In “Pastoralia,” George Saunders focuses on a theme park that exhibits various lifeways from the past. The story’s first-person male narrator reveals that the park has very few visitors, and several days often pass without any tourists coming to the cave exhibit where he works. The park promotes the importance of authenticity, demanding that the man and woman inhabiting the cave exhibit refrain from speaking English or otherwise breaking character. The unstated irony of this requirement is that during the Neolithic Era, Neanderthals—the precursors of modern human buildings—did not actually live in the caves that they decorated.
The few visitors who do come by the cave are only moderately interested, in part because there is not much to see. The “caveman” and woman prepare and eat food and draw petroglyphs. The performers are not allowed to converse with them, but one time “cavewoman” Janet breaks character to answer a question about defecation. Another family group includes a rude young boy, and Janet completely loses her patience and insults his father.
The narrator has a complicated but largely negative attitude toward the park. He tries to be obedient to the rules, largely because he has a wife and ill young son living elsewhere. He criticizes the park’s management when it fails to provide the stipulated supplies, which mainly consist of a dead goat that the couple has to prepare and eat. His resentment extends to the performance reports that he is required to file on his co-worker. His mixed feelings include his unwillingness to report Janet’s numerous transgressions until it is clear he must do so or be fired himself.