Was Philip Roth misogynist? His death reopens debate

Roth's characterization of women in his novels and at least one volatile relationship shot back to the spotlight on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after his death.

Published: 24th May 2018 12:32 PM  |   Last Updated: 24th May 2018 12:33 PM   |  A+A-

In this Sept. 8, 2008, file photo, author Philip Roth poses for a photo in the offices of his publisher, Houghton Mifflin, in New York. | Associated Press

By AFP

NEW YORK: The death of Philip Roth has reopened a decades-old debate about the extent to which the American literary master was a misogynist and whether his work should be re-examined in the #MeToo era.

Roth's characterization of women in his novels and at least one volatile relationship shot back to the spotlight on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after his death from congestive heart failure in a Manhattan hospital.

"Farewell Philip Roth," tweeted one London reader, Ruth Robinson. "You were a gr8 writer and a massive misogynist. You were obsessed with sex but disliked, perhaps even despised women."

Charlie Leddy-Owen, a sociology lecturer at Britain's University of Portsmouth, took to Twitter to call 1995 novel "Sabbath's Theater" by Roth "probably the most enjoyable but equally disgusting novel I've ever read.

"Not sure how many women will have enjoyed reading about his sexist, narcissistic leading characters -- but what a writer he was."

Accusations of misogyny began in the 1970s with the rise of feminism, fueled by a portrayal of domestic abuse in his 1974 novel "My Life as a Man."

While critics debate the extent to which Roth's work was autobiographical, in his 1990 novel "Deception" Roth imagines his main character defending himself on charges of misogyny in court.

Following their messy breakup, British actress Claire Bloom painted a grim picture of life with Roth in the 1996 memoir "Leaving a Doll's House."

In a 2006 article, Chicago Tribune critic Julia Keller called Roth "a great writer with a large and terrible flaw: his women have no souls." 

His women "are mere mirrors to men. Echoes and shadows. Pale parallels," she wrote.

Two years later, the feminist critic Vivian Gornick, compared Roth negatively to that other late 20th century literary great, Saul Bellow.

"If in Bellow misogyny was like seeping bile, in Roth it was lava pouring forth from a volcano," she wrote in Harper Magazine.

Jacques Berlinerblau, a professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University who has taught Roth texts for 25 years, says the novels include passages that students today consider "really disturbing."

"The fiction is misogynist," he told AFP. "I was always surprised the MeToo movement did not catch up to him, even if only to focus on the content of his fiction."

Blake Bailey, friend and biographer, flatly denied that Roth was in favor of sexual harassment and sexual misbehavior, pointing to the presence of several of his ex-girlfriends at his death bed. 

"He was one of the most decent men I have ever known," Bailey told AFP.

Nevertheless, the writer was among those who worried that the #MeToo movement and sexual harassment watershed in the United States, could "get out of hand."

"It was only the innocent he was worried about... not the people who deserved punishment," he added.

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