American Pastoral

by Philip Roth
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 333

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.

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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.

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Latest answer posted February 6, 2012, 6:57 am (UTC)

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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?”

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1128

From Glorious Forties to Turbulent Sixties
The main portion of the narrative covers a period of just over two decades, from the 1940s to the late 1960s, a period that saw huge changes in American society, which Zuckerman refers to as “that mysterious, troubling, extraordinary historical transition.” For Zuckerman, this period represents a fall from innocence into a confusing, chaotic world in which all the rules of life have changed. He idealizes the immediate post-World War II era, as the title of Book I, “Paradise Remembered,” demonstrates, and he looks back on it nostalgically. This attitude is strongly conveyed in the chapters about the forty-fifth high school reunion, in which Zuckerman and his old friends reminisce about times long past. Many of the people at the reunion have emerged from humble backgrounds and difficult childhoods to become successful professionals. There was a work ethic in place then in Newark’s Jewish community, as well as a sense of shared purpose and goals. Zuckerman refers to “the common experience that had joined us as kids. . . . something powerful united us.” People in Zuckerman’s Jewish neighborhood at that time knew where they were going and how they would get there. They were determined to rise above poverty and hardship and make something of their lives. Everyone knew their role and played by the rules. This newfound confidence was present in the wider society as well. At a time of unprecedented U.S. hegemony throughout the world, there was a release of pent-up energy in the United States. As Zuckerman puts it in the speech he wrote, but did not give, at the high school reunion: “Everything was in motion. The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, en masse, everyone in it together.” It was an exuberant time when Americans marched forward, “inflated with every illusion born of hope.”

Then Zuckerman asks the key question, through the story of Swede, of how the unity, order, and clear sense of purpose of this period gave way so quickly to the disorder, violence, and chaos of the 1960s, embodied in the story of Merry, the nice-little-girl-turned terrorist. In the 1960s, in the discord that accompanied the Vietnam War, the old rules and values were overturned. Children turned against their parents, and urban violence broke out in places such as Newark (the riots of 1967), and even pastoral retreats like Old Rimrock became subject to bombings and violent death. It was a different America altogether, what Zuckerman calls “the counterpastoral . . . the indigenous American berserk.”

Swede spends the rest of his life tortured by the need to find out why this terrible thing happened to his family, but he never finds a satisfactory answer. At first, he assumes that he must have been responsible in some way for it because he believes he lives in an orderly, rational world in which cause and effect can be analyzed and known. But when he finally talks to Merry in 1973, he is forced to recognize that nothing he has ever done could explain what happened. His assumption that if he acted according to his sense of duty and responsibility, everything would work out smoothly, turns out to have been wrong. Merry went her own way, and that was all that could be said. She was never in his power to begin with, he realizes. No one is responsible, not Merry, not the Swede himself, and the same applies to the violence that disrupted society as a whole. He decides that everyone is in the power of “something demented” that cannot be understood. Later that day, he vehemently rejects Jerry’s notion that as a parent, he was too permissive, and it was this that caused Merry’s rebellion. Jerry believes that things can be connected in a cause and effect way, but Swede rejects such thinking: “But there are no reasons. She [Merry] is obliged to be as she is. We all are. Reasons are in books.” The conclusion must be that life is unjust and incomprehensible and must be accepted as such.

Jewish Separatism or Assimilation
Although the book deals with broad issues in American history and culture, it is also focused on narrowly specific Jewish issues. It asks the questions, To what extent should Jews assimilate themselves to mainstream (Gentile) American culture? If they do this, how will they maintain their distinctive characteristics? Zuckerman writes of “the contradiction in Jews who want to fit in and want to stand out, who insist they are different and insist they are no different.” He comments also on the “generalized mistrust of the Gentile world” felt by the Jews of Newark in the 1940s.

The issue of assimilation is embodied in Swede. To begin with, because of his blond hair and blue eyes, he does not look like a Jew. He also has an “unconscious oneness with America” and seems to lack any of the traits that Zuckerman identifies as Jewish. “Where was the Jew in him? You couldn’t find it and yet you knew it was there,” Zuckerman writes. For his part, Swede has no interest in Jewish religion or customs; he does not attend services in a synagogue and is astonished when his mother asks him if Dawn is going to convert to Judaism. When Bucky Robinson tries to get Swede to be a part of the Morristown Jewish community, Swede expresses no interest. The ideal life envisaged by this second-generation Jewish immigrant is quintessentially American rather than Jewish. In spite of his position, however, there are frequent allusions to the fact that Swede, his all-American attitudes notwithstanding, does not quite belong to the United States in the way that Gentiles do. This point is made clear to him when Orcutt takes him on a tour of the local area, where there are traces of Orcutt’s ancestors everywhere. Swede realizes that “Every rung into America for the Levovs there was another rung to attain.” He is well aware that Ivy League universities, such as the one Orcutt attended, “Didn’t admit Jews, didn’t know Jews, probably didn’t like Jews all that much.” When Swede first decides to move to Old Rimrock, his father warns him that he will encounter prejudice there, but Swede takes no notice. He feels none of the “Jewish resentment” that his father feels. But the issue of Jewishness lurks in the background for him. At one point, Swede wonders whether the problem with Merry had been foreseen by his father, who had expressed his concern about Swede’s marriage to a Catholic because any children of theirs would be raised half Catholic, half Jewish, without a clear sense of who they were. For her part, Merry appears to show no interest at all in her Jewish heritage.

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