Everyman

by: Philip Roth

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Averageness

Throughout the novel, the everyman refers to himself and his choices of behavior as average. For example, when he leaves his first marriage for Phoebe, the everyman says that he had never seen himself as other than average. Later, when the everyman begins to have affairs during his second marriage he is startled by his own adulterous behavior, believing it is something against normal morality. The everyman considers suffering from pain and illness, feelings of helplessness, and experiencing relationship failures as average and typical. The idea that a person’s life or experiences are in some way typical is not confined to the everyman. Millicent Kramer tells him that there is that there is nothing special about her story, and that he must have a story of his own. In fact, we are reading his story. The fact that Roth chooses to focus Everyman squarely on one man’s average life elevates the average into something worthy of consideration.

Nostalgia

Early in the novel, Howie, the everyman’s brother, recounts their childhood together, establishing the everyman’s character but also anchoring the novel in the past. Old age is positioned as an empty time in which all one can do is look back in pain at what has been lost, enhancing one’s loneliness. An example of this is how the everyman believes that love and companionship, which were common in his past, will be forever more absent from his life in old age. Alternatively, nostalgia is a way for the everyman to deal with the emptiness of his final days by thinking of better days and the pleasures he had experienced. In a sense, the whole book is nostalgic, in that most of the narrative deals with looking back on a life that is already completed and finished before the opening of the novel.

Familial relationships

Everyman is concerned with its protagonist’s passage through life focusing partly on how he is viewed by and has behaved towards his family. The central relationships of the novel are with Howie, ever-loyal and loving older brother, Nancy, the pure and hopeful daughter, and the women who have been present at the everyman’s various operations and post-operation recoveries. These women include the everyman’s mother, his wives, and the nurse with whom he has an affair. The everyman’s sons Randy and Lonny take a deeply negative view of their father, contrary to how the everyman sees himself, although their views and characters are only lightly referenced in the novel. Most of the everyman’s blood relatives serve as a comforting presence in his life. In contrast, most of his romantic partners fulfil his sexual needs but fail to understand him or are failed by him. Out of the lovers, only Phoebe, with her individual capacity for understanding, is able to retain a relationship beyond the broken bonds of the marital relationship. She is the closest the everyman comes to a successful chosen family member.