After decades of passing as white, Coleman hints at the “truth” of his race by using the epithet “lily-white” against his lawyer, Nelson Primus. During their conflict, the narrator describes what’s happening in Coleman’s mind: “…by the time they were out on the street,  it was no longer possible to isolate the argument from the utterance—or to separate himself from the man in charge he’d always been, the man in charge and the man deferred to” (81).

Coleman’s capacity to “isolate the argument from the utterance” is what makes the “spooks” incident so absurd to him. What is important is the meaning of the words and the context, rather than the way it is uttered. In this moment, Coleman’s capacity to isolate argument from utterance breaks down: against his better judgment, he attacks Primus. What sets him off?

Is it something specific that Primus says? If so, find and analyze a quote from Primus’s speech to Coleman.

Or is Coleman’s tolerance no longer what it once was? If so, what has Coleman been through that has made him willing to risk divulging his big secret?




6 Responses to 11/28

  1. Noah says:

    It’s been interesting grappling with the new direction the text has taken in this weekend’s reading. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around what Roth is doing with Coleman and how (or if) this possibly recontextualizes my own conception of him. I found myself skipping back and forth trying to understand the new language the author was using as it altered my previously-held notions of the character.

    I wonder why Coleman didn’t divulge “his big secret” when he was being investigated and attacked after the “spooks” incident. What is it about Primus that so offends him that having all of the people he hired turn against him doesn’t? Possibly, it’s the way Primus talks to him. “I wanted to help him.” (81). The lawyer tells his wife, though his altruistic attempts are construed as attacks.

    But I think it’s really because of what Primus represents. “Primus has drawn the line and no incriminating impurity will be permitted to breach it. But didn’t I too draw the line and draw it no less rigorously?” (79). Perhaps it is Primus’ “lily-white” position of privilege that so irks Coleman.

  2. Siobhan McKenna says:

    I think Coleman’s attack on Primus has more to do with the context of the situation more than anything he actually said. As Primus tells his wife later that evening, “Did I mean to seem to be attacking him? Of course not… I wanted to help him” (81). However, as Noah pointed out, it seems to be the way that Primus addresses/tries to help Coleman that sets Coleman off. To Coleman, Primus seems to be speaking to him in a tone that puts Primus above Coleman, like helping Coleman was charity work for Primus. Throughout his speech, Primus talks down to Coleman, telling him he “wished you’d had it in you to treat a minor nuisance for what it was” (76), placing all the blame on Coleman and making it seem like the whole situation was his fault because he “overreacted”. However, Coleman hadn’t come to get reprimanded, he’d come to get help/advice on what to do. Therefore this combination of Primus’s tone of voice, and his whiteness sets Coleman over the edge.

    However, I think it’s also important to note that Primus doesn’t realize that his whiteness has anything to do with why Coleman was so angry with him. He acknowledges that maybe what he said didn’t come out the way he wanted it to, noting that “‘I was provocative. I wanted to help him and instead I insulted him and made this worse for him'” (82). However, Primus still doesn’t understand the role that his race plays in the situation. “‘The question remains: why white?'” (82).

    • Sydney Exler says:

      Building off of the beginning of your response, I think that perhaps what sets Coleman off is his perception of Primus as a successful and wealthy white man. As Primus is introduced his attired is described as having “bespoke not only a sweeping self-confidence and sense of personal significance but a loathing for slovenliness of any kind” (75). Importantly, this characterization (whether stemming directly from Coleman’s interpretation, or overplayed by Zuckerman’s narration), in combination with Coleman’s final words to Primus, represents Coleman’s problem simply as Primus’ whiteness. Coleman exclaims: “I never again want to hear that self-admiring voice of yours or see your smug fucking lily-white face” (81). The descriptions of his “self-admiring voice” and ‘smug face’ portray Primus as entitled and empowered by his status as a genuinely white person (which, knowing Coleman’s true race, we can understand as triggering to Coleman). Overall, I think that Coleman, as he is working to find internal emotional resolution regarding the ‘spooks’ incident, encounters Primus, and, seeing his blatant display of comfort, success, and power within his life and society, Coleman simply snaps.

  3. Ryan Spencer says:

    I don’t think it can be said that it is something that is said as much as it is what Primus represents which sets of Coleman. I feel like Primus, from his place of privilege (which manifests itself through his sharp-cut looks and intellect), exposes logic. The combination of his flaunted intellect, advising presence, and the fact that he is detached from any harm of the situation (by not being the victim, Coleman) seems to strike at all of Coleman’s insecurities.

    “Hip as he imagines himself, he really can’t get this old man and sex, can he? …who can grasp at thirty-two that at seventy-one it’s exactly the same?” Coleman thinks to himself. There seems to be a point of contention here as Coleman seems belittled by Primus. Primus is asserting an obvious and logical end to Coleman’s problems: end the affair. Coleman, as a pretty intelligent person himself, knows that that is probably the most logical solution to the problem. It is the only way out to be “a scandal-free, censure-free, Farley-free life.” Yet, despite knowing that this is logical, Coleman rejects it. He seems angered by the man who presents this problem in a matter-of-fact way. Whether the situation has to do with racial privilege, and there is certainly the argument that that is true, it certainly has to do with privilege. Here is this figure, Primus, prim and proper, flauntingly intellectual, and completely incapable of being harmed informing a ironically-slandered professor who once again finds himself in trouble — and it upsets Primus to be told something as simple as “end the affair.”

    The witty jokes seem to be the highest point of contention between Primus and Coleman in Primus’ advice. His crack about Viagra seems to anger Coleman as he responds, “Clever boy to come up with the Viagra all on his own. Showing off, but he’s helped before, thought Coleman, so don’t interrupt, don’t put him down, however irritating his being so with-it is.” The sexual conversation is fitting of the ‘bragging contest’ quality which Coleman seems to read in Primus’ remarks and which he is angered by.

    • Abigail Gardener says:

      I agree with Ryan’s observation that it seems to be a combination of Primus’ condescending intellect (especially considering Primus is much younger than Coleman) and the fact that he is removed from the possibility of any actual harm that so irks Coleman. Building off of this, the fact that Primus flaunts life experience over Coleman when he has never actually experienced any of the hardships he references is angering to Coleman. Primus even admits later to his wife that he shouldn’t have done this: “Particularly if it happened before I was born, I knew everything that could possibly be known” (82). He pretends to know what people like Faunia are experiencing, and implies that Coleman is the one that is privileged here, that he knows nothing of the working-class experience and believes that what he suffered at the hands of his colleagues at Athena is a tragedy. Primus says, “What you suffered because of how your case was handled by the college, awful as that was, is what these people feel every minute of every hour of…” (80) and this is the point where Primus can tell he should stop talking. Primus’ condescension and his assumption that Coleman has never experienced being “fucked over unfairly” (80) seems to be what frustrates Coleman the most.

  4. LaShawn Simmons says:

    What you suffered because of how your case was handled by the college, awful as that was, is what these people feel every minute of every hour of…”(80)

    Perhaps Coleman vehemently berated Primus because of this line. At this point in the text, Primus is trying to describe a reality Coleman has experience before in his [veiled] identity as a Black man in America. The condescension in his tone and more than likely made Coleman upset. The way Primus tried to “break down” the reality of maintaining this affair with Faunia Farley as if Coleman was a privileged white male without any emotional intelligence to understand similar outrage had to be frustrating. I would argue that this pretentious behavior is common whereas a younger person has to break down social and ethical dilemmas due to the assumption that older people still harbor discriminatory attitudes. On top of that, the age difference contributes to the peculiar power dynamic that Coleman acknowledges too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.