The Role and Structure of Greek Tragedy in Philip Roth’s Eli the Fanatic
When one’s in pain—physical, mental, or emotional—one always believes it is worse than everyone else’s. Yet when an acquaintance bemoans a bad day, one still manages to wave it off: it could not be worse than one’s own pain. Even if it is a past pain and there are only scars, those scars are tenderer than the friend’s current sores. Individuals forget that anguish can be shared and another’s intervention can diminish it. This theme has been around for millennia and was particularly explored in the works of Greek tragedians. In Eli, the Fanatic Philip Roth employs structural and thematic elements of Greek tragedy to illustrate that human beings can be responsible for each other’s suffering.
One of the essential elements of Greek tragedy, that of the chorus, can be filled in by Ted, Shirley, and even Miriam. They are the residents of Woodenton who call Eli. Traditionally, the chorus plays an active role and can be a sounding and advising board for the protagonist. Ted in particular tries to advise Eli and, like the customary chorus, he represents the masses, the people, in this particular case the town of Woodenton. As Ted informs Eli, “The Jewish members of the community appointed me, Artie, and Harry to
see what could be done” (276). The Greek chorus, in Greek tragedy, represents the masses and often serves to counterpoint the protagonist, and Ted’s near-fanatical grudge
against the Yeshiva certainly counterpoints with Eli’s growing benevolence toward them. In Roth’s context, the residents of Woodenton, the Chorus, also serve as a
counterpoint to Eli’s guilt. Eli becomes concerned over the Greenie’s happiness and goes so far as to plead with the Greenie to allow him to help. “Tell me, what can I do for you, I’ll do it” (291). Eli is manifesting his guilt, the guilt of many American Jews who were did nothing during the Holocaust. The chorus, however, are unmoved by the Man in the Hat’s past suffering. They demand he change, and while Eli tries to help him not just through clothes but by offering any other services he might provide, the chorus is too concerned with the Greenie’s outward appearance and unwilling to compromise. Roth takes the Greek chorus, modernizes them, and generalizes them to suburbanites who ignore the suffering of others.
Roth also employs the stichomythia and episodic nature of Greek tragedy to further explore the interactions of different people and misery. For example, one tradition within tragedies is that they are episodic, as they go from strophe to antistrophe and repeat the cycle. The shift from strophe to antistrophe and back again is often interrupted by the chorus, and Eli, the Fanatic fits the pattern. In this sense, the structure of Greek tragedy highlights the disparity between the Yeshiva and Woodenton, as the strophe can be seen to be the former and Eli moves into the latter...