American Pastoral

by Philip Roth
Start Free Trial

Is American Pastoral entirely in the imagination of narrator Zuckerman? At the end of chapter 3 Nathan Zuckerman imagines himself into the Swede's life. He first creates a scene in Deal, New Jersey, at a seaside cottage when Merry is eleven. Does this mean that the rest of the story is just what Zuckerman is imagining to happen?

No, the rest of the book is not just Zuckerman's imagination. The novel is partly based on author Phillip Roth's own life. Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933, he grew up in a Jewish neighborhood where he was one of few Jewish people. His father was an insurance salesman and his mother was from a well-to-do family that lost its money during The Great Depression. Roth went to college at Bucknell University, played football for their team and majored in English Literature. He then moved to Chicago where he attended Northwestern University's School of Speech.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Philip Roth's 1997 novel American Pastoral deals with cultural identity and the loss of innocence in America.

The book is styled as a memoir written by Nathan Zuckerman, who is the in-universe representation of author Philip Roth.  The memoir is about Seymour "The Swede" Levov, a successful classmate who has some dark secrets in his life. Since Zuckerman has lost touch with Seymour, and since Seymour is dead when the novel begins, the book is essentially a researched life written by a biographer. However, Zuckerman is forced to improvise and invent where he cannot find information, and so in the universe of the book, his account is more in the vein of a dramatization.

To the honeysweet strains of "Dream," I pulled away from myself, pulled away from the reunion, and I dreamed... I dreamed a realistic chronicle. I began gazing into his life -- not his life as a god or a demigod in whose triumphs one could exult as a boy but his life as another assailable man -- and inexplicably, which is to say lo and behold, I found him in Deal, New Jersey, at the seaside cottage....
(Roth, American Pastoral, Google Books)

Although he does do research and tries to find the truth, he is forced to invent details where he does not have facts. This allows him to humanize both Seymour and the Levov family, who are all damaged to some degree, and to delve into the reasons why some members may have acted as they did. In this sense, the remainder of the book does occur in Zuckerman's imagination, but it is to serve the larger purpose of examining what led to Seymour's rise and fall.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team