Everyman

by: Philip Roth

Sections 21-24

Summary: Section 21

Without painting, the everyman’s days pass slowly in the retirement village. He takes an hour-long walk in the morning, works out with weights for twenty minutes, and swims for thirty, all to keep his heart healthy. There is nothing else in his day other than to stare at the ocean, thinking of his childhood memories. In the evenings he drives to eat fish at a fish store on an inlet near sailboats, and on the way he occasionally stops in a town where his family had vacationed. He questions how long a man can comb over his memories to relive them, but then wonders if this is the joy of old age, to look back on his carefree days when he rode in the waves of the Atlantic. The everyman gives in to the memory of his childhood, and his young and healthy body running back from a day in the sea, feeling all the sensations of those hot summer days after the war was over. Everything was simple then and he took his health for granted.

Summary: Section 22

Back from dinner and in his condo at the retirement village, the everyman tries to read his art books, but these just depress him and make him think of his own amateurishness as a painter. He also does not like to spend time with the other residents. They make him feel lonely, because they can only talk about their absent grandchildren, and most still have good connections to their spouses. He realizes he should have stayed in New York. He had been invigorated by stability, not stasis and stagnation. Nothing in his environment provides any solace, or makes him curious, or meets his emotional needs. He feels like an incomplete human being, with his life behind him and his sense of self eroded.

Summary: Section 23

The everyman always waves to one of the young women who jogs along the boardwalk in front of his condo. One morning he goes out and stops her. The jogger turns out to have worked for an ad agency in Philadelphia for the past seven years. She is very impressed when the everyman tells her the name of the agency he worked for. They make small talk about the agency while the everyman tries and fails not to stare at her breasts, thinking that although the woman is in her late twenties, she can pass for fourteen. He knows he shouldn’t try to hit on her, but does it anyway. He gives her his phone number, concealing his anxiety. When she accepts the number he is turned on and enlivened by the possibilities of a love affair. The jogger runs off with the piece of paper tucked into her tank top. She does not call him, and he never sees her running on the boardwalk again.

Summary: Section 24

After the everyman’s encounter with the jogger, he decides to sell his condo and move back to New York. Leaving New York after September 11 had seemed the start of a new life, but the everyman now views it as the beginning of his isolation and loneliness. He plans to buy a place on the Upper West Side of New York City to be near Nancy, or if he is able, to allow Nancy and her children to live with him. Just as he is planning to take action, he learns that Phoebe has had a stroke, brought on by her migraine medicine. Nancy tells the everyman that once Phoebe is out of the hospital, she might be living with her. The everyman visits Phoebe at the hospital and then returns to his condo. He now thinks it had been a selfish idea to want to live with Nancy, who would have to care for him. He decides never to think of the idea again. In the hospital, the everyman and Phoebe talk, although it is hard for him to understand Phoebe’s slurred speech. She tells him that she finds paralysis terrifying, and begins to cry. The everyman wishes for a return to the past and wishes she could speak clearly. Phoebe’s body is in a bad state and the everyman mistrusts the doctor who says Phoebe will make a full recovery. The everyman leans forward and tenderly touches Phoebe’s hair, thinking of her calm demeanor when they first met, and the excitement of their life together.

Analysis

The dominant themes of these sections are connection, nostalgia, loneliness, and time. The everyman finds passing the time without the distraction of painting to be very difficult. He sets a daily and strict regime of exercise to maintain his health but otherwise the major event of his day is staring at the endlessly changing and changeless ocean from the Jersey Shore. This ocean represents the oblivion that he faces, as well as his childhood experiences of oblivious joy in swimming there. His connection to the area is deep: he sits in the same bench his parents and his grandparents used to sit on while they, too, stared at the ocean, though they, unlike the ocean, are now gone. The everyman’s remaining connections with life are between him and his past, between his mind and his long-finished experiences. He cannot connect with the people in his retirement community, with whom he has few shared life experiences, and he cannot connect with the jogger, who politely takes his phone number, an attempt to open a line of communication, and then disappears, severing all possibilities of connection. In the absence of living human communication, all the everyman has is his boredom and loneliness.

For the everyman, the body is the source of all worldly joy. He remembers how as a child he reveled without self-consciousness in his own youthful body as it moved through the water. He was so ecstatic with the vitality of his body at that time that he wanted to literally taste himself and the flavor of the seawater on his skin. Even years later, the narrator recreates the immediacy of this experience through the tactile sensations the everyman experienced then, from the hot sidewalks to the soft wet sand and the freezing cold shower. The everyman’s body at that time, with its new strength and healthiness, is the highest form of perfection he achieves. In the intricate detailing of the jogger’s body, we can see the everyman evaluating her healthiness and youth, but also her appearance as a beautiful object to be possessed, like a jewel from his father’s shop. This idea is reinforced at the point when the everyman is just on the cusp of flirting with the jogger, he remembers his buying the pendant necklace for Merete, and the physical sensation of putting it around her neck.