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The American Trilogy | Study Guide

Philip Roth

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The American Trilogy | American Pastoral | Summary


About the Title

Pastoral literature depicts idyllic rural life, far from the corruptions of city life. The main characters in a pastoral are usually shepherds and the plot is usually about young love. In American Pastoral Seymour "Swede" Levov and his wife, Dawn Levov, have an old house on a large plot of land in the semirural Old Rimrock, New Jersey, where Dawn raises cows. But tragedy invades their peaceful life. Therefore the title evokes the pastoral with verbal irony because the novel is not the idyll promised by the word "pastoral." As the narrator says, the story of Swede Levov contains "the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral ... the indigenous American berserk."


Middle Age and the Swede's Charmed Life

In 1990s New England, the as-yet-unnamed narrator has entered middle age, a life phase of managed expectations and mounting losses. An operation to treat prostate cancer has left him impotent and incontinent. As is revealed later, this narrator is successful Jewish novelist Nathan Zuckerman, a character in the other two titles of The American Trilogy: I Married a Communist and The Human Stain.

Zuckerman thinks back on his days at Weequahic High School in Newark, New Jersey, and he recalls its star athlete, Seymour Levov, nicknamed "the Swede." In high school Zuckerman was friends with the Swede's younger brother, Jerry Levov. The Swede had been tall and blond, and he'd been a star player of football, baseball, and basketball. He was admired not only by his fellow students but by other Jewish people in Newark as well. After high school, college, and a stint in the Marines, he went on to marry a Miss New Jersey, Dawn Dwyer, "an Irish Catholic girl." He took over his father's Newark-based glove-manufacturing company, Newark Maid, which also had a factory in Puerto Rico. The Swede and his wife moved to semirural Old Rimrock, New Jersey, where they had a daughter, Meredith, nicknamed "Merry."

After high school Zuckerman runs into the Swede on two occasions. The first happens in 1985 in New York City, where Zuckerman has come to watch a game. It has been 36 years since they've seen each other. The Swede still looks handsome. The Swede remembers Zuckerman "the author." They chat and part ways. Ten years later, in 1995, the Swede writes to Zuckerman and invites him to dinner in New York. He wants Zuckerman's help writing a tribute to his father, Lou Levov. Not everyone knew how Lou suffered from "the shocks that befell his loved ones," writes the Swede. Zuckerman accepts the invitation, thinking the Swede wants to talk to him about those "shocks."

At dinner the 70-year-old Swede makes idle talk with Zuckerman but doesn't talk about the suffering he alluded to in the letter. He says his brother Jerry is now a cardiologist and has been married four times, and he himself is now with his second wife. He boasts at length about his teenage sons, showing Zuckerman photos of them. He mentions he has had prostate surgery. He recalls his struggle to keep the glove factory open after the Newark riots of 1967. The dinner concludes without the Swede talking about the "shocks" alluded to in his letter. Zuckerman goes away thinking the Swede has not changed at all. He is a lucky man and a shallow one, "the embodiment of nothing." But then Zuckerman tells readers, "I was wrong. Never more mistaken about anyone in my life."

A few months later, at the 45th reunion of his Weequahic High School class, Zuckerman runs into Jerry Levov, who now lives in Miami, Florida. Jerry tells him the Swede died of prostate cancer just a few days ago. Zuckerman is shocked. He is even more shocked to learn the Swede's daughter, Merry, blew up the Old Rimrock post office in 1968 as a protest against the Vietnam War (1954–75). The bomb killed a man, and Merry went underground to live as a fugitive. The Swede's "life was blown up by that bomb," Jerry tells Zuckerman. Merry had had a speech impediment—a stutter—and her mother had been critical of her. Jerry thinks Merry set off the bomb "to pay everybody back for her stuttering." In a flashback Jerry tells the Swede that Merry is dead.

