The March reading schedule for Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is available here and an introductory essay on the authorship of Philip Roth is available here.
The following are discussion questions for readers to consider during the first week, as we read chapters one and two.
Chapter One Discussion Questions
In the first chapter, before Lindbergh is elected, Roth describes a childhood that’s relatively peaceful. What details about life in Newark are particularly evocative to you as a reader?
Despite Philip’s peaceful childhood, everything changes when Lindbergh is elected. Philip’s childhood becomes defined by fear. Roth begins the novel: “Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear. Of course no childhood is without its terrors, yet I wonder if I would have been a less frightened boy if Lindbergh hadn’t been president or if I hadn’t been the offspring of Jews.” “Fear” is mentioned twice within the span of two sentences, as well as “terrors” and “frightened.” What compels this fear, fundamentally, is that Roth is Jewish. What role does Judaism play in the Roth family and among their neighbors?
Philip’s assurance of having a home in the United States will soon be challenged by the election of Lindbergh. How is this symbolically represented in the figure of the old Jewish man collecting donations Israel?
In the same way that FDR was the first person Philip was taught to love, Lindbergh is the first person Philip is taught to hate. How do Philip’s mother and father reinforce this hatred? How do they challenge it?
Before he was elected, Lindbergh’s aviation accomplishments guaranteed him mythological status in the lives of Americans generally, as well as the Roth family in particular. An avid stamp collector, Philip has a stamp commemorating Lindbergh’s aviation accomplishments. And Philip’s brother, Sandy, depicts Lindbergh’s mythological persona in a series of sketches he keeps secret from their parents. How do these illustrations cause fear and shame in Philip?
Rabbi Bengelsdorf will come to play an instrumental role in the novel. In Bengelsdorf’s speech endorsing Lindbergh, explore the “facts” he discloses and his arguments for isolationism. Are his arguments persuasive?
Consider the ways Philip’s mother and father react to Lindbergh’s political ascendancy. How do their reactions and behavior reflect their identity?
Consider the role stamps play in the life of young Philip. Chapter one ends with Philip experiencing a nightmare in which his series of stamps depicting George Washington, while retaining the original stamp’s pastoral mythos, are now depicting Hitler.
Chapter Two Discussion Questions
In chapter two, six months after Lindbergh is inaugurated, the Roth family visits Washington, D.C. In the previous chapter, Philip’s stamps depicting George Washington are transformed into portraying Hitler. When looking at the Roth’s visit to Washington, in what way is the nation’s capital transformed? Also, in what way is the Roth family changed since the victory of Lindbergh? What conflicts does Lindbergh’s presidency create? And what pre-existing conflicts does he inflame?
After returning from their visit to Washington, D.C., Philip’s father says: “We knew things were bad, but not like this. You had to be there to see what it looked like. They live in a dream, and we live in a nightmare.” Washington is a turning point for Philip’s father. The prejudice they experience because they’re Jewish becomes a lived-experience, particularly for Philip’s father. While touring Washington, how are Philip’s father’s ideas of patriotism and goodness challenged? How are they reinforced? In the nation’s capital, how does the Roth family experience equality? And how do they experience inequality?