47 pages 1 hour read

Philip Roth

American Pastoral

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1997

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Summary and Study Guide


American Pastoral (1997) by Philip Roth examines in detail one man’s quest for the American dream and the fragility of the entire enterprise. Roth, one of the most critically acclaimed novelists of the 20th century, focuses his narrative microscope through the eyes of Nathan Zuckerman, his literary alter ego from whose perspective he has written 10 other novels, including Zuckerman Unbound (1981), The Anatomy Lesson (1983), and The Human Stain (2000). Roth has won virtually every literary award, including the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. American Pastoral earned Roth the Pulitzer Prize for Literature and was adapted into a film in 2016.

This guide refers to the 1997 Vintage edition.

Content Warning: This guide mentions rape, depression and suicidal ideation, and self-starvation in the name of religion.

Plot Summary

Author Nathan Zuckerman reflects on the life of a former classmate, Seymour “the Swede” Levov, a tall, blonde, athletically gifted youth and a local hero in Zuckerman’s Jewish neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. Seymour’s father, Lou, owns a successful glove manufacturing business, and the Swede (as Zuckerman refers to Seymour throughout the narrative) foregoes a career in baseball to take over the family business. Zuckerman meets the Swede’s younger brother, Jerry, at a class reunion, and Jerry informs Zuckerman that his brother has died of cancer. Zuckerman embarks on a research mission to uncover the details behind the life of a man who appeared, on the surface, to be the embodiment of the American dream, a third-generation son of immigrants with a successful business, a beautiful home, and a (seemingly) happy family. What he finds below the surface is pain and tragedy, all carefully concealed behind the Swede’s stoic demeanor.

After taking over his father’s glove business, the Swede marries Dawn Dwyer, an Irish Catholic girl and former Miss New Jersey. They have one daughter, Meredith (Merry). They buy a stately old home in the upper-crust village of Old Rimrock. By most measures, the Swede’s life is an unqualified success, but problems emerge when Merry, always stubborn and feisty, develops a stutter. Despite all his and Dawn’s efforts, the stutter persists, and Merry grows into a frustrated, angry teenager. In the late 1960s, Merry becomes obsessed with the war in Vietnam—triggered perhaps by witnessing the self-immolation of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thíc Quang Ðúc on the news. Repelled by the violence of the war, Merry turns her back on the American ideal of success that her father has built his life around. She becomes involved in the radical anti-war movement, and at 16, she bombs a local post office, killing an innocent bystander. She flees, going underground and traveling across the country under an assumed name. In Chicago, she is raped. She makes plans to travel to Cuba, but those plans never pan out.

Meanwhile, the Swede and Dawn, heartbroken and terrified for their daughter, exhaust every resource searching for her. One day, the Swede receives a visit from Rita Cohen, who claims to be a student at the Wharton School of Business doing research on the leather industry. The Swede gives her a detailed tour of the factory, but by the end, she reveals her true purpose: She has come on behalf of Merry, asking for some of Merry’s most beloved possessions. Since Rita is his only connection to his daughter, the Swede concedes to her increasingly bizarre demands, including a ransom payment of $5,000 and a demand that he sleep with her. Disgusted by Rita’s seduction, he flees, leaving the money behind.

As the country is gripped by sometimes violent protests against war and racial injustice—including the 1967 Newark Rebellion that led to 26 deaths and hundreds of injuries—the Swede fears that Merry is caught in the middle of it. He continues to imagine her as a young pawn duped by radical voices within the anti-war movement and thus not responsible for her actions. He reflects on Merry’s teen years, on the literature she’s read and the voices she’s listened to, desperately trying to reconcile the sweet child he remembers with the woman she’s become. After five years—during which time Dawn has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals, had plastic surgery, and planned to build a new house—he receives a letter from Rita informing him that Merry (now Mary Stoltz) is back in Newark. The Swede seeks her out and finds her emaciated and filthy, living in squalor in a run-down, dangerous section of the city. She claims to be a devotee of Jainism, an Indian religion that preaches non-violence to all living things (including plants), the ultimate extension of which is self-starvation. The Swede pleads with Merry to come home, but she refuses. He finally leaves, defeated, keeping Merry’s existence a secret from Dawn.

Back at the office, he calls Jerry to tell him about Merry, but his brother is unsympathetic, arguing that if the Swede really loved his daughter, he would drag her home, kicking and screaming if necessary. He is brutally honest about his brother’s flaws, accusing him of sublimating his true self to the needs of everyone around him. That night, the Levovs host a dinner party. Before the meal, the Swede witnesses Bill Orcutt, the architect helping Dawn design the new house, making sexual overtures to his wife—the two are having an affair. Over dinner—which includes the Orcutts, the Swede’s parents, Sheila Salzman (Merry’s former speech therapist and, briefly, the Swede’s mistress) and her husband, and the Umanoffs (family friends)—they debate the state of the country, but all the while, the Swede is consumed with thoughts of Merry and Dawn. The Swede hears a commotion and imagines Merry suddenly appearing, announcing to Lou that she was involved in another bombing that killed three more people. In shock, Lou dies from heart failure. In reality, Orcutt has stabbed Lou with a fork, barely missing his eye. Zuckerman ends the novel asking if the Levovs’ life was so terrible to warrant such tragedy.