Study Guide

American Pastoral Three-Act Plot Analysis

By Philip Roth

Three-Act Plot Analysis

Act I

"Paradise Remembered"

In this act we learn that author Nathan Zuckerman's high school idol Seymour "Swede" Levov has died. The Swede had a daughter who bombed a post office in the small town of Rimrock, New Jersey. She too has died. From the few clues Zuckerman has, he sets out to imagine what the Swede's life might have been like with his daughter, before and after the bombing. He turns his imaginings into a novel.

Included in this act are some of his imaginings, such as an uncomfortable scene where the Swede kisses Merry when she is eleven, and a series of scenes when she is older and very angry about the Vietnam War. The act ends with a paragraph about Merry blowing up the post office.

Act II

"The Fall"

In this act, Zuckerman seems to drop out of the story (as we discuss in "Narrator Point of View"). The rest of the novel seems to be told in the third person, from the Swede's perspective (though we can't help but keep Zuckerman in our minds). The act begins four months after the bombing. Rita Cohen comes to see the Swede at Newark Maid and then extorts him for money, supposedly for Merry.

This act covers a five-year period where the Swede desperately waits for another word about his daughter and where he tries to figure out what happened to make things turn out so ugly. At the end of the five years, he gets a letter from Rita Cohen telling him where Merry is. He finds Merry and learns lots of terrible things: she really was the bomber, she has killed three more people, she's been raped twice. He also learns that she now considers herself a Jain and has taken a vow of non-violence.

Act III

"Paradise Lost"

Most of the final act is centered around a dinner party happening at the Swede's house after he's seen Merry. Bill and Jessie Orcutt, Barry and Marcia Umanoff, Shelly and Sheila Salzman, Lou and Sylvia Levov, and Dawn and the Swede are in attendance.

The conversation turns to Watergate, and the then to the film Deep Throat, reminding us that we are in the 1970s. There are lots of intense moments, like the Swede seeing Dawn and Bill Orcutt having sex in the kitchen and the bizarre phone call from Rita Cohen. We also learn about the Swede's brief affair with Sheila.

The act includes more of the Swede's memories of his life before the bombing. Throughout the act, he's trying to decide whether to go back and get Merry, or to run away with Sheila, or to run away with Merry. The novel ends with the Swede's father getting stabbed in the face with a fork when he's trying to force a very drunk Jessie Orcutt to eat pie.

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