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Submitted Literature

Operation Shylock: A Confession

By Philip Roth


Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock: A Confession, first published in 1993, explores themes of doubling, extreme anxiety and paranoia. The opening of the novel charts the mental breakdown of the narrator, ‘Philip Roth’, in graphic detail. Following an operation, Roth experiences an addiction to sleeping pills and, as a result, becomes suicidal and suffers a complete mental breakdown.


In the narrative that follows, the process of telling is destabilised by the blurring of fictional and autobiographical figures and the memory of mental breakdown. Roth embarks on a trip to Israel, against the wishes of his wife, to interview a fellow author, Aharon Appelfed (an actual friend of the real-life Roth). However, on arrival in Jerusalem he discovers that a man calling himself Philip Roth has stolen his identity and is attending public events, under the guise of Roth the famous author, in order to promote his cause of Jewish ‘Diasporism.’ This uncanny doubling plagues Roth and leads him to follow his doppelgänger around the city and to the infamous court case of John Demjanjuk (also an actual historical event). This layering of different levels of reality culminates in a final sense of narrative irresolution: the narrator informs us that the final chapter of the novel has been deleted.


This novel contains within it many different narratives forms: political thriller, autobiography, spy narrative, confession and case study. In its exploration of the problems of witnessing and the relationship between the life of the author and their fiction, Operation Shylock connects to Roth’s earlier Zuckerman novels. Through its focus on his own personal experience of breakdown, Roth creates a work of fiction which both explores and exposes the difficulty of confession and the fragility of identity. 

Key Themes:

  • Autobiography

Significant Quotes / Pages

‘My mind began to disintegrate. The word DISINTEGRATION seemed itself to be the matter out of which my brain was constituted and it began spontaneously coming apart. The fourteen letters, big, chunky, irregularly sized components of my brain, elaborately intertwined, tore jaggedly loose from one another, sometimes a fragment of a letter at a time, but usually in painfully unpronounceable nonsyllabic segments of two of three, their edges roughly serrated. This mental coming apart was a distinctly physical a reality as a tooth being pulled, and the agony of it was excruciating’ (20).

‘Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This confession is false.’ (‘Note to Reader’).

Reference: Philip, Roth. 1993. Operation Shylock: A Confession. Vintage, 1998


Alice Hall
Date Review Submitted: Saturday 8th May 2010