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Everyman, the Medieval morality play, was meant to instruct (probably frighten) viewers into right living by showing the perils of yielding to temptation and the hideous afterlife consequences of a sinful life on earth. The possibility of redemption was present, of course, but the emphasis was decidedly on probability of damnation.

The protagonist of Philip Roth’s Everyman is similarly subject to temptation and ruin, generally makes a mess of nearly everything in his personal life, and ends his life unhappily despite a successful career. He has become a person he sought not to be.

It is sad and frightening to watch as “he” follows his physical desires into various perfidious situations, alienates his women, earns his children’s enmity, watches (and feels) his body deteriorate, becomes embittered at his adored brother’s good health, and finally expires during surgery. (The book begins at graveside, so I’m not giving anything away here.)

Roth’s language is tight and his point of view objective–a suitable modern adaptation of  Medieval allegorical detachment. However, I’m unclear what, if anything, we’re supposed to learn or experience. It has to be more than the facts that our bodies lead us into moral error, then betray us and collapse. There’s plenty of pathos in experiencing the protagonist’s consequences of yielding to temptation, and the gravedigger’s scene near the end provides a counterpoint that shows that maybe he has learned something in the end.

All in all, I found Everyman an admirable little novella, but nothing memorable. Had I not read it immediately after Lay of the Land which also has bodily decay and imminent death as dominant themes, I’d have been more open. I predict it won’t be in my top ten this year.

Sitting up

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