Philip Roth Writing Styles in The Counterlife

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.
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Point of View

The point of view is one of the most crucial and intriguing elements in The Counterlife. It changes in each of the five parts, and it often changes with absolutely no warning within those parts. Many times the reader must read on for paragraphs or pages to be certain of the narrator's identity, and even then often the best one can determine is that it is a third person narrator focused on the perspective of a certain character.

Part 1 begins with what seems like a third person narrator, and then after a section break a first person narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, reveals that the preceding part had been his failed attempt at a eulogy for his brother. After continuing on for some time with a first person narrator, the novel shifts at the beginning of Part 4 to a third person narrator focused on the perspective of Henry Zuckerman in an alternate version of the story that involves the death of Nathan. After a section break before the end of Part 4, the tone and structure of the narrative changes and may even introduce another character, Maria, as a sort of narrator. The final part of the novel seems to come entirely from the first person perspective of Nathan, but inclusion of a lengthy letter from Maria could also constitute first person narrative on her part.

The rapidly changes in points of view, though confusing, compliment one of the novel's main themes: that all narratives are merely versions of other stories.

Setting

There are several different physical settings in the novel The Counterlife. All occur in the late 1970s. Part 1, though named after a town in Switzerland, takes place almost entirely in the same locale in New Jersey. Part 2 takes place in Israel. Part 3 is set on an ill-fated airline flight. Part 4, though named after a region of England, physically occurs in Manhattan. The final part to the novel seems to take place in England, but there are subtle clues that seem to indicate that it could all take place within a single apartment in Manhattan.

Within the novel there are also two other types of settings of a less tangible sort. There is the action within what seems to be the main narrative, and then within that element there is also the Draft #2 manuscript that seems to mirror The Counterlife in structure, subject, characters, and even titles to the parts. Some of what readers think happens in the main novel is revealed later to have happened only in the manuscript.

One of the best examples of how the settings of the main novel and the manuscript compete occurs in Part 5. On the surface it seems that all action is occurring in England, but through subtle references to terms like elevator and foyer and upstairs the reader might conclude that the action has never left the confines of Nathan Zuckerman's apartment in Manhattan. Whether this pertains to the entire novel or just Part 5 is unclear, though it seems likely that it could pertain to the entire novel.

Language and Meaning

The language and its meaning is as delightful as one would expect from a Philip Roth novel. However, there is more to the language than its poetic eloquence. In many cases, the language, or more specifically the terminology, shows how some of our notions have become so familiar to us that we forget the meaning of the original terms.

One such example occurs in the distinction between the regional name Judea and the West Bank. Both refer to the same area of land, but to different people the terms have different meanings. The first mention of this occurs in the version of the story that involves the hijacking of the airplane. Nathan refers to visiting the West Bank, and the security officer asks Nathan why if he is a Jew he uses a non-Jewish term for the place. In another part of the novel Maria tells Nathan about a dream she had, and she uses the term Judea. Nathan corrects her and says the proper name for the place is the West Bank. She responds that she was dreaming, not reading newspaper headlines.

Another example of terms and their often forgotten meanings occurs during the fight that ends the relationship between Nathan and Maria. Maria tries to explain to Nathan that the Gentiles do not have a monopoly on prejudicial thought. She reminds him of the terms "goyim" and "shiska." She says that he and other Jews use them so casually that they may have forgotten that they also can have pejorative meaning.

Structure

The novel is divided into five parts, and all of the parts have place names as titles. The place names in the titles do not always coincide with where the action of the part takes place. Within each of the five parts are multiple sections. Sometimes the sections are divided according to the passing of time, but most often they are divided according to a more distinct change like a change in narrative voice.

The novel does not proceed in a linear fashion. Even some of the separate parts do not always proceed in a linear chronological manner. Because the novel consists of many versions of similar stories, a timeline is difficult to construct. Often similar versions of stories seem to overlap in time or even retell a completely new version of the story occupying the same place in time. One such example is the distinction between Part 4 and Part 5. Part 4 seems to present an ending to the main story in terms of its place in chronological time, but Part 5 presents a different version of the same story which seems to claim that Part 4 had been merely a draft of an unpublished manuscript.

For readers accustomed to more traditional linear narrative, the structure of The Counterlife is one of the most difficult elements to adjust to. The author provides clues at the beginning to help prepare the reader for this trait of the novel. What begins as a story told in third person is soon revealed to be merely a brief version of the story once the narrative changes to first person. These sorts of abrupt shifts in structure are typical throughout the novel.

This section contains 1,039 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
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