Everyman

by: Philip Roth

Study Questions

Further study Study Questions

The central protagonist of Everyman goes unnamed throughout. How does this shape the reader’s understanding of him? What does anonymity take from the character, and what does it give to him?

One effect of the anonymity of Everyman’s protagonist is to make the everyman more of a general figure. One way this is indicated is through the novel’s title. In the fifteenth century morality play of the same name, which Roth has said influenced the creation of his novel, the main character is called Everyman. Everyman is an allegorical figure who represents the whole of humanity. In the play, there is a clear and direct message: everyone has to die, and, in the Christian belief system, they must face God’s judgement at the end of their life. Accordingly, Everyman’s specific journey towards judgement will happen to every person when they die. In a similar way Roth’s nameless everyman can be seen as representative for all mankind, as he has died and the novel comprises of an account of his life. The novel undercuts the simple moralizing of the play by setting its everyman into a world without a God to judge, leaving the work of judgement to the reader.

Conflict arises between the anonymity of the everyman and the depth of his characterization in the novel. The fact that the central character is unnamed places the reader at a stranger’s distance, since it might be argued that it is harder for the reader to care for an unknown figure than a known one. By refusing to name the everyman, Roth also makes the distinctiveness of the character ambiguous. However, despite not giving this most personal detail of the everyman, he paints every flaw, longing, and physical malady of his main character so that the reader comes to sympathize and understand the everyman within the context of his life. The level of detail gives the novel richness and pathos, but, within this context of namelessness, the reader is also able to see that the everyman’s fate is not special or distinct, and that death awaits everyone.

How are forms of work represented in the novel? Consider the differences between manual and white collar labor. How is work important to the mood and philosophical outlook of the everyman?

Work features throughout the novel as an area of life where the everyman achieves great success. Early in the novel Howie gives a eulogy on the everyman, recounting how he loved the work of their father’s shop. In setting up and closing the shop in the evenings, there is a kind of secular ritual. Details are stacked on details, from the diamonds in their bag, to their father’s tools, and the everyman’s fingers nimbly running over the stacks of envelopes. Howie’s depiction of how the everyman enjoyed the work and its responsibility positions the everyman as a person who finds comfort and fulfillment in attentiveness and working with his hands. Comparing this to the everyman’s later white collar career as an art director at an advertising firm, we can see that the same attentiveness to detail and work ethic has brought him success, for example when he worked with Brad Karr on the advertisement for Maxwell House, and they achieved the highest score ever for the client. The everyman’s post-retirement painting career provided him with satisfaction of working with his hands previously missing in his advertising work, though unlike his advertising work, this is not financially or socially rewarding.

One of the most significant work-centered moments towards the end of the everyman’s life, one which shapes his philosophical outlook, is his encounter with the gravedigger. This gravedigger describes his process in close detail, from cutting the grass, to measuring out the levelness of the grave itself, and tidying up the soil after the grave is complete. This level of detail acts as a grounding for the everyman, not only making the process of burial, that is, the final journey of a body from aboveground and life to below it and death, concrete, but also shaping his understanding of the act itself as an act of skilled work. When the everyman saw his father being buried by Howie’s sons, he was horrified, but placed in the context of a workman doing his job to the best of his abilities, the act of burial is stripped of its chaotic force and appears regulated and without mystery. This new awareness of the everyday quality of burial allows the everyman to face death with a new sense of calm acceptance.

The everyman is married three times. Compare and contrast how each of these marriages affect the everyman’s life and shape his story.

Each of the everyman’s marriages leaves a different mark on him. His first wife, Cecelia, leaves the least impression and is given the least amount of attention in the novel. All that we know about Cecelia is that she made the everyman unhappy and gave him two sons, Lonny and Randy, who hate him. Cecelia’s comment that she pitied the everyman’s second wife Phoebe proves to be prophetic when the everyman in turn cheats on Phoebe and leaves her for Merete. The everyman calls Cecelia, fifteen years after he left her, “his Cassandra.” because she knew that he would eventually leave Phoebe too, and the everyman did not listen Phoebe knows the everyman better than any of his other sexual partners and understands his actions better than he does. It is Phoebe who places the everyman’s infidelities in the context of cliché: she is angered by the fact that his commonplace cheating and lying has pushed both of them into roles which they must act out.

The everyman’s rejection of Phoebe causes the erosion of his future happiness and ability to deal with his own ill health. The everyman’s final wife Merete, married in haste to secure a sense of legitimacy, serves to isolate him from his family and his happiness. She is a place card for his desire for life and vitality, but proves to be “more absence than presence.” Portrayed as essentially hollow, Merete is quick to crumble in the face of the everyman’s illnesses. When they separate, the everyman is left alone. His mind returns to Phoebe, who once provided a source of emotional stability and insight. Phoebe’s stroke serves as a reminder to the everyman that death is closing in on him. It also helps to contextualize his humanity: the everyman wants her to be healthy, even so far as to wish that she had her voice and strength back to the same levels she used when she was berating him for his betrayals. In sum, all of the everyman’s wives provide context and initiative for his shifting emotional developments throughout his life.