Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About The Plot Against America
Set in Newark, New Jersey, in the early 1940s, The Plot Against America
the story of what it was like for the Roth family and Jews across the country
when the isolationist aviation hero Charles Lindbergh was elected president of
the United States.
Roth's richly imagined novel begins in 1940, with the landslide election of
Lindbergh, who blamed the Jews for pushing America toward war with Nazi Germany.
Lindbergh's admiration of Hitler and his openly anti-Semitic speeches cause
increasing turmoil in the Roth household, and in nine-year-old Philip, as
political events at home and abroad overtake their daily lives. Alvin, the
orphaned nephew the family has taken in, runs away to Canada to fight the Nazis.
Sandy, Philip's older brother, ascribes his parents' fears to paranoia and
embraces Lindbergh's Just Folks program, which sends him and other Jewish
children to live in the "heartland" for a summer. Philip's mother, Bess, wants
the family to flee to Canada before it is too late to escape. But his fiercely
idealistic father, Herman, refuses to abandon the country where he was born and
raised as an American. Overwhelmed by the tensions around him, Philip tries to
run away. "I wanted nothing to do with history," he says. "I wanted to be a boy
on the smallest scale possible. I wanted to be an orphan." But history will not
let go, and as America is whipped into a deadly frenzy by demagogues, the Roths
and Jews everywhere begin to expect the worst.
In The Plot Against America
Philip Roth writes with a historical sweep and
lyrical intimacy that have rarely been so skillfully combined. As the novel
explores the convulsive collision of history and family, readers take a chilling
look at devastating events that could have occurred in America--and consider the
many possible histories existing beneath the one that actually happened.
Questions for Discussion
The discussion questions that follow are designed to enliven your group's
discussion of Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Roth's extraordinary new novel, The
Plot Against America.
- In what ways does The Plot Against America differ from conventional
historical fiction? What effects does Roth achieve by blending personal history,
historical fact, and an alternative history that might have happened?
- The novel begins "Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear" [p.
1]. With this sentence Roth establishes that his story is being told from an
adult point of view by an adult narrator who is remembering what befell his
family, over sixty years earlier, when he was a boy between the ages of seven
and nine. Why else does Roth open the novel this way? What role does fear play
throughout the book?
- How plausible is the alternative history that Roth imagines? How would the
world be different if America had not entered the war, or entered it on the side
- When the Roth family plans to go to Washington, young Philip wants to take
his stamp collection with him because he fears that, since he did not remove the
ten-cent Lindbergh stamp, "a malignant transformation would occur in my absence,
causing my unguarded Washingtons to turn into Hitlers, and swastikas to be
imprinted on my National Parks" [p. 57]. What does this passage suggest about
how the Lindbergh election has affected the boy? Where else does this kind of
"magical thinking" occur in the novel?
- Herman Roth asserts that "history is everything that happens everywhere.
Even here in Newark. Even here on Summit Avenue. Even what happens in this house
to an ordinary man that'll be history too someday" [p. 180]. How does this
conception of history differ from traditional definitions? In what ways does the
novel support this claim? How is the history of the Roth family relevant to the
history of America?
- After Mrs. Wishnow is murdered, young Philip thinks, "And now she was
inside a casket, and I was the one who put her there" [p. 336]. Is he to some
degree responsible for her death? How has his desire to save his own family
- Observing his mother's anguished confusion, Philip discovers that "one
could do nothing right without also doing something wrong" [p. 341]. Where in
the novel does the attempt to do something right also result in doing something
wrong? What is Roth suggesting here about the moral complexities of actions and
- When Herman Roth is explaining the deals Hitler has made with Lindbergh,
Roth comments, "The pressure of what was happening was accelerating everyone's
education, my own included" [p. 101]. What is Philip learning? In what ways is
history robbing him of a normal childhood? Why does he want to run away?
- What motivates Rabbi Bengelsdorf, Aunt Evelyn, and Sandy to embrace
Lindbergh and dismiss Herman Roth's fears as paranoia? Are they right? In what
ways do their personal aspirations affect their perceptions of what is
- In what ways are Bess and Herman Roth heroic? How do they respond to the
crises that befall them? How are they able to hold their family together?
- Roth observes that violence, when it's in a house, is heartbreaking:
"like seeing the clothes in a tree after an explosion. You may be prepared to
see death but not the clothes in a tree" [p. 296]. What causes Herman Roth and
Alvin to fight each other so viciously? What is it that brings the violence
swirling around them off the streets and into the house? Why is violence in a
home so much more disturbing than on the street or the battlefield?
- Much is at stake in The Plot Against America the fate of America's
Jews, the larger fate of Europe and indeed of Western civilization, but also how
America will define itself. What does the novel suggest about what it means to
be an American, and to be a Jewish American? In what ways are the Roths a
thoroughly American family?
- What does the Postscript, particularly the "True Chronology of the Major
Figures," add to the novel?
Recommended for Further Reading
Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler's Planet
Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
Leonard Dinnerstein, Anti-Semitism in America
Marion Kaplan, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany
Jerzy Kozinski, The Painted Bird
Primo Levi, The Periodic Table
Bernard Malamud, The Fixer
Isaac Bashevis Singer, Enemies: A Love Story
Elie Wiesel, Night
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.