Everyman

by: Philip Roth

Symbols

Main ideas Symbols
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The human body

The everyman’s body appears in various forms. His body is a site of vitality when he is a young man, powerful and healthy. Later, his body weakens in his illnesses, and is cut apart during his various operations to the point where the everyman’s relationship to it is fraught with longing and morbid feelings. Women’s bodies are described with laser-focused detail, from their curves to their posture. Bodies can be a focus of anxiety when they cause the everyman to compare himself to them, such as the boy in the hospital bed in the everyman’s childhood operation. Whether the boy does or does not die in the hospital is left ambiguous – in the morning his body is gone from the bed next to the everyman’s, and the everyman cannot find out what exactly happened. The absence of a body leaves the everyman feeling like the workings of the hospital and death itself are mysterious processes. This is contrasted with the dead, rotting body of the sailor on the shore, which forces the everyman to directly confront the physical reality of death.

The ocean/sea

The ocean appears throughout the novel as both a source of exhilaration and a symbol of oblivion. As a child, the everyman enjoys swimming in the ocean at the Jersey Shore, reveling in his own carefree ability to swim against the forces of the waves. Early in the everyman’s relationship with Phoebe, they swim together in the ocean during the day, followed by sexual encounters on the beach and gathering mussels for dinner carried home in a pale of seawater. During the daytime, the sea is a symbol of sexuality, bounty and fulfilment. In the night however, the sea transforms itself, becoming vast, unknowable and wild. The sea at night reminds the everyman of death, and immediately after this revelation, the narrative turns to the metaphorical death of his relationship with his first wife. This combination of ecstatic fulfilment and oblivion, care-free physicality and the unknowable depths is present at the very end of the everyman’s life. As he goes into his final surgery, the everyman thinks of himself as a boy again experiencing the freedom of swimming in the ocean.

Diamonds

Diamonds are highly-valued gemstones that symbolize status and partnership in the novel. The everyman’s father sold diamond rings to working- and lower-middle-class couples, and, in his father’s view, owning a diamond confers a feeling of owning something that will, unlike human beauty and the body, never be lost to the passage of time and the forces of decay. In a world without an afterlife, owning something which cannot die is attractive but ultimately of questionable comfort to those who will in the end be dead and below ground longer than they were alive and above it. The everyman gives his mistress Merete a diamond necklace that is worth more than his father’s entire stock, while describing its quality in his father’s favorite term, “imperishable.” Diamonds are linked to the futile search for something that will endure beyond the physical. Even as the everyman is buying the diamond out of a carnal desire for Merete’s youthfulness, the reader is aware that this will lead to disappointment as their love fades and her true, flawed nature is revealed.