Short Stories, Essays, Poetry, Journalism.

You Must Change Your Life, but Only if You Want to: Roth’s Response to Rilke

Mackenzie Lott

Professor Jeffrey Severs

ENGL 223-005, Literature in the United States

February 14th, 2018


You Must Change Your Life, but Only if You Want to: Roth’s Response to Rilke


Reflecting more than twenty years back Nathan, the narrator and protagonist of Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, recalls a quote pinned to the bulletin board of his idol which reads “‘We work in the dark… Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task’” (Roth 77). This reference, taken from Henry James’ The Middle Years, is one of many to notable artists and their works throughout the book. Books like The Middle Years and The Diary of A Young Girl play an important roles in Roth’s narrative, but nowhere does the author engage as deeply with art as when he is discussing Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem Archaic Torso of Apollo. In the following essay I will examine how Roth’s characters act as a response to Rilke, one which thoroughly explores but ultimately rejects his “You must change your life” (Rilke 14) directive.

Traces of Rilke’s poem appear in characters from the beginning of Roth’s novel to create tension between holiness and humanity. E.I. Lonoff is characterized as a “superintendent of schools” (Roth 4) in clothes which contrast his “commanding, autocratic… chin” (Roth 4), and even his often referenced belly appears like a “smile run through the placid hips and thighs” (Rilke 7). Lonoff’s appearance evokes an elusiveness similar to that of Rilke’s Apollo and serves as one of many barricades to Nathan’s understanding of him. This idea is emphasized through Nathan’s thoughts as he repeatedly refers to Lonoff as his “master” (Roth 6, 47) and labels him “‘as the Jew who got away’” (Roth 50). Whether he is conscious of it or not, Nathan’s descriptions expose Lonoff’s internal conflict between his life of literary stardom and his humble human existence. As their night progresses the two engage in a cat-and-mouse dialogue which winds up with Nathan’s probing questions being diverted by quaint Lonovian curiosities like “Had I ever been to Hackensack?” (Roth 15) and “Do you have a girl friend?” (Roth 34). The deeper Nathan pries, the quicker Lonoff deflects, likely in an attempt to keep the tensions of his self below the surface. Nathan’s descriptions of, titles for, and conversations with his idol E.I. Lonoff demonstrate him to be a man who simultaneously represents and rejects Rilke’s image of Apollo.

Nathan, as it turns out, did have a girlfriend, and his descriptions of his partner as well as Lonoff’s prove that Roth’s allusions to Rilke’s Apollo are not confined to the male sex. Nathan reminisces on Betsy and the “elegant, charming tableaux she could achieve, even when… taking a lonely pee” (Roth 35). With this line Roth elevates Betsy to a level of statuesque grace, then brings her back down to her urinating humanity. Her physical figure is as elusive as Lonoff’s, and despite her dancing solo Nathan recounts that “Each time I thought the legs and arms I was watching were Betsy’s… another pack of ten came streaking across the stage and I thought, No, there, that’s her” (Roth 36). For all her worrying over “her height and her weight and her ears and her rivals” (Roth 35), Nathan has little trouble exchanging her mentally and physically with other women, thus reducing her consecrated figure to its carnal foundations. Though her character is contained to just five pages of the story, Betsy is purposefully presented as another Rilkean idol whose existence is self-described as a juxtaposition “between the life of a boxer and the life of a nun” (Roth 35). Like Lonoff before her, she is characterized directly and indirectly as a failed human embodiment of Rilke’s stonework God.

Betsy is not the only partner to be portrayed in this light, as Roth sculpts the “self-effacing” (31, 41) Hope in a similar manner. Although she is not explicitly compared to sculpture, it takes 31 pages of story before she is given a definite voice. When she finally does speak up Nathan recounts her as a “‘high-born Yankee heiress’” (31) and a “wife of a New England farmer” (31) with “the obedient air of an aging geisha” (34). Yet such descriptions do not tell us who Hope Lonoff is, only what she is like. Just as Rilke’s speaker uses metaphors as acts of inquisition, describing Apollo’s statue “like a star” (13) with shoulders that “glisten like a wild beast’s fur” (11) and absent “eyes like ripening fruit” (2), so does Nathan attempt to pin down Hope’s elusive nature with concrete comparisons. As with Betsy and Lonoff, Hope’s character is self-contradictory and her “noble calling” (Roth 180) as the rock of the Lonoff family leaves her “digging at the soft, creased skin” (Roth 43) of her face. Hope’s idle threats and snow cushioned slip-ups mark her as yet another unsuccessful candidate for Apollonian perfection.

