American Pastoral Essay - Essays and Criticism

Philip Roth

Essays and Criticism

Swede Levov's Character and Views

American Pastoral, Philip Roth’s long lament for an unobtainable pastoral ideal, ends with a scream, a laugh, and a question mark. Each in its own way is significant.

The scream is uttered at the dinner party by Lou Levov, who has been in the kitchen of Swede’s home doing his clumsy and inadequate best to stop the drunken Jessie Orcutt from making a fool of herself. Upset at his condescension, she stabs him with a fork, aiming for his eye and missing only by an inch. In wounding the family patriarch, Jessie is symbolically stabbing at the entirety of the old order that is collapsing as a result of the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s. Lou Levov is the character who stands most firmly for the established order, whose uncompromising approach to right and wrong—people must obey God’s laws or the consequences will follow them the rest of their lives—is implacably opposed to all the cultural forces that are undermining the values with which he grew up. The scream represents not only the dying of those values, but also the anguish of incomprehension at the passing of the familiar and the trusted. For Lou Levov and what he represents, it is as if a tsunami has obliterated all the landmarks that give life meaning:

We grew up in an era when it was a different place, when the feeling for community, home, family, parents, work . . . well, it was different. The changes are beyond conception. I sometimes think that more has changed since 1945 than in all the years of history there have ever been.

Lou Levov’s scream, then, is the scream of dissolution, and it is followed very quickly, on the last page of the novel, by the laugh that mocks the scream. This is the laughter of Marcia Umanoff, the quarrelsome professor of literature who dismisses all moral absolutes and takes pleasure in watching the edifices of certainty, on which people less enlightened than she base their lives, come crumbling down. For Marcia Umanoff, such edifices were never what they appeared to be anyway, and it is almost a duty to expose them. She revels in a fashionable postmodern ambiguity that disrupts any attempt to reach out for a firm moral ground on which life can be based.

But the laughter that mocks everything explains nothing, and this long, question-filled novel ends appropriately enough with a question, two questions, in fact. One is about why events have turned out so tragically for the Levov family, and the other is about why everything seems so set against their happiness and what they stand for: “And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?”

These are the questions that throughout the novel, the Swede struggles so hard to answer. He entertains one possibility after another but never arrives at a clear understanding. Reviewers and critics of the novel have been quick to offer the explanations that Swede has supposedly missed. Some regard American Pastoral as an indictment of the culture of permissiveness that dominated the 1960s. This view is expressed most forcefully by Jerry Levov: Swede was too accommodating, too indulgent of his errant daughter, and he allowed her to get out of control. An opposing view that has been expressed is that Swede is himself to blame for what happens. He tries to rigidly control his world and shape the women in his life according to his own beliefs and ideals, and he also fails to confront the sources of social discontent: the evils of capitalism and the exploitation of workers. Still other critics have suggested that Roth’s target is the violence and shallowness of the New Left that emerged in the 1960s—they are the ones to blame for the disaster that befalls Swede. Others have seized on Lou Levov’s opposition to his son’s marrying a non-Jew. In this view, the novel becomes a critique of Jewish assimilation.

Swede thinks about many of these explanations, but he rejects Jerry’s position absolutely, and although at one point he entertains the possibility that his father may have been correct about the consequences of marrying the Catholic Dawn, this explanation does not satisfy...

(The entire section is 1705 words.)

Roth’s Interest in the “Ordinary and the Virtuous”

In Philip Roth’s new novel, his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, alludes in passing to a once famous writer now largely forgotten, whose...

(The entire section is 4645 words.)

Review by Todd Gitlin

You have to admire Philip Roth for refusing to repeat himself in his twenty-second book. American Pastoral is a family epic about...

(The entire section is 1939 words.)