What is the role of religion in American Pastoral?

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A subtext of American Pastoral is the conflict that exists when people attempt to lead a secular life but are still tied at least unconsciously to the religion in which they have been brought up. Seymour Levov removes himself from his roots in Newark, marries a Gentile girl, and moves...

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A subtext of American Pastoral is the conflict that exists when people attempt to lead a secular life but are still tied at least unconsciously to the religion in which they have been brought up. Seymour Levov removes himself from his roots in Newark, marries a Gentile girl, and moves to the countryside of Old Rimrock to begin a "pastoral" sort of existence. His wife, Dawn, raises cows while Seymour inherits his father's business back in Newark.

On the face of it, there is no reason the situation should be anything but ideal. However, the disconnect between the bucolic setting and the political turbulence in the US—and other issues—of the late 1960s is played out in the Levovs' daughter, Merry. Her radicalization is at least the implied result of the resentment she feels over her parents having removed themselves to rural New Jersey. But it can also be interpreted as a reaction to both of her parents having abandoned their roots—in both class and religion—to create an artificial existence for themselves, removed from the desperate urban problems that are inflaming America in a time of racial and political conflict.

Seymour, both in his youth and adult life, has seemingly contradicted the stereotypes that have been attributed to his Jewish background. He's fair-complected to the point of being nicknamed "the Swede." He's a champion athlete in school, breaking all the New Jersey state records. One can't escape the conclusion that in his marriage, and in the life he makes for himself, he's trying to establish a kind of generic American existence, somehow protected from the traditional status of the Other in which his forebears were trapped. It doesn't work out for him.

When Merry rebels, first becoming a left-wing radical and then, bizarrely embracing a life of extreme asceticism, it's as if she is trying to recapture the uncomfortable status Seymour has fled. By becoming a Jain, Merry adopts an extreme form of religion almost as a counterweight to her parents' having abandoned their respective religions. It's a tragic result of the American dream gone horribly wrong.

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