More than any other character in the novel, careful attention is given to the physical description of Amy Belette. Amy’s beauty becomes “a puzzle up close” (Roth 23) and as Nathan describes her further she becomes an antithesis to Rilke’s statue. Roth has her head “conceived on a much grander and more ambitious scale than the torso” (Roth 23-24) and puts an easily spotted “intelligence in her large pale eyes” (Roth 24). In contrast to Rilke’s Apollo, Amy’s body is “obscure” (Roth 24) and mostly hidden by sweater and skirt, while her head and facial features are most prominent. But even Amy is not free from her more base desires, as she demonstrates when Nathan overhears her asking Lonoff “‘would it kill you to just kiss my breasts?’” (Roth 120). In exposing her torso some of the mystery of her body is revealed and she becomes as human as Betsy, Hope or Lonoff.

Roth aligns with Rilke by using his language but diverges from him in his description, indicating an important difference between the symbolism of their subjects. Nathan overhears Amy revealing herself to his idol and imagines her as a survivor of the holocaust, but even as Anne Frank, she retains human attributes. Unlike Rilke, Roth takes an idol and defiles it. At one point Anne imagines herself with an axe in her hands and thinks “Whom could she kill in Stockbridge to avenge the ashes and the skulls?” (Roth 147), and in reading her own diary three times in the same day she allows herself “to speculate in the most immodest way about what she had written— had ‘wrought’” (Roth 141). By turning a revered example of maturity into a murderous egoist, Roth suggests the opposite of Rilke’s concluding directive. After Anne sees people’s reactions to the play about her she asserts that “The improvement of the living was their business… they could improve themselves, if they should ever be disposed; and if not, not” (Roth 146-147). In thinking this, Anne reveals the one possibility that Rilke’s poem fails to consider, namely, that it is ultimately up to the individual to incite personal change. By presenting a less than perfect image of this cherished Jewish idol Roth opts for a reverent subjectivity and suggests that people might be seen as nothing more or less than who they are, regardless of their status or history.

The only character not given a detailed physical profile in Roth’s Novel is its narrator, Nathan Dedalus. However Nathan, by his own accounts, is no different from any other character in the story he tells; he is best characterized by Betsy when she calls his apartment “the home of an unchaste monk” (Roth 7). Nathan initially champions an endless search for knowledge and only begins to be dissuaded from it when his idol expresses the displeasure he feels towards “professional innocents” (Roth 22) and “deep thinkers” (Roth 22). Like all of Roth’s characters in The Ghost Writer, Nathan makes mistakes and falls short of others’ expectations. This may be part of the reason why he is completing his “Bildungsroman” (Roth 3) in his late forties rather than in his early twenties. So even though he is not physically described as a statue it becomes apparent through the nature of his quest and others’ descriptions of him that he often assumes poses which he eventually fails to hold.

Looking again to the past, Nathan recalls Lonoff’s death in 1961 and laments that “when Oswald shot Kennedy and the straitlaced bulwark gave way to the Gargantuan banana republic, his fiction… began rapidly losing ‘relevance’” (Roth 14). This eulogy is as much for Lonoff as it is for an untroubled America. Roth’s ideal of reverent subjectivity has gradually given way to a rising demand for inquiry in the wake of events like the JFK assassination, the Cuban missile crisis, and the 9/11 terror attacks, events which have restricted people’s ability to be themselves without getting labelled or investigated. Roth’s characters act as a response to Rilke and through their various shortcomings they evince the fact that regardless of all labels placed or demands given, people will continue to be people.


Works Cited


Rilke, Rainer Maria. “Archaic Torso of Apollo.”, Academy of American Poets, Accessed 14 February 2018.

Roth, Philip. The Ghost Writer. McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1979.

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