Study Guide

American Pastoral What's Up With the Ending?

By Philip Roth

What's Up With the Ending?

American Pastoral isn't linear; it doesn't move in a straight line through time. The novel opens at "the end" in 1995. The Swede, Lou, and Merry are all dead, and Zuckerman has finished writing the story of their life as he imagines it. But, the actual ending of the novel happens in 1973, and it's organized around Friday, September 1st: Labor Day.

As noted in "Setting," 1973 marks the year American troops began withdrawing from Vietnam. It makes sense then that the Swede would be allowed to find Merry in 1973, and that Roth would end the novel here as well. Considering all the debates over labor, it's fitting that Roth (and Zuckerman) would end the novel on Labor Day.

Albert Mobilio in a review for Salon says,

Roth doesn't circle back to the 90-page preamble featuring Zuckerman, the ending feels arbitrary and the gratifying if bracing payoff that American Pastoral vigorously promises throughout is denied. (Source)

We totally see his point; it does feel a tad disjointed. But in a way Roth does circle back, and in doing so creates a rough sense of unity. Indirectly, we are reminded that this is all taking place in the mind of Zuckerman. Think about it—the weird call from Rita Cohen; the Swede imagining Merry showing up and Lou dying from the shock; and then, Lou getting stabbed in the face with a fork. These have "Zuckerman" written all over them.

The ending is raw and painful. Chaos. Nothing resolved. Nothing answered. For all its outrageousness, isn't this pretty realistic as well? In a tragedy of this magnitude does the chaos ever depart? Are there ever any answers that make sense?

Let's check out the final lines of the novel:

They'll never recover. Everyone is against [the Levovs], everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life!

And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs? (9. 355, 356)

Is this still from the Swede's point of view? Who is asking those last two questions? The Swede or Zuckerman? Whatever you think, that last question of the novel is a brain twister. The words "less reprehensible" are where readers often get tripped up (including us!). This is the way it's supposed to be, and a big part of why we say that Roth's "Style" in this novel is ambiguous.

If something is "reprehensible" it should be condemned. Does the question assume that the life of the Levov's is reprehensible? Does it suggest that all lives are reprehensible? Is it saying that the Levov's life isn't reprehensible, or that it's the least reprehensible life imaginable? Is it ironic? Sarcastic? Sincere? Our brains are exploding over here.

Essentially, these last sentences seem like an invitation to the reader to pass judgment on the Levovs, to scrutinize their actions, to defend or condemn as we see fit. But, in Chapter Three, just before he begins the story of the Swede, Zuckerman tells us this:

I am thinking of the Swede's great fall and of how he must have imagined that it was founded on some failure of his own responsibility. This is where it must begin. It doesn't matter if he was the cause of anything. He makes himself responsible anyway. (3.121)

Can this line help us answer the ending questions? Does it matter if we think the Swede and his family are guilty in the end? Is someone only truly guilty when they accept the blame themselves? Is guilt totally and completely subjective? What do you think?

…Your guess is as good as ours. Or Zuckerman's. Or the Swede's. Or even Roth's.

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