Study Guide

American Pastoral Setting

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Various parts of New Jersey; from the 1890s to the 1990s

Philip Roth's American Pastoral spans 100 years and four generations of Levovs (but the first generation doesn't get much play). The chronology is topsy-turvy. The book begins at the end, ends in the middle, and skips all over the place in between. Since some readers find this difficult, we've put the events of the novel in chronological order in a handy timeline at the end of this section.

The timeline is to help when writing about the novel, but we don't want to undermine its order. American Pastoral has its own kind of time, the time of the mind of the Swede, the time of a desperate man with a beautiful past, a horrible present, and an unimaginable future. It's a time of grief and loneliness and intense self reflection that seems to lead only to more confusion as things just keep getting worse. The time of a man longing for a time that will never again exist… outside of his mind, that is.

World War II and the Vietnam War

Fasten your seatbelts, Shmoopers. It's going to be a bumpy history lesson. When we think of Merry and the Swede in terms of the theme of warfare, World War II (1939-1945) and the Vietnam War (1954-1975; also known as the Second Indochina War) become very important. In terms of the American ethos, World War II was a popular war. Americans were largely proud to fight to stop the spread of fascism, to end the Holocaust, and to defend themselves against the Japanese.

But, as later evaluations would reveal, things are never that simple. Detaining Japanese Americans in internment camps and the devastating US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will forever remain on the American conscience.

By contrast, the Vietnam War was really unpopular. It began just after the end of the first Indochina War (1945-1954), which began at the close of World War II. The first Indochina War led to the freedom of Vietnam from a hundred years of French colonialism, and to its partition into North Vietnam (Democratic Republic of Vietnam) and South Vietnam (Government of the Republic of Vietnam).

In the first Indochina War, the US backed the French, and in Vietnam they backed South Vietnam and its anti-communist leader Ngo Dinh Diem.

The opposition to Diem and US forces within Vietnam was voiced largely through the National Liberation Front, which drew members of both communist and noncommunist Vietnamese people from the north and the south. 

It is this organization that Merry ultimately sees herself as a part of when she becomes active against the war.

And she decides that violence is the best way to make herself heard. This actually mirrors what her dad does during WWII—the Swede joins the Marine Corps. But since he enters the Marines at the end of the war he never enters combat. The Swede joins in the post-War enthusiasm Zuckerman speaks about in the high-school reunion speech he writes after the reunion:

The depression had disappeared. Everything was in motion. The lid was off. Americans were to start over again, in masse, everyone in it together. (2.1)

This is pre-ty different from the mood of America after Vietnam.

We might notice that the novel ends in the year US forces begin withdrawing from Vietnam. We can think of unwashed Merry in her squalid rented room as an embodiment of an aspect of the post-Vietnam war milieu: an America damaged and steeped in shame, removed from chaos by a thin veil.

To read more about Roth's visions of America, in terms of life after these two wars, check out I Married a Communist and The Human Stain, the two novels that join American Pastoral to make what's often called the American Trilogy.

Newark, New Jersey and Rimrock, New Jersey

In terms of the physical setting, we hear about lots of different places, but New Jersey is definitely the star of the setting. Good old Joisey—it gets Bruce Springsteen songs, Snooki, and American Pastoral. Oh, yeah… and Garden State.

In Merry's story (Chapter Six) we learn she traveled through Indianapolis, Oregon, Miami, Chicago, Cuba, and more. But where does Merry finally come back to? Newark, New Jersey, mere minutes (by car) from Newark Maid. As with Philip Roth's first major work, Goodbye, Columbus, and many other stories, Newark (Roth's hometown) can be seen as American Pastoral's "beating heart."

With the exception of the New York Mets vs. Houston Astros game, and the dinner at Vincent's in New York where the Swede and Zuckerman meet, most of the action happens in New Jersey. It's mostly split between subsections of the big city of Newark and the prosperous (fictional) town of Rimrock, with its sprawling pastures and gigantic cows.

This puts the novel in the pastoral tradition—where a real or implied contrast is set up between the country (the pasture) and the city, or some variation thereof. Here, this contrast between the urban and the pastoral is nearly obliterated (at least for the Swede) by Merry's bomb.

We can really feel the contrast between the two major settings toward the end of the novel. Chapter Six shows us that Merry, now twenty-one, is living in one of the poorest sections of Newark. She lives "even worse than her greenhorn great-grandparents had, fresh from steerage" (6. 12). Her room is incredibly filthy, tiny, and windowless. She's living in poverty, by choice.

After the Swede leaves her he remembers Dawn and younger Merry, blissfully herding cattle in Old Rimrock—the pastoral that used to be. But maybe, for Merry, the filthy room is her way of finding the freedom that other characters only seem to feel in the countryside.

Chronology of Events

1890s— Lou Levov's father comes to the US and begins working in the leather industry
1899—Lou is born
1927—The Swede is born
1933—Zuckerman is born
1939—World War II begins
1942—Newark Maid gets big break
1943—The sixteen-year-old Swede calls ten-year-old Zuckerman "Skip" at a football game
June 1945—Swede graduates high school and joins the Marine Corps; enter basic training in Parris Island, South Carolina
1945—World War II ends
1945-1947: Swede gets engaged while at Parris Island; Lou Levov breaks it up
1945— Swede finishes service and returns to New Jersey; enrolls at Upsala College
1949—Miss America Contest that Dawn loses
1950— Zuckerman and Jerry graduate high school
1950—Swede and Dawn get married
1952 (approx)— Merry born
1961—Vietnam War begins
1963—The Swede kisses Merry when she's eleven
1963—Merry sees the monks self-immolating
1967 (approx)—Merry begins hanging out in NYC
1967—Newark Riots
1968— Merry bombs post office and flees when she's sixteen.
For the next four months—The Swede has an affair with Sheila Salzman
Four months after the bombing— Rita Cohen approaches the Swede
Over the next five years— Dawn has to be hospitalized for psychological reasons twice
1972—Dawn gets a face lift and plans to build a new house
September 1, 1973 (Labor Day)—The Swede gets a letter from Rita Cohen
On that same day—the Swede meets Merry
On that same day—the Dinner Party Scene; the Swede discovers Dawn and Orcutt having sex in the kitchen; Lou is forked by Jessie Orcutt. (The novel ends)
Sometime after that—The Swede remarries; has three sons
1985—Zuckerman and Swede run into each other in New York City for the New York Mets vs. the Houston Astros game
1993—According to the Swede, according to Jerry, Merry Levov dies
1994—Lou Levov dies at ninety-six years old
May 31, 1995— Zuckerman gets letter from Swede saying he wants to meet; Swede is about sixty nine, seven years older than Zuckerman
Soon after—Zuckerman meets Swede at Vincent's
A few months later—the Swede dies at sixty eight
A few days later—Zuckerman attends his 45th High School Reunion, runs into Jerry Levov
Soon after that—Zuckerman imagines the Swede's life and writes it as a novel

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