American Pastoral

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The antithesis of the Jewish antiheroes, anguished, self-conscious schlemiels who dominate most of Philip Roth’s other works, Seymour Levov is known to all as “the Swede,” on account of his rugged, handsome, unSemitic mien. He becomes a star in three sports, a Marine Corps drill instructor, and a prosperous manufacturer of ladies’ gloves. The grandson of a struggling Jewish immigrant, he appears to have assimilated seamlessly into mainstream society and to have fulfilled the elusive promise of “the American Dream.” Married to a Catholic beauty queen, the Swede inhabits a splendid one hundred acre estate among the rural gentry. Yet to novelist Nathan Zuckerman, who attended high school in Newark with the Swede’s younger brother, the man is “a human platitude,” “the embodiment of nothing.”

However, an astounding revelation causes Zuckerman to reassess everything he thinks he knows about the man. The rational, sanguine Levov is tormented by a harrowing secret that corrodes his indigenous optimism and pushes him to the brink of the abyss. After planting a bomb in the local post office that kills an innocent man, his beloved sixteen-year-old daughter Merry becomes a revolutionary fugitive. She breaks her father’s heart, drives her mother mad, and vanishes for five years.

In the dissolution of the house of Levov, Roth offers a moving lesson in American history. A marvel of narrative construction, AMERICAN PASTORAL takes pot...

(The entire section is 463 words.)