The fate of Alvin is one of the fundamental strands of the novel which are entwined at its conclusion, showing how the people around Philip (and Philip himself) have been affected by the Lindbergh administration, by the hypothetical synonymy of American patriotism and fascism.
Throughout the novel, Roth balances political upheaval with personal turmoil, contrasting a formal retrospection imbued with political and psychoanalytical awareness against the simple anxiety of a child trying to piece together a sense of circumstance from an increasingly dysfunctional family. In the given passage, the balance is heavily on the side of the child’s fear at personal events, but still manages to convey the wider sentiments central to Roth’s conjecture being fully realised.The sense of “perpetual fear”, of uncertainty and anxiety, is prevalent throughout the novel, burgeoning and retreating with Philip’s own awareness of danger or change. Prior to the given passage, Philip expresses his uncertainty in how he should react to Alvin’s arrival, asking his mother what to do. This uncertainty is repeated within the section when, “imitating Sandy”, Philip runs to greet him.
This uncertainty is omnipresent in the novel, and Roth making the reader aware of his own uncertainty is one of the main ways in which it is exhibited. His fear is again shown by his thoughts of Little Robert, the homeless amputee which he occasionally passes on the way to Herman’s place of work. Philip fears that Alvin will become an outcast, a social reject who people do not regard as a human, as he did with regards to Little Robert, “the living stump”. His entry into Philip’s nightmares explicitly demonstrates this fear. Again, Roth is showing the reader the multiple fears which Lindbergh has introduced into Philip’s family.The scene also shows the growing divisions in the family: the tension between Herman and Alvin was already known, but Alvin’s “ferocity” while looking at Herman in this scene makes it clear that the division between the two characters has and will become even more pronounced.
Sandy’s increasing estrangement from his family and pro-Lindbergh sentiment makes the fact that he rushed to greet and hug Alvin highly ironic, considering where Alvin had come from and what he had been doing; in any case, Sandy’s peeling away from his family is also representative of this estrangement, as the solar system of the family, which was once in such close orbit, is now spiralling uncontrollably outwards. The reasons for this spiralling have been comprehensively described through previous narration, and the reader is fully aware that the central reason is Lindbergh’s ascension to power. This small detail, then, confirms the effect on the family of the Lindbergh administration, the driving issue of the novel.The breakdown of the firm hierarchy of Philip’s family continues hereafter: the once firm and confident parents crumble, with Philip’s mother “crying” and his father quickly taking Philip’s hand “either to prevent (Philip) from going to pieces or to protect himself from his own chaos of feelings”. Even if Herman really took his son’s hand with the former motivation, Philip’s mere perception of the possibility of the latter is enough to accept the splintering authority of his parents. This breakdown is critical to the development of the novel, as it shows the disintegration of everything which allows Philip to feel safe.
Perhaps even more troubling than Philip’s growing fear is the fear of his parents; towards the end of the section, Roth shows us that even his infallible older brother is susceptible to fear. “He’s going so fast. What if he slips and falls?” Sandy asks the nurse. These little fears serve to add the cloying fear which clouds the novel, and adds different colours to the spectrum of fear, strengthening the sense of zeitgeist. Here, then, Roth develops the sense that the social parameters which Philip once relied upon (the quiet strength of Sandy and the protection of his parents) are not as steadfast as they once were.
The nurse’s closing comment brings the personal section back into the wider arena regarding the general state of affairs. She states that “people get angry… at how things turn out”, relating specifically to amputees. However, it also bears a wider relevance to the anger which builds up as a result of the political problems which ravage the country in the time of Lindbergh’s presidency.
This brings the pivotal section of the novel to a close, with personal trauma neatly overlapping with the national situation and hypothetical circumstance which is developed in the mind of the reader.Unlike McEwan’s comparatively mechanical development of zeitgeist (in that Perowne’s abstractions often feel like distant meanderings with little importance in terms of plot, and McEwan’s use of specific detail sometimes too though out, verging on the contrived), Roth forms a sense of context with much greater fluency, forming a symbiotic relationship between detailed description of familial strain and political angst. The technique of split narration is also employed by both writers: McEwan employs it with a sense of arrogance, it is almost auxiliary, surplus to requirements; Roth’s use of split narration seems entirely necessary in both presenting and judging the events described, and Roth executes this advanced tool in a simplistic and authentic way, with authenticity being the acid test for the success of the novel. Roth firmly plants the destination of the novel in the head of the reader predominantly through the plot; he does not rely on the crutches of farfetched mental wanderings as McEwan does. And when these mental wanderings do come about (as in the case of Little Robert), they add to the feelings which Roth is trying to convey in a succinct yet flowing manner.