Everyman

by: Philip Roth

Sections 25-28

The idea that old age is a pitiless march towards the grave is undercut by the ways in which the everyman, in his old age, is behaving. With the forced cheerfulness and lack of honesty displayed in these conversations, old age could be viewed instead as an advertising campaign. Just like in advertisements, the mundane, anguished truth is concealed or overwritten by happy images, references to the past, and hope for the future to “sell” the idea that fulfilment is possible. Sometimes positivity comes from the sufferer, sometimes from a well-wisher. In earlier sections, such as 21-24, we saw the everyman attempting to make the best of his life through reliance on nostalgia and self-deception regarding his seductive powers. Distraction, via painting and dreams of sexual prowess, paper over the sad reality of actual day-to-day experience. The reality, of gradual weakening and loneliness, is enhanced by a more palatable fiction of moving to a new location, seducing a young woman, or exploring new artistic pursuits. Ezra, ad man to the end, sells this image to the everyman by cheerfully telling of his final creatively-rich exploits.

There are other, more charitable ways of looking at the lies the everyman tells himself and tells and hears from others. We can frame these behaviors, from sharing nostalgic moments to concealing doubts over whether a person can ever recover, as either “magical thinking” or simple human kindness. Magical thinking, defined by Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, is a way of coping with grief by ignoring concrete reality in favor of the possibility of impossible things happening. For example, the persistent idea that a dead loved one will suddenly walk in the door alive and well. In this view, those suffering find ways to believe that things will improve or are improving, in the face of evidence to the contrary. Alternatively, lies are a collective social good, used to spare feelings and allow privacy for an inconsolable grief. It is notable that the everyman only really lashes out at the lies in his conversations afterwards to himself, when he is tired and upset. While speaking to others about his medical problems he often maintains a calm and warm demeanor, which suggests he too does not want to break through the superficial veneer that holds everything up.

Once again afflicted by ill health, and suffering more than ever in his loneliness, the everyman’s stoicism breaks down. Illness has become routine, and he does not even tell Nancy about the upcoming second carotid operation, which will be the one which ends his life. The everyman, realizing he has irrationally cut the innocent Howie out of his life, and that his own foolishness is the cause of his own loneliness, physically beats himself in the chest. He is symbolically beating the organ which failed him both medically and spiritually. This is the heart which keeps threatening to stop beating and the heart which does not allow him to keep steadfast in brotherly or romantic love. When his efforts to make amends fail because Howie is travelling, the everyman feels he has no one to rely on and that nothing stands between him and the grave. From this point on, denial and sadness give way, slowly, to acceptance.