Novel of the American Berserk

After the reunion Zuckerman channels his curiosity about the Swede into writing a novel. He spends up to 10 hours a day thinking about the Swede, trying to "dream" his life. This implies American Pastoral is Zuckerman's novel about the Swede. Zuckerman does research, visiting the glove factory in Newark and also going to Elizabeth, New Jersey, where Dawn grew up. Zuckerman imagines an episode when Merry is 11 years old. Driving Merry back from the beach, the Swede is surprised to hear Merry ask him, stuttering, to "kiss me the way you k-k-kiss umumumother." He kisses her on the mouth, passionately. Zuckerman imagines the Swede tormented by guilt about the kiss forever afterward, wondering if that was the fatal misstep that turned Merry into the "Rimrock Bomber."

In high school Merry is tall, overweight, and unattractive. She becomes very political and is fervently against the Vietnam War. She curses at President Lyndon Johnson (1908–73) when he appears on television: "Heartless mi-mi-mi-miserable m-monster!" At 16 Merry starts spending time with political activists in New York City. After she fails to return home one Saturday evening, the Swede tells her she can only go back to the city if she agrees to stay with family friends, Barry and Marcia Umanoff, whenever she spends the night The Swede forbids her to go to New York again, and he tries to persuade her to limit her activism to Old Rimrock. They have repeated arguments about this, which Zuckerman labels "Conversation #1" and so on. With "Conversation #67" the Swede feels he has finally won, and Merry stops going to New York. Not long afterward she blows up the Old Rimrock post office and along with it the general store. Dr. Fred Conlon is killed in the explosion. Merry disappears, a fugitive from the law.

Four months after the bombing the Swede gets a visit from Rita Cohen. She says she is a student writing about the glove factory, so the Swede gives her a tour. At the end she reveals she's there on Merry's behalf. "[Merry] wants her Audrey Hepburn scrapbook," Rita tells the Swede. He meets Rita the next day to give it to her, and she goes off on an angry political tirade about Vietnam and about the Swede's exploitation of factory workers. "[Merry] hates you," Rita tells the Swede, adding, "She thinks you ought to be shot." He then meets Rita in a hotel room to give her money for Merry. Rita is lewd and aggressive, imitating Merry's stutter and demanding the Swede have sex with her. He yells at her and then leaves.

Return of Merry

In later years the Swede follows news stories about the Weathermen, the underground political dissidents who set off numerous bombs. After a bombing leaves an unidentified female victim, he wonders if it's Merry, but it turns out not to be. Also on the news is Angela Davis, a professor arrested for her part in breaking some political activists out of prison. He imagines conversations with "St. Angela," in which he talks to her about Merry. He also tells Angela how he waited out the 1967 Newark riots inside his factory, helped by a black employee of his, Vicky. He hopes Angela will somehow relay his views to Merry.

In 1973 the Swede gets a letter from Rita Cohen. The letter says Merry works at "the old dog and cat hospital on New Jersey Railroad Avenue in the Ironbound Section." The Swede goes to see her, catching her as she leaves work. She informs him she has become an adherent of the Jain religion, dedicated to never harming a living thing. In support of her beliefs, she never washes and she eats very little. The Swede is shocked by her gaunt, ruined appearance. She takes him to her miserable little room, where she tells him the story of her life as a fugitive.

In a flashback readers find out more about Dawn, the Swede's wife. She was hospitalized for depression twice; however, she regained an interest in life through several projects: raising beef cattle, getting a facelift, and planning a new house, to be designed by architect Bill Orcutt.

Merry's life since the bombing has been bleak, involving poverty, two rapes, life in several collective houses and communes, and some intense relationships with women. She set off other bombs and caused two other deaths as well. She reveals that the first person to hide her after the bombing was Sheila Salzman, her speech therapist. The Swede can't believe this is how Merry's life has turned out. He is repelled by her smell and he throws up. He pleads with her to come home with him, but she refuses, and he leaves her there in Newark. Afterward, the Swede phones Jerry, his brother, and tells him about seeing Merry. Instead of comforting him Jerry yells at the Swede, telling him the whole thing was his fault. The Swede's rule-following complacency is the reason Merry blew everything up, Jerry says.

Hours after the visit to Merry in Newark, the Levovs throw a dinner party. The guests are the Swede's parents, Lou and Sylvia Levov; the architect Bill Orcutt and his wife, Jessie; Barry Umanoff and his wife, Marcia, an English professor; and Sheila Salzman, Merry's old speech therapist, and her husband. The talk is of the pornographic movie Deep Throat. During dinner the Swede realizes Dawn is having an affair with Bill Orcutt. He also feels betrayed by Sheila, with whom he once had an affair. She never told him about hiding Merry.

