Everyman

by: Philip Roth

Sections 29-31

Summary Sections 29-31

Summary: Section 29

One Saturday a little less than a week before his operation, the sleep-deprived everyman decides to go to New York again to see Nancy, her children and Phoebe. He dreams the night before of lying naked next to the dead body of Millicent Kramer, holding her body in the way he had held Phoebe when her migraines were severe. When he wakes up, he opens the window and turns on all the lights, thinking of the painful details of how it must have been for Millicent to kill herself. He is aware of his own mortality, but has Nancy to live for and protect. He imagines himself running through the town of Elizabeth, feeling like a failure in so many ways, calling out the names of his family who he can no longer reach – his mother, father, Howie, Phoebe, Nancy, Randy and Lonny – and telling them he is leaving, just as they too vanish, saying to him that he was too late.

Summary: Section 30

The everyman does not get to New York. While travelling on the New Jersey Turnpike, he remembers the cemetery his parents were buried in and drives there instead. He had not noticed the cemetery’s decrepitude when he had been burying his father, since all he had been able to focus on was the casket being buried. In the past month, the everyman has attended two funerals in different cemeteries, both less rundown than the one he is standing in. He has been told by the rabbi at his father’s funeral that if visiting alone he should take care to visit during the High Holy Day period when the police provide protection for mourners, so they will not be mugged. At that time he decides not to come during the High Holy Day period because of his aversion to it. The two funerals he attends are of women from his painting class who had died of cancer within a week of each other. At the funeral, the everyman looks around at fellow residents of Starfish Beach retirement community, wondering who will be next. One woman, present at both funerals, weeps so much she seems, impossibly, like the mother of both women. She stands next to an aloof-looking man the everyman presumes is her husband. During the service, this man speaks bitterly to the everyman, asking why the woman is carrying on in such a way. The everyman says it is because death is deeply disturbing and unjust. The man tells him he is wrong, and that she always behaves that way because she misses being eighteen.

Summary: Section 31

The everyman takes some time to find his parents’ grave, but when he does, the shock of seeing their names carved together makes him burst into sobs. He goes through his memories of them, from the most recent backwards, but trying to recall his earliest memories of them is overwhelming. The everyman tries to commune with what he has lost, standing as close to the bones of his parents as he can and trying to listen for messages from them. The everyman feels like contentment is possible in his connection with the bones. He speaks to his parents, who died at eighty (his mother) and ninety (his father), telling them he is seventy-one. His mother tells him she is pleased he had lived, and his father tells him to atone for what he can and to make the best of what was left. The everyman finds it very hard to leave, and longs for everyone who has died to be living once again.

Analysis

In section 29 we see the everyman loveless, vulnerable, and facing his oblivion. The everyman understands that he has cut himself off from the support of his loved ones and become a helpless being that is slowly weakening. The narrator gives several possible reasons for this sense of transformation, from medical fears to loss of support to worries of future helplessness. Presented as a list of questions, the effect of his questioning becomes cumulative, and we might guess that the answer is that all of these factors are combining together to make the everyman feel vulnerable. In dreaming of lying naked next to the dead Millicent Kramer, the everyman is subconsciously acknowledging his own vulnerability. The everyman finds himself in a dream-state in neither wakefulness nor total oblivion, but something in between. In his nakedness, nothing, not even clothes, stands between his body and the closeness of death. Millicent Kramer resembles Phoebe, both in terms of her appearance and character and in her suffering. Because of this, her presence as a dead body in the everyman’s bed substitutes his future, that is, the endlessness of death, for the shared closeness of a loving marriage that is now gone.

Much of section 29 is devoted to interrogating the idea of suicide. Millicent has appeared to the everyman in his moment of weakening body and selfhood as a representative of suicide. He feels the need to examine without flinching what suicide actually involves, both in terms of the particular details of Millicent’s suicide, and the philosophical implications of the act of suicide itself. The everyman wonders if Millicent killed herself to end the pain, and if she was or was not calm and lucid while doing so. He wonders if the act allowed Millicent a time for reflection on the joys of her life, or whether she had lost interest in life by that point. Addressing the philosophical implications, the everyman wonders how a person could choose to leave life for emptiness, the nothingness he believes is waiting after death. In expanding his thoughts of Millicent’s suicide specifically to the act in general, the everyman is following his own path, slowly allowing himself to wonder if he too would commit suicide. He compares himself to Millicent, knowing that he, like her, is suffering, and will die sometime soon.

For the everyman, rejecting the idea of suicide for himself is tied to his love for his family and his resistance to and fear of oblivion. Although in one way the everyman has come to terms with the fact that he is reliant on other people and will only be more so in the future, he still resists dying and leaving Nancy without his protection, although it is Nancy who provides him with the comfort of a morning phone call. He realizes that in death, he will no longer be able to speak to her, just as he can no longer speak to any of his dead loved ones. In a childish fantasy, he imagines running through the streets of Elizabeth, his childhood home, calling out his lost loved ones. He knows he cannot catch up to either those who are dead or those who are living. The permanency of leaving, and having no one acknowledge this, is the root of his nightmare, and what causes him to wake in a panic.