Everyman

by: Philip Roth

Sections 19-20

Summary Sections 19-20

Summary: Section 19

When he is around fifty, the everyman starts noticing women everywhere. It takes a long time for him to act on his desires, even though there is no longer any sexual contact in his marriage to Phoebe. First he has relations with his nineteen-year-old secretary, behavior which catches him by surprise because he does not think he was the kind of man to act outside the norm. He is caught by his boss, but this does not stop his behavior. Later, in Grenada on a photoshoot for an advertisement he meets twenty-four-year-old Merete, a Danish model, and they embark on an intense, three-day affair. When he returns to New York they carry on the relationship, which becomes public when the everyman lies to his wife, telling her he is going to Paris for a photoshoot with the company’s account executive Ezra Pollock. The weather grounds planes in Paris, so the everyman extends his trip with Merete. In Paris, he buys her an expensive diamond necklace worth more than all the stock in his father’s jewelry store. He feels as though a part of a cult of two.

Summary: Section 20

At the hotel, the everyman finds a message from Phoebe letting him know that his mother has fallen gravely ill. He calls Phoebe. His mother has had a stroke and is expected to die. He explains that the weather has grounded his plane. Phoebe tells him that Howie is with their mother in the hospital and that she will join their father shortly to be with him until Howie comes. Phoebe explains that she missed the everyman and his mistress Merete by a few minutes that morning and has been waiting for him to call back. The everyman tries to lie, but Phoebe is aware of the affair, and finds it humiliating. He misses his mother’s death by an hour. At the hospital he looks at his mother’s body with his father and Howie present. The everyman sees his mother both as a woman sleeping and as a stone-like representative of death’s everyday reality. The everyman realizes he has lost the two women who had provided him with strength. He continues to lie to Phoebe about the trip to Paris. He tells Phoebe he took Merete to Paris to break up with her, but Phoebe sees through this. She knows about the affair with the secretary too. Phoebe tells him she cannot trust him to be truthful again, and again stresses her humiliation at his hands. She finds lying to be a cheap way of trying to control another person. She discusses at length her opinion of liars, and the lies that the everyman must have told himself, and refuses to forgive him for what he has done to her. Phoebe throws the everyman out the night after his mother’s funeral. In order to rehabilitate himself, particularly in his daughter’s eyes, he marries Merete. He then discovers Merete’s personality beyond her use as a sexual partner. Merete has tax troubles and a morbid fear of aging and sickness. She is an unhelpful person, where Phoebe was strong and capable.

Analysis

In section 19, women are presented as a “hole” the everyman feels the need to fill, or as an object to possess. The presentation of the everyman’s affair with his secretary is notable in the fact that she is not described in detail. We learn that she is a good looking and dark-haired nineteen-year-old, but nothing about her body, way of speaking, personality, or her name. Her body barely registers as a visual or tactile source of interest. The everyman signals his desire for Merete, the model, by pushing his thumb into her mouth, on a basic level plugging this hole, but also preventing the conversation that might lead to a deeper connection. Unlike the secretary, Merete has a sense of presence, and her beautiful elegant body becomes the everyman’s wealth though it is still her so-called “little hole” that the everyman thinks delights them both. While he is swept away in the intensity of their affair, he does find time to reflect briefly on the fact that at fifty, it is unlikely he could find a “hole” that would make up for everything in his life he has given up.

Although the everyman does not consciously understand it, his choices reflect his animal hunger for survival and youthful vigor. Sex between the everyman and his secretary is described as a sequence of blunt actions that take place while both are nearly fully clothed and almost mindless, unthinking of the consequences. Both seem unable to stop themselves from coupling. They are presented as little more than animals, without free will and almost free from anything recognizable as human desire and tenderness. Merete’s thick blonde hair and elegant, animal-like, unaffected gait signal that she is full of health and self-confidence, and when the everyman spots her walking in New York it is as if he is someone on a hunting safari sighting the animal he wishes to kill. He goes so far as to describe her as a kind of hunter’s trophy, which he has won, since he possesses her body. Merete’s “hunter,” even at fifty, has the virility to capture such a prize.

The everyman’s affair with his youthful mistress Merete finds a parallel in the allure of diamonds. While in Paris to conduct their affair, the everyman buys Merete an antique diamond pendant necklace. This section is relayed as an aside and is contained within parentheses to separate it from the surrounding sexual account of the affair itself. However it seems to reach the heart of why the everyman is having this affair. The everyman, still employing the language of seduction, examines the jewels through a loupe, checking for flaws. The diamond is of a high quality, and the everyman uses the word for diamonds his father used: ”imperishable.” The everyman buys the diamond necklace for Merete, just as, in sleeping with Merete, she buys him a respite from the awareness of his own aging body, that is, his perishability. Their relationship, presented as something like a religious diversion, substitutes for the everyman the impossible state of physical immortality. We know that the everyman views religion as foolish, so this wording specifically casts the affair in an ironic light.

Aging, illness, suffering, and death are inescapable and undeniable factors, despite all the everyman’s efforts. In the middle of this dazzling break from the realities of everyday life, Phoebe calls to tell the everyman his mother is dying. When he looks on his mother’s dead body, the everyman sees her as appearing like a stone. The solid, immobile appearance of the dead body is material proof to the everyman that death is the end of life and nothing more. His mother is not transformed into anything other than plain stone by her death, and contrasts with the earlier false promises of the immortal diamonds. Even though in the everyman’s view death is the end, and is without judgement, and up until now the everyman has shown no remorse or fear of discovery, the everyman falls back on lies to Phoebe to conceal his wrongdoing and to avoid losing her support. When this fails, and aware that he has suffered the death of his mother and brought about the death of his marriage, the everyman immediately seeks renewal and a sense of agency by marrying Merete.