Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 11, 2018

Indignation, by Philip Roth

I didn’t exactly read this in homage to Philip Roth (1933-2018), who died last month, it was just that I had arrived early for a medical appointment and I had inexplicably forgotten to bring a book to read.  I had half an hour to kill, too long to waste on the Women’s Weekly and the other dross in the waiting room, but not long enough to spend a while choosing something from the OpShop next door.  There was Roth’s Indignation  and I hadn’t read it before… so I bought it, for $2.00, and before long became thoroughly absorbed in it, the second of Roth’s last four short novels (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis, which I reviewed here.)

It’s actually a novella: 231 pages of slightly oversize print, and it was unputdownable. No wonder it was a national bestseller.

It’s ostensibly the coming-of-age story of a studious, law-abiding young secular Jewish man whose life runs aground because of a series of small, incidental events, but there’s more to it than that.  It begins, narrated by Marcus (Markie) Messner, as he begins life as a young adult at an inconsequential college in Newark New Jersey.  He works hard because it’s all he knows how to do.  He likes to please his parents because he’s the first in his family to go to college, and it’s important to do well and to graduate because that’s how he can avoid the draft for the Korean War.  (It’s not long since two cousins were killed in WW2, so his parents are worried about that too).

But his father begins to act strangely.  In an inversion of all those jokes you’ve heard about over-protective Jewish mothers, Markie’s father is so angst-ridden about the dangers of modern, adult life, that he begins to harass Markie at every opportunity, worried that he’ll get in with the wrong crowd, that girls will seduce him, that he will fail his course.  And this has the opposite effect to what’s intended, because it annoys Markie so much that – falling prey to misplaced indignation – he changes colleges, moving to a very conservative college in Ohio, where the lecturers are inferior and where he runs into exactly the kind of trouble his father wanted him to avoid.  Sharing a room with four nice Jewish boys, he finds he can’t study because one of them plays music late at night when he wants to study, so he asks to change rooms.  His new room mate, who is more savvy than he is, tries to alert him to his misapprehensions about a romantic interest, and Markie punches him for his trouble, and moves again.  This brings him to the attention of the dean, who is worried about his social relationships but ham-fisted about exploring Markie’s religion and lower social status as a possible cause.  Markie’s indignation about that, and other college requirements, digs the hole even deeper.

Markie is, in fact, a very model young man, who lives by his principles but they fail to protect him from disaster because he lacks tolerance.  Just what that disaster is, is made clear about half way into the novel, and it comes as a shock to the reader.  It seems like a harsh penalty for a very human failing, the all-too-common naïve adolescent propensity for judging others and expressing it as indignation.

And quite clearly, what Philip Roth was indignant about, was mightier issues than the trivial ones that bother Markie.  These weightier issues are expressed by the splendid portrait of President Albin Lentz who takes the student body for task for some high jinks during a snow storm.  Lentz is to some extent a figure of fun, and a man elected to high office by cronyism, and his bombast is out of proportion to events.  He nevertheless articulates the irony of four thousand casualties in the Korean War occurring in the same week as a paltry win at football, and the assault on the girls’ dorm to steal their undies taking place on the same day as a tentative truce.  He may have been an old fool with an arrogant belief in US moral supremacy, but he knew which issues to get indignant about, and young men getting killed in a barbaric war was worth his indignation.  In his impassioned oratory to the students he rails at them:

Do any of you happen to know how many atomic bombs altogether out Communist enemies in the USSR have now successfully tested since they have discovered the secret of producing an atomic explosion?  We as a nation are facing the distinct possibility of an unthinkable atomic war with the Soviet Union, all the while the he-men of Winesburg College are conducting their derring-do raids on the dresser drawers of the innocent young women who are their schoolmates. Beyond your dormitories, a world is on fire and you are kindled by underwear. Beyond your fraternities, history unfolds daily – warfare, bombings, wholesale slaughter, and you are oblivious of it all.   (p.222)

Well, the threat of communism is long-gone, but misplaced indignation isn’t.  This novel is a provocative call to the young, but whether they are reading it, (or anything else) is open to conjecture.

Two more reviews to catch up from my weekend away, but I’ll have to get to work on those tomorrow!

Author: Philip Roth
Title: Indignation
Publisher: Vintage International (Random House) 2008
ISBN: 9780307388919
Source: Personal library, op shop find, $2.00



  1. I loved The Plot Against America, but it’s my only Roth. I may need to check this one out…


    • That was *such* a clever novel… until then I’d only read Portnoy, and while I thought that was funny it didn’t inspire me to read much more. Nemesis is good too, and short:)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Don’t you love the novels op shops give away. They’re a boon to voracious readers. I have shelves in my TBR of great books you couldn’t get anywhere else.


    • Absolutely! This one cost me $2!


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