The Ending of Philip Roth’s The Humbling (Warning, Contains Spoilers)
Simon Axler in The Humbling is an actor who, having lost his touch on stage, has an affair with a younger woman, a lesbian called Pegeen Mike Stapleford.
Humiliation is an important theme for Roth. The hero of Indignation dies in Korea as a direct consequence of a college panty raid. This plot twist alone wonderfully encapsulates the 1950s, and the details in Indignation – about kosher butchering, and about anti-Semitism at American colleges in the 1950s – are completely absorbing.
The Humbling hasn’t been as well-received. Many reviewers found it less convincing than Roth’s other novels, and a few even wondered if this effect was deliberate on Roth’s part.
It’s axiomatic that heterosexual male authors should avoid writing scenes where lesbian women have sex with heterosexual males. Roth is one of the few writers who might get away with breaking this rule — taboos are meat and drink to him – but there are too many lines during the sex scenes in The Humbling that don’t quite work, which I won’t quote here because quoting the worst lines from a novel is a cheap trick of reviewers. I personally think that, with a bit more editing, the sex scenes in The Humbling could have worked okay.
Axler and Pegeen have a threesome with another woman, and then Pegeen leaves Axler — Axler’s reaction to this was my real problem with The Humbling. The last four paragraphs of the book felt wrong to me – that is, I didn’t believe in Axler’s suicide. But half an hour after finishing the book, I decided this quality of inauthenticity was intentional – Roth’s point is that Axler has still not regained his touch. His suicide turns out to be as deeply flawed a performance as his failed portrayal of Macbeth earlier in the book. His death too is a piece of failed acting. If I’m right that this was the effect Roth was aiming for, that’s something much harder for an author to bring off than two lesbians having sex with a man.