Everyman

by: Philip Roth

Plot Overview

Summary Plot Overview

Mourners surround an open grave of an unnamed man (the everyman). Present are former advertising colleagues, friends from the retirement village, the everyman’s three children Nancy, Randy and Lonny, his older brother Howie and Howie’s wife, his ex-wife Phoebe, and Maureen, who was his private nurse. One by one, the everyman’s loved ones drop handfuls of soil onto his coffin, starting with Nancy, who delivers a eulogy explaining her relationship to the everyman, and followed by Howie, who recounts childhood memories of the everyman, in particular their father’s shop in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The funeral ends and the mourners walk away from the grave. The book shifts to the night before the everyman’s last operation, during which he dies, as the everyman thinks back on the women in his life who were present at other operations, from his third and final wife Merete, to Maureen, with whom he had an affair with while married to Merete, to his mother who accompanied him to the hospital for a hernia operation when he was a child. He remembers the hernia operation in great detail as a formative experience that shapes his fear of death and illness for the rest of his life.

The everyman becomes unwell after a holiday on Martha’s Vineyard with his new love, Phoebe. He had left behind his first wife Cecelia and their two sons for Phoebe, and is suffering from guilt. His mind turns to the fear of oblivion. He returns to New York, and an analyst tells him he is feeling ill because of internalized envy of a colleague. The everyman eventually persuades his doctor to admit him to hospital. There, it turns out he is suffering from a burst appendix and could have died. Phoebe and Howie help the everyman through his recovery. Twenty-two years pass while the everyman is in good health. Then, in 1989, the everyman becomes ill again. He thinks it is brought about by the stress of watching his father slowly dying, but it is due to heart disease. His experiences in the hospital this time remind him of his boyhood operation, but he no longer has his mother to reassure him. Merete is completely overwhelmed but Howie steps in to provide private nurses to look after the everyman. This is how the everyman meets Maureen, and they begin their affair.

The everyman’s father dies. Though the everyman himself is strongly anti-religion, his father had become more religious in his old age. Watching his father being buried by Howie and his sons is a dreadful experience for the everyman, who is still recovering from his operation. This is because he must finally stare oblivion in the face and acknowledge that everyone’s life ends in death. After another nine years of good health, the everyman falls ill again and has a stent inserted into his arteries. A few years after this he leaves Manhattan in the wake of the 9/11 bombings and moves to the Starfish Beach retirement village at the Jersey Shore and takes up painting, his passion. The only thing he misses about New York is his daughter Nancy, with whom he has a good relationship. But the year after the stent operation, he has another operation, this time on his carotid artery. From then on he is hospitalized every year for problems with his heart and arteries. Nancy is there to provide reassurance. The everyman thinks of her goodness as a miracle. In contrast, he does not get on at all with his sons Randy and Lonny.

The everyman teaches painting classes in his retirement village. One student, Millicent Kramer, is a recent widow suffering from terrible back pain and a sense of humiliation over her perceived helplessness and dependency. She later kills herself, which forces the everyman again to face his own mortality. The everyman’s relationship with Howie becomes worse because he envies Howie’s good health. Because of this, the everyman deliberately isolates himself from Howie. He also feels lonely because he no longer has the romantic company of women in his life. After a polite rejection from a young jogger outside his condo, the everyman stops painting, despite Nancy’s encouragement to keep making pictures. Earlier, in his fifties, the everyman had an affair with first his secretary, a woman of nineteen, then a twenty-four-year-old model named Merete. His second wife Phoebe reveals she is aware of the affairs after Merete and the everyman fly to Paris to be with each other. The everyman then leaves Phoebe to marry Merete. The marriage is not a success because Merete is vain and weak and cannot support him when he gets sick.

Living in the retirement community, the everyman finds trying to pass the time without company or painting very difficult. He sustains himself with memories and then his fantasies, first of seducing the woman jogger who rejects him, then of living with Nancy and her family in New York. This fantasy ends when Phoebe has a stroke and Nancy plans to look after her. The everyman makes several phone calls, first to Gwen, the recent widow of a former colleague, then Brad Karr, a former colleague who is now a patient in a psychiatric hospital, and finally Ezra Pollock, another former colleague who is suffering from terminal cancer. These calls exhaust and depress him and once more make him confront the idea of the inevitability and pitilessness of aging and death. The everyman later receives the upsetting news that Ezra Pollock has died, and soon after, tests show that the everyman needs a surgery on his second carotid artery.

The everyman considers his relationships with his loved ones and becomes increasingly gloomy. He tries unsuccessfully to reconnect with Howie, who happens to be away on holiday. Broken-hearted, lonely and in poor health, the everyman finally allows himself to confront his end. He goes to the cemetery where his parents and grandparents are buried and communes with his parents’ bones, which reassure him about his life. Even though the everyman does not believe in an afterlife, the reality of their bones is a source of comfort and he finds it hard to leave them behind. As an excuse not to leave, he strikes up a conversation with a gravedigger. In minute detail, the gravedigger describes the process of burial. The everyman is comforted by the dutiful work that goes into the process of digging and filling a grave. Going into his operation, he is in a good mood. He remembers the joy of being a young boy swimming in the sea. But choosing general anesthetic instead of local anesthetic leads to his death on the operating table. He has finally succumbed to the oblivion he feared.