Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433
In Pastoralia, by George Saunders, an unnamed protagonist and his coworker, Janet, work as a caveman and cavewoman in an exhibit at an amusement park. The two live in separate quarters off the exhibit and must stay in character all day long, even though attendance to the exhibit is rapidly declining. The protagonist is a diligent worker who stays in character all day long, even without an audience present. Janet, however, is far less interested in performing this meaningless job with no audience presence and while enduring unfair working conditions, as the two workers begin to not receive their daily meal of a goat. Normally, Janet and the protagonist, upon waking, go to the Big Slot, where they receive a goat to skin and cook over a fire. However, the goat begins to not appear, and they must sustain themselves with crackers. Janet expresses her disgust in English; however, the protagonist does not break character, and instead simply grunts his dissatisfaction. When the two must write their daily performance reports of each other, the protagonist decides to not report Janet for breaking her character, although he considers it. As the novella continues, Janet becomes more dissatisfied with her job and continues to break her character, and the protagonist struggles internally with whether or not he should report his coworker.
Eventually, a supervisor of the company, Greg Nordstrom, invites the protagonist out to eat and proceeds to interrogate him about Janet's performance as a cavewoman. The protagonist refuses to sell out Janet, and instead warns her with a note that the supervisor is watching her and that she is in danger of being fired. Janet is grateful for the warning, and for the next few days she plays her role with more consistency and diligence. However, her son visits her one day, asking her money, and Janet breaks her role to speak to him and lend him money. The protagonist, again, decides to not report Janet. However, Janet learns through a fax that her son bought drugs with the money and has been sentenced to ten years in prison. Janet becomes distraught and finds herself unable to continue to perform to the expectations of the company. When visitors finally visit the exhibit, Janet breaks her character and offends one of the visitors, and the protagonist decides to sell out his coworker by reporting her on the daily performance report. As a result, Janet is fired and the protagonist is rewarded for his loyalty to the company. A new actress replaces Janet who is readily accepts the ridiculousness of her job expectations with great enthusiasm.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712
“Pastoralia” is set within an imaginary historical-reenactment theme park, with its action occurring largely within the confines of an artificial cave. The primary interaction takes place between the two main characters, an unnamed man who plays the caveman, and Janet, who plays the cavewoman. The central difficulty experienced by the caveman actor arises from Janet’s inability to play her part on a continuous, consistent basis, although she knows it is her livelihood.
The two actors live a life of routine. Each morning, they emerge from their separate areas and go to a dispenser called the Big Slot to obtain their food, usually a dead goat that they must skin and roast over a fire. The rest of the day is spent at such miscellaneous activities as working on cave paintings and hunting for imaginary insects to eat.
Soon after the story begins, the caveman actor rises and goes to the Big Slot, only to find a note apologizing for the absence of the goat. Janet complains aloud in English, while the caveman actor tries to maintain his role and grunts imaginatively. Attendance at their cave-dweller site has declined in recent weeks, and Janet’s ability to stay in role has taken a downturn as well. Even so, the actor ends his day by faxing in his Daily Partner Performance Evaluation Form by answering questions concerning Janet’s attitude and performance in the positive. Again, the next day, when no goat appears, the pair live off their backup supply of crackers, and again Janet complains, while the actor tries to maintain his role. When a goat does appear the third morning, Janet puts effort into her role once again, even though they have no audience to witness it.
The actors are occasionally required to leave their space, primarily to carry wastes to the disposal area. A nearby employee-only store is run by a couple named Marty and Jeannine. Marty’s young son attends a private school and sometimes visits the couple at the store. When the caveman actor goes to buy a favorite drink for himself as well as mints and cigarettes for Janet, he learns that another actor, who played the Wise Mountain Hermit, has been fired. The Wise Mountain Hermit is another “Remote,” as are the cave dwellers. The next day, a note arrives about the firings called “Staff Remixing.”
An unprecedented event then follows: A supervisor in the organization, Greg Nordstrom, invites the actor away from his cave for brunch. Over bagels, Nordstrom queries the actor about Janet and encourages him to tell the truth about her. Nordstrom knows that Janet is not doing well but needs a negative evaluation from her partner before he can fire her. Nordstrom emphasizes to the actor that the company simply wants him to tell the truth.
Through a handwritten note, the actor reveals to Janet that she is in trouble. Grateful, she promises to stick to her role, which she does for several days, despite the hardship resulting from a lack of goats from the Big Slot. One morning, however, Janet’s son walks into the cave. The boy is in trouble for stealing and taking drugs, and his presence makes Janet break character. The caveman actor, however, still covers for her. He has his own preoccupations, with faxes arriving each night from his wife about their son’s health and financial problems.
He continues covering for Janet until the day when visitors finally drop by to observe their reenactment. Janet interacts poorly with them, speaking in English and not altogether pleasant English. The caveman actor finds he cannot justify covering for her again and finally sends in a negative evaluation form. Nordstrom, approving, tells him to be absent from the cave the next morning when they take Janet away.
Afterward, the caveman actor is rewarded with food and drink. Then he receives a company memo about its attitude toward truth. Truth, according to the memo, “is that thing which makes what we want to happen happen . . . truth is the wind in our sails that blows only for us.”
The story ends with the entrance of a woman. She is the new cavewoman. She is so dedicated to her role that she has had a high-brow ridge permanently attached to her face.