The Human Stain



As usual, my husband and I were flipping through Netflix to look for a good English movie to spend the rest of the evening. I think we usually go through atleast ten to fifteen titles to reach the final selection. We came across the name, ‘The Human Stain’ and thought that it was different and intriguing and that became our choice for the evening. Well, it would be incorrect if I didn’t mention that Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins made it relatively easier to make the decision. When we started watching the movie, we realised that it was based on a novel of the same name by Philip Roth. It’s always interesting to watch a movie based on a book, especially when you’ve read the book too. It’s good fun to make comparisons; and to give the final verdict – whether the director and actors have done justice to the book. But in this case that wasn’t possible. Sigh! So let’s go straight to the story then, for that’s where not just two, but quite a few of my cents lie!

The movie’s narrator is Nathan Zuckerman ( Gary Sinise), who in the late 1990s had settled in a lakeside New England cabin following his second divorce and a battle with prostrate cancer. His solitude gets interrupted by Professor Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins). A former Dean and Professor of Classics at a local college whose stature he greatly enhanced, the story revolves around him. Silk is forced to resign after being accused of making a racist remark in class. He noticed that two students hadn’t been attending class and asks, “What are they, spooks?” (Spooks = Ghosts). Because those two students were African Americans, Silk’s wisecrack is interpreted as racism and is called before a faculty tribunal. Enraged, he chooses to resign rather than defend himself and tell the tribunal that the word just meant ‘ghosts’. His rage is actually fuelled by a secret – he is African American himself – something that he has been running away all his life. Sadly, Coleman’s wife dies suddenly following the scandal, because she cannot handle the turn of events.

When will we rise above colour, caste, creed, class; and start valuing the human life? #Racism Click To Tweet

The world thinks Silk is Jewish, but his family knows otherwise. In flashbacks, we see a light-skinned bright young man who sees two career paths ahead of him, one as a white and the other as a black. His choice is clear as he enlists in the Navy as a white man, and severs his links with his past. He dates a white girl and takes her home to meet his mother without making his ethnicity clear to her. Sadly enough, his revelation is made through the colour of his mother’s skin. The girl refuses to marry him despite being in love with him. There are heart-breaking scenes with his mother whom he treats with disregard and later, breaks ties with her.

After his resignation, unexpectedly, in middle age, he has a passionate affair with Faunia Farley (Nicole Kidman), a considerably younger, semi-literate woman who supports herself by working menial jobs, including at the college where he taught earlier. Silk finds that he could confide in Nathan and persuades him to write a book about his life’s events to avenge his loss of career and companion. However, the project gets stalled when Silk meets Faunia.  Faunia and Silk communicate through sex – the universal language. With Faunia his talks are more open and they communicate through revelation, confession and empathy. It’s amazing to see how strangers from different backgrounds become friends because they identify with similar experiences – something that happens to all of us. Silk and Faunia were cruelly devalued by life, and in each other they find a spark of identification that could cross any barrier. Since they are both under extreme pressure, they aren’t looking for a ‘match,’ but actually needed bailing out, hence respond to each other as rescuers.

Unfortunately with Faunia came multiple problems. Their relationship is threatened by the faculty members who had forced Silk out of his job and by Faunia’s stalker ex-husband – Lester (Ed Harris), a mentally unbalanced Vietnam War veteran who constantly blames her for the deaths of their children in an accident. Finally, Lester manages to kill them cunningly in what looks like a road accident on a stormy, snowy night.

Flashbacks of Silk’s life reveal his secret that he was an African American who has passed as a white Jewish man for most of his adult life. It is interesting to note that this aspect involves two different elements: crossing the race line, and the class line. I truly wonder which is more difficult. Silk and Faunia dealt with each other despite their lack of common references, education, background, assumptions, manners of speech, tastes and instincts. To cross the race line involves a deep psychological anguish, as you betray yourself and your past, but in the routine of daily existence it is perhaps easier than crossing the class line. You can talk and think just the way you do now. It was different 50 or 100 years ago, but today most of us find it more difficult to deal in depth with someone of another class than with someone of another race.

Crossing of the race line raises a more pertinent question in my mind. Why did Silk want to hide his identity in the first place? Why was he so ashamed of who he was. Interestingly, a comment made by his mother when he revealed to her that he was soon going to literally abandon her, had left a deep impact on my mind. She says, “You look like a free man but you think like a slave”. And rightly so! This holds good for anyone who wants to hide his identity from the world, for in doing so not only is the person traumatising himself; but also becomes a victim to this thought! In no time the victim turns into a slave. Can he ever be a free man again? I wonder!

But when I think of it, the fault really lies with us and our society at large. Where was the seed of these racist thoughts sown and why? Was it Silk’s fault that the woman he was so deeply in love with rejected him because of his race? Was it really his fault in thinking that he may never be selected for the armed forces if his true identity were known? Or finally, was it his fault in so badly wanting to hide who he was? The fault really lies in society that has deepened this thought so much that so many efforts to correct it are dead in the water.

When will we rise above colour, caste, creed, class; and start valuing the human life?


In this lecture on The Human Stain, Professor Hungerford traces the ways that Roth’s novel conforms to and pushes beyond the genre she calls the Identity Plot. Exploring the various ways that race can be construed as category, mark, biology, or performance, the novel ultimately construes the defining characteristic of its protagonist’s race to be its very concealment. Secrecy is, for Roth, the source of identity and the driving force behind desire and narrative.

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