I Married a Communist
is the story of the rise and
fall of Ira Ringold, a big American roughneck who begins life as a
teenage ditch-digger in 1930s Newark, becomes a big-time 1940s
radio star, and is destroyed, as both a performer and a man, in the
McCarthy witchhunt of the 1950s.
In his heyday as a star-and as a zealous, bullying supporter of
"progressive" political causes-Ira marries Hollywood''s beloved
silent-film star, Eve Frame. Their glamorous honeymoon in her
Manhattan townhouse is shortlived, however, and it is the
publication of Eve''s scandalous bestselling exposé that identifies
him as "an American taking his orders from Moscow."
In this story of cruelty, betrayal, and revenge spilling over into
the public arena from their origins in Ira''s turbulent personal
life, Philip Roth-who Commonweal
calls the "master
chronicler of the American twentieth century-has written a
brilliant fictional protrayal of that treacherous postwar epoch
when the anti-Communist fever not only infected national politics
but traumatized the intimate, innermost lives of friends and
families, husbands and wives, parents and children.
1. As Nathan''s high school English teacher, Murray Ringold
tells him that "In human society, thinking''s the greatest
transgression of all" [p. 2]. Do the events of his life, and his
brother''s, bear out this opinion?
2. Murray describes Ira''s private life as "a grave misfortune
replete with farce" [p. 3]. Would this describe his public life as
well? Which aspects of his public life were tragic, which merely
farcical? How are Ira''s private and public lives inextricably
linked? What about Eve''s? How does Roth link private betrayal with
the public variety?
3. Ira becomes famous by impersonating Abraham Lincoln; he dies,
eventually, from the same rare disease Lincoln suffered from. Why
does Roth stress similarities and parallels between Ira and
Lincoln? What things does he imply about Ira by making the
comparison? Does Ira have any justification in likening himself to
American revolutionaries like Lincoln, Paine and Jefferson?
4. The young Nathan, enthusiastic about the Progressive Party,
sees his father as someone who has made fatal compromises, and Ira
as uncompromising. What compromises has Ira, in fact, made? Does
the author imply that compromise is inevitable, even good and
necessary? If so, do you agree with him?
5. Nathan is attracted by Ira''s early orphaning, by his social
and familial unrootedness, largely because he himself is so very
rooted in his own family and culture. What effect does a father, or
the lack of a father, have on a young man''s life? What purpose do
surrogate fathers serve? Is Nathan correct to define manhood as
"the orphanhood that is total" [p. 217]?
6. "As a Communist," says Murray, "[Ira] should be irritated by
her from the first second. So what explains this marriage with her
and not with a comrade?" [p. 82]. What does explain it? Does the
fact that Ira sees Eve as a "challenge" [p. 83] provide reason
enough, or is the situation more complex than that?
7. Is Sylphid presented as a villain, or as someone to be
pitied? How much sympathy do you have for her? How much sympathy do
Nathan and Murray have for her? Who is most to blame in the
self-destructive mother-daughter relationship, Eve or Sylphid, and
how has Eve contributed to making Sylphid what she is? In what ways
are mother and daughter similar?
8. Ira presents himself as a searingly honest man, and seems
actually to believe that this is so. Yet he consistently lies about
the two vital facts of his life: that he is a Communist, and that
he is a murderer. Does your knowledge of these lies imply, to you,
that he is dishonest about other things? That he is in fact
dishonest by nature?
9. Several characters give blistering summaries of Ira as they
perceive him. Katrina van Tassel calls him "an ignorant man, and a
naive man, and a rude man, a bullying, simple-minded, arrogant man"
[p. 149]; his former friend Goldstine says "Mankind at its
stupidest doesn''t come any stupider. I''ve always been scared of
you. You''re a wild man" [p. 97]; Johnny O''Day says "He wasn''t a
revolutionary, he wasn''t a Lincoln, he wasn''t anything. He
wasn''t a man" [p. 288]. Are these characterizations correct? Or
are they too ruthless in their assessments? What valuable qualities
does Ira possess, if any? Is he in fact, as Murray believes, "by
and large," "virtuous" [p. 181]?
10. How did Ira''s childhood experiences turn him toward
violence and murder? How, afterward, did his murder of Strollo
shape the rest of his life? Murray says that Ira''s "whole life had
been looking for a way not to kill somebody" [p. 292]. Into what
other arenas does Ira deflect his violent impulses? At what times
is his violent nature most in evidence?
11. Do you agree with Nathan that both Ira and Murray are
"historical casualties" [p. 318]? What does he mean by that term?
How might their lives have unfolded if they had lived in more
12. "I believe I have made the least harmful choice," Nathan
says about his chosen way of life [p. 71]. Harmful to what, and to
whom? Are there any clues in I Married a
Communist, or in Roth''s other novels, to indicate why
Nathan lives in such a monastic fashion?
13. Iron RinnIra Ringold was the teenaged Nathan''s hero. What
does this imply about our youthful ideas of heroes? Who, if anyone,
might be the real hero of this story? Of the historical era?
14. If you have read American Pastoral, the
novel that preceded I Married a
Communist, how would you compare the two "heroes," Swede
Levov and Ira Ringold? Are the two men similar, and if so, in what
ways? How innocent is each of them, and how guilty? To what degree
are both utopianists, and how realistic are their utopias?
15. What does I Married a Communist
tell us about ourselves as Americans: about specifically American
mores, values, fantasies, and character? In what ways were HUAC and
the MacCarthy crisis characteristically American phenomena,
possible only in this country?