The Swede takes a phone call. When he returns, Jessie Orcutt is holding a bloody fork. He learns Lou had been comforting her, feeding her pie a forkful at a time and telling her she should quit drinking. She seemed heartened. He gave her the fork so she could feed herself, and she stabbed him in the face with it, just missing his eye. Marcia laughs, relishing "how far the rampant disorder had spread" and "enjoying enormously ... the frailty, the enfeeblement of supposedly robust things." At the end of the novel the narrator wonders, "What is wrong with their life?" The novel's final question is, "What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?"


Metafiction and the Unknown

From the start of the novel the Swede is alluring and yet distant. As a high school student, Nathan Zuckerman admires him without really knowing him. Zuckerman's first description of the Swede focuses on outward details such as his "anomalous face." An anomaly is something unusual, and the Swede is unusual among the Jewish students of Weequahic High School, with his "steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask of this blue-eyed blond born into our tribe." By the time Zuckerman realizes there is something more behind the Swede's "mask," it is too late. The Swede is already dead when Jerry tells Zuckerman the outlines of his tragic story. Now the only way for Zuckerman to know what was behind the Swede's mask of athletic grace and worldly success is to imagine the Swede's inner life. This means American Pastoral is perhaps the novel Zuckerman wrote. American Pastoral uses a plot about novel writing to explore what one person can know about another.

The idea of Zuckerman writing American Pastoral is puzzling. For one thing, there are incidents that precede Zuckerman's project: the reunion and the news of the Swede's death. These could have been written by Zuckerman as he narrates these parts. But then again, these incidents might be more properly thought of as having been dreamt up by Roth. The whole book is fiction, but it seems to have different levels of fiction. A real Roth writing a fictional Zuckerman seems more real than a fictional Zuckerman writing an even-more-fictional Swede. In American Pastoral Roth uses the literary devices known as metafiction and mise-en-abîme.

Metafiction calls attention to its status as fiction in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality. The term metafiction was coined by American novelist William H. Gass (1924–2017) to describe playful, self-conscious American novels written after World War II. Despite the newness of the term, the concept of metafiction is old. For example, in Miguel de Cervantes's (1547–1616) 17th-century novel Don Quixote, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza learn a book has been written about their adventures and are aware of themselves as literary characters from that point on. American Pastoral calls attention to its status as something written, first by recounting the story of the novel's composition. As Zuckerman says, "I dreamed a realistic chronicle" of the Swede's tragic life. After writing an initial draft of the novel, Zuckerman spends time pondering the Swede, thinking about him for "six, eight, sometimes ten hours at a stretch, exchang[ing] my solitude for his." After the initial draft, Zuckerman says, he "alter[ed] names and disguise[d] the most glaring marks of identification." So "the Swede" is perhaps the fictional name of some other, more real person or character. Or the book readers hold in their hands is somehow a first draft by the fictional novelist Zuckerman. American Pastoral thus invites readers to question the relationship between art and reality.

Mise-en-abîme or mise-en-abyme is a French literary term meaning "placed in the abyss." Mise-en-abîme refers to the technique of placing a copy of an image within an image. The classic visual example of mise-en-abîme is the box of Droste brand cocoa. The cover of the Droste box shows a woman holding a box of Droste cocoa, and on that box is another, smaller image of the woman, who must be holding another box containing the same nested images, and so on. In literature, mise-en-abîme places a story within a story. For example, in William Shakespeare's (1564–1616) play Hamlet (1599–1601), the traveling players put on a play called The Mousetrap. The events in The Mousetrap mirror the events in Hamlet, including the murder of a king.

In American Pastoral the mise-en-abîme is not one of infinite regression, as it is with the Droste cocoa box. But there is a story-within-the-story: Zuckerman's project of writing a novel about the Swede is an event within Roth's novel about the Swede. The uneasy way these pieces fit together can lead readers to question what they know.

