The Final Role: Philip Roth’s “The Humbling” – A Book Review

The protagonist in Philip Roth’s 140-page novel, The Humbling (2009), is a lionized stage actor who, being as self-alienated as he is, has lost the ability to act (“He’d lost his magic”).  After a stint in a mental hospital, the sad man—Simon Axler by name—begins sleeping with adventurous Pegeen, a lesbian who is 25 years his junior and may be bisexual.  Although Pegeen’s parents disapprove of the relationship and utter words that wound Axler’s ego, the strange affair liberates the ex-actor.  And yet . . .

That the novel ends tragically leads us to understand that neither sex nor the sexual perversity that Axler and Pegeen experiment with can save an aging person, especially one who has lost all that is normal in his life (the acting, his marriage [early in the book, Axler’s wife leaves him]).  Axler takes on a new role—that of the lover of a 40-year-old lesbian—but life repudiates the role.  It is too outre.  Pegeen calls the relationship a mistake. . . The Humbling is worth reading but, as should be obvious from my review, it is bleak.  It has been made into a movie and I assume it, too, is bleak.

The Humbling
The Humbling (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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