Everyman

by: Philip Roth

Sections 15-18

Summary Sections 15-18

The everyman explains to Nancy that he has stopped painting because he has ended his ability to engage in aesthetic pleasures. The everyman and Nancy argue about the reason why the everyman has not succeeded at painting, with Nancy taking the view that the everyman was too busy and responsible when he was a younger man with a family. The everyman calls himself an amateur. Nancy argues that other people look at and respond strongly to the paintings of his that she has in her home, and that she proudly says that he painted them. The everyman is grateful that Nancy is still proud of him. He puts this down to her generous, spotless character. He attributes the failure of her marriage to her generosity of spirit, since she is unable to see the negative qualities in her husband. The everyman does not fully trust Nancy’s words of comfort because he doesn’t believe she knows what she is talking about. But he takes comfort in them anyway because he has been blessed by her love. Nancy and the everyman discuss swimming, and Nancy’s family, while the everyman thinks with regret of how he treated Nancy’s mother Phoebe, wishing he had not acted to damage their relationship irreparably.

Analysis

The everyman examines the tensions in the relationship he has with his sons Randy and Lonny. All his choices, from leaving their mother, to eventually leaving Phoebe for the flimsy Merete, to his taking up painting as a hobby after retirement, reinforce their view that the everyman is a failure and inauthentic. The everyman frames his own actions as both excusably typical and as facts of his life that cannot be undone. This supports his ongoing stoic outlook and his positioning of himself as average in every way. From his point of view, it is inexplicable that Randy and Lonny reject this outlook and make no attempt to understand his perspective, instead painting him as the worst possible version of himself, an outlier and an extreme character. His protests become increasingly angry and frustrated, culminating at the end of section 15 with the everyman’s thoughts breaking directly through the third person narration to first complain and then to admit life is what it is, restating his stoic framework by which he survives his cutting loneliness.

The everyman continues to take account of his family and what decades of choices and unpreventable twists of fate have left him with at the close of his life. He views these through the lens of stoicism and his self-identification as an average man. While Randy and Lonny see the everyman in what he views as childish, black and white terms rather than the greys of a typical life, the everyman acknowledges that the role he has taken is of absent father who will permit their endless hatred. Their roles have become fixed in a loop of aggression and suffering that the everyman chooses not to break. He places himself within the context of son, brother, and father and successful advertising man to say that he doesn’t need to explain himself to Randy and Lonny. He believes that, at seventy-one, his life is fixed, and this failed relationship is irreparably broken. Stoicism, in this context, is a mask for his rigidity and lack of energy to attempt to communicate.

The everyman’s self-imposed isolation is further explored in relation to Howie. Howie has previously been a source of selfless comfort and support for the everyman. Howie and the everyman share the bond of their childhood and their communal position as links in the chain of their family succession. However, the everyman grows envious of Howie’s seeming resistance of mortality and aging, even as he understands that this is not a result of a choice that Howie has made. The various trappings of a successful life which Howie has, from a good job, to material wealth, to intelligence, to a warm and loving family, are not a source of envy for the everyman. He understands that logically there is no relationship between Howie’s health and his own illness, but the idea persists. This irrational envy does not fully contradict his stoicism, which encourages him to be self-sufficient. However, acting on this envy causes the everyman to break bonds with Howie and feel as much hate for him as Randy and Lonny have for the everyman, creating a bond of misunderstanding and hatred, in the place of bonds of familial love and acceptance.

While the everyman’s relationship with Nancy is freer than with Randy and Lonny or Howie, it is still not completely mature or honest. Nancy calls the everyman each morning before she goes to work, and they discuss his difficulties and doubts over painting. She engages with his philosophy of life, provides rationale for his choices in life, encourages him to avoid disparaging himself, and tells him that when people see his paintings, they form a connection with them. She understands his arguments even as she counters them, and reinforces the idea that he can successfully communicate with the world via his art. To the everyman though, Nancy is still a child, and he cannot take her way of thinking as seriously as other people’s. Nancy’s view of him and his ability to make worthwhile art stems from her purity, a form of childishness that, in opposition to Randy and Lonny’s childishness, allows her to see only the good in people. The everyman doesn’t believe that Nancy knows what she is talking about when she encourages him to enjoy each day, even as this echoes his own guiding principal of taking each day as it comes.

The everyman relies on the physical appearances and emotional labor of women to keep loneliness at a distance. He hopes to meet a woman at his painting class, but there is no one desirable enough for him. Instead he takes refuge in staring at the young women who jog on the boardwalk in front of his condo. He finds them beautiful and appealing, but since they do not touch or speak with him, he remains unfulfilled sexually as well as emotionally, and is reminded even more that he is alone. The young women are physically running by him, while he remains behind, passive and static, his body irrelevant to them. Desire for women continues, but desire to paint fades away, and, as it too was a form of communication with the world, the everyman feels lonely and bored. Nancy becomes the sexless stand-in for the love of women, which the everyman is aware of. He finds himself taking comfort in her despite the fact he does not value her insights and knows he is, in his self-imposed isolation from his most-loved wife Phoebe, an emotional burden to Nancy.