The Second-Greatest Generation

The Swede and Zuckerman were too young to fight in World War II. During "the war years" Zuckerman is "still a grade school boy," while the Swede is a high school athlete. Thus they do not belong to "the greatest generation," a phrase that is not Roth's but is widely used to describe the Americans who fought in World War II. Instead, the Swede and Zuckerman belong to what might be called "the second-greatest generation," a phrase meant to show what they share with the preceding generation. Though they are too young to fight in the war, the Swede and Zuckerman seem to share the values of that era. They have the sense that America is on the right side. The "Weequahic Jews" of Newark (those in the relatively well-off Weequahic neighborhood) view the Swede as their proxy in the war. While they worry about "their sons or their brothers or their husbands" who may never return from the war, they are buoyed up by the Swede's athletic prowess. His high school victories give them "a bizarre, delusionary kind of sustenance, the happy release into a Swedian innocence." And thus when the turbulence of the 1960s comes, the Swede (and Zuckerman) are shocked by the values of Merry's generation—the rebelliousness, the anger, and the willingness to kill for a cause.


Tragedy is a form of drama; it usually recounts the fall of a great, elevated person. By extension, a novel can also be considered tragedy, and Roth explicitly evokes tragedy to explain the Swede's story. At the outset of the novel the Swede is described as having "a beautiful wife. A beautiful house," and he "runs his business like a charm." Therefore he is shocked when "everything changes and it becomes impossible," writes Zuckerman. On the one hand the Swede is uniquely unprepared to see things go wrong. He has been fortunate all his life. "Here is someone not set up for life's working out poorly, let alone for the impossible," comments Zuckerman. On the other hand, as Zuckerman asks, "Who is set up for tragedy?" Nobody is set up for it, Zuckerman answers. In one way American Pastoral is the tragedy of a great man. In another it is an unremarkable story, the tragedy everyone faces when life takes a turn for the worse. "The tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy—that is every man's tragedy," Zuckerman comments.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–22 BCE) wrote a treatise called Poetics, which describes the way tragedy works. Aristotle was also aware that tragedy is "every man's tragedy," in the sense that viewers are terrified by the events on stage precisely because they too could suffer them, at least in spirit. Aristotle also described the concept of "hamartia," which has sometimes been translated as "tragic flaw." This means the hero of a tragic drama has a character flaw or moral failing that brings doom upon himself or herself. Roth has Zuckerman pore over the Swede's life story looking for this flaw, and Zuckerman, in turn, imagines the Swede ruminating on his life trying to find its fatal flaw. Thus Zuckerman makes up a scene in which the Swede kisses his prepubescent daughter in a somewhat inappropriate way, and he imagines the Swede wonders forever after if that kiss "was not the lapse from responsibility for which he paid for the rest of his life." Zuckerman also proposes another possible tragic flaw for the Swede, one that the Swede's brother Jerry also diagnoses. The Swede is too obedient and complacent, and his complacency enrages Merry into rebellion. Zuckerman asks, "How could [the Swede] ... have known that the stakes of living obediently were so high?"

There is a slight echo of Shakespeare's play King Lear (1605–06) in American Pastoral. Both works could be described as stories of great men brought low by ungrateful daughters. Merry bites the hand that feeds her by turning against her father's way of life. In King Lear the vengeful daughter Regan and her husband Cornwall blind a friend of Lear's, an old man named Gloucester. This horrifying act is echoed in the scene that ends American Pastoral: at the dinner party the family friend Jessie stabs the man who has been feeding her, and she only narrowly misses his eye.

Some scholars disagree with the translation of hamartia as "tragic flaw." For example, in Euripides's (484–06 BCE) tragedy Bacchae, produced around 406 BCE in Greece, a group of women are driven mad by a god and they tear a man limb from limb. No character flaw on the man's part explains the women's actions. Because of this limitation in the idea of the tragic flaw, some scholars propose hamartia is an action that misses the mark, or a fall into misfortune. Roth appears to acknowledge the insufficiency of translating hamartia as tragic flaw when he writes in I Married a Communist, "It's what the high school Shakespeare teacher calls the tragic flaw." No one is prepared for tragedy, as Zuckerman says, and yet it happens to everyone. Not all falls are as spectacular as the Swede's, but everyone falls. This is the implication of Zuckerman's ideas about tragedy as "every man's tragedy."
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