Themes and Meanings
The dust jacket of American Pastoral features a photograph from the 1940’s depicting a dozen high school youths—the tall boy in the rear wearing the white sweater must be Philip Roth—lounging around the concrete steps of a grocery-cum-post-office. The Sunoco pump, the signs for Lux and Pittsburgh paints and Coca-Cola, all proclaim Middle America in the best spirit of Norman Rockwell. This snapshot appears twice, once on the back of the jacket and again on the front, where it is positioned just beneath the title and is depicted in flames. Roth has worked this myth of pastoral nostalgia into a parable of the confused era of the Vietnam War.
Several long, nostalgic looks at the glove industry provide ballast for the historical theme and are captivating in their loving detail and exploration of a corner of American life unfamiliar to most people. Roth’s narrative genius dazzles with this report from the frontier of American immigrant business sense and true grit.
The story of the Swede and Merry could be any family’s tragedy, but the theme achieves an extra richness by intertwining with the story of the hardworking Jewish immigrant and his son’s assimilation into the colonial heritage represented by the stone house in Old Rimrock. The Irish daughter-in-law disappoints the elder Levovs (as the Jewish son-in-law disappoints the elder Dwyers), and the younger son betrays enormous rancor about the Swede’s success story. In fact, though, Lou Levov and his new Irish plumber in-law have much in common, and Jerry Levov’s life story parodies the rags-to-riches myth in its awful crassness and his callous disposal of his wives. Roth so excels in creating voices that all the conflicting views are put eloquently, but surely the Swede’s life is a tragedy. Summarizing the complete defeat of the Levovs, Zuckerman/Roth asks poignantly in the novel’s last paragraph, “And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?”