I am going to start off by saying that I do not like this book at all. The only other book I have read by Philip Roth is The Counterlife, and I didn’t care for that one either. American Pastoral does not make any sense, has absolutely no closure at the end, and it is a book that employs painful repetition and run-on sentences as literary devices. I can’t for the life of me understand how this book won a Pulitzer, but nevertheless, it made it onto the M.A. list. This is the type of book that makes me ask the question I posed in my second blog post.*
Genre becomes an interesting subject with this book because of its title. When it comes to literature, a pastoral typically portrays real life as an idyllic condition. But the characters in this book have lives that are anything but idyllic. For some of them, their lives may look idyllic on the outside: Swede was the popular blonde haired, blue eyed jock from high school who grew up to marry Miss New Jersey, have a baby girl, and inherit his father’s business, but this isn’t the whole story. Without giving too much away, things make almost a complete 180 for the Swede and it is clear that this is not the ideal. The point may be that the American pastoral does not really exist, and to portray anyone’s life as such is a lie. Swede Levov is part of a Jewish family that immigrated to the U.S. looking for the American dream, and at one point it would appear that they had achieved it. But in reality, they have gone from the first generation being poor immigrants, to the latest generation being terrorists. So the question really becomes how much have the actually accomplished?
The novel is of course fiction, but to take it one step further, this isn’t just a book telling the story of Swede Levov. It is actually the story of Zuckerman, a man who knew of the Swede in high school, imagining what the Swede’s life was really like, and that is the story the reader is getting. So we aren’t even getting the story by way of the usual narrator, but we are getting a story of what one of the characters imagined had happened. But in the end, he is simply doing what fiction writers do, and that is he is making everything up.
The main theme for me is what I mentioned under genre, which is the idea that the American dream isn’t real. But of course, there are many more themes that can be taken from the book.
For me, it is kind of weird to think of conflict as a theme, as all stories inevitably have some sort of conflict going on. But one of my classmates pointed this out and there are a few good points that can be taken from this. The characters, and mostly the main character Swede Levov, are trying to resolve the conflict between their past (the paradise remembered), and what has happened since to give them their future (the fall, and the paradise lost). There is conflict between people, generations, personal histories, family histories, and even American history.
Roth also makes use of repetition, mostly to emphasize a point, and a lot of the time it will be at a high intensity moment. The points could have been made in a different (and often much shorter in my opinion) way, but Roth chooses repetition instead. The repetition occurs usually when a certain character is making a speech or ranting, or when two or more characters are arguing. Instead of the argument being resolved, at least one character, and usually the one that is the most aggressive, will end up reiterating the same point over and over, therefore causing the argument to go nowhere.
There is also a running theme of shifting perceptions. On first sight, the Swede’s life can be seen as idyllic, but a deeper look will prove that it isn’t. The reader can see Swede as an idealist always trying to believe the best. However, his brother is a cynic and sees reality for what it is. However, this can also show cynics to be as deluded as idealists are, but in a different way, as nothing is purely either one way or the other. There is a real difference between perception and reality, for everyone. Jerry, Swede’s brother, actually says it best on page 35:
“…you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re meeting them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception.”
Perhaps if the Swede was able to see this, and also his other limitations, he may have been able to better cope with the tragedies that befell him.
American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain are part of a trilogy, as all of them include a character by the name of Zuckerman. They are also a part of a bigger collection of Zuckerman books that are nine books in total. In most of the other Zuckerman books, the character is known for frequently being in and out of the beds of different women, and he often gets in trouble for it. In this book however, Zuckerman is both impotent and incontinent after having surgery on his prostate for prostate cancer. Plus, he isn’t even the main character of the book, Swede is.
Also, the real Upsala College (the college the Swede attends and where he meets his future wife) closed its doors in 1995 due to financial difficulties. The book was published in 1997.
There is a part near the end of the book where Swede’s parents are obsessed with watching the Watergate hearings on TV. Nixon will end up being the first American president to resign in disgrace, and this disgrace happens to link up with the deterioration of Swede Levov’s life.
After World War II, there was a rise in ethnic literature in America. Roth was often lumped together with other Jewish authors Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud (which Bellow began to resent after awhile). Roth actually did not appreciate having his literature tagged as Jewish-American fiction. He felt that it was a label “made up to strengthen some political agenda.”
So, if you actually liked and appreciated this book and choose to use if for your exam, then I really do hope this post will be of use to you, despite buy personal objections to the novel. As for my class, this was the last book we are covering that is on the M.A. exam; therefore, next week I will cover a different work on the list, and most likely one that is required.
*Please see the title of my second blog post