful dental practice and a family to go to the Jewish homeland in an effort to find meaning in his life. In yet another version, Henry is a dedicated family man and a successful dentist who learned about his brother Nathan's illness only after Nathan's death.

A few things about Henry remain consistent in the several versions. He is married and has several children. He is a successful dentist, and he has had two affairs in his past. Henry has spent much of his life feeling inferior to his older brother the successful novelist, and upon publication of a novel that Henry regards as a cruel distortion of the truth about their family, Henry ceases communication with Nathan. While Nathan is the brother that sees family traits as fodder for humor, Henry is the brother that is forced into the role of protector of family dignity. Despite his two affairs, Henry is the conservative father and husband while Nathan is the cosmopolitan playboy. Henry lives in suburban New Jersey, while Nathan lives in Manhattan.

Maria

In some sections this character is Nathan's Englishwoman wife, and in other areas she is the romantic interest he wants to marry. In all sections she is twenty-eight years old and married to a neglectful husband. Maria has a young daughter, and her husband's lack of attention seemed to begin with her pregnancy. It was her loneliness that led her to Nathan. Aside from the two Zuckerman brothers, Maria is the novel's most significant character, and she makes some of the more memorable points about relationships between individuals as well as relations between groups of people.

Carol

This is Henry's wife. She finds Henry's decision to relocate to Israel incomprehensible.

Wendy

This is Henry's dental assistant and mistress. In one version of Henry's story, he undergoes risky heart surgery in hope of regaining the ability to have sex with Wendy.

Shuki Elchanan

This is Nathan's Israeli journalist friend. Shuki warns Nathan about Mordecai Lippman both before and after Nathan meets Lippman.

Jimmy Ben-Joseph

Nathan first meets this character at the Wailing Wall where Jimmy says he is Nathan's biggest fan and the cure to Israel's problems could be found if Israel would import baseball. Nathan encounters Jimmy again when Jimmy plans to hijack an airplane.

Mordecai Lippman

This man is a leader who is regarded as a hero to some and a dangerous zealot to others.

Mrs. Freshfield

This is Maria's mother. She is a traditional English woman, but she is also known to have strong anti-Semitic views.

Phoebe

This is Maria's toddler daughter.

This section contains 762 words
(approx. 2 pages at 400 words per page)
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