Study Guide

Dawn Levov (nee Dwyer) in American Pastoral

By Philip Roth

Dawn Levov (nee Dwyer)

From potential Miss America to Mean Mommy to Pioneer Woman cattle farmer to Mad Woman suicide-watch to Jezebel adulteress, Dawn runs the gambit of female stereotypes. This ain't surprising—we see her mostly through the gaze of the Swede, a dude who tends to view everything as a part of American mythology (a mythology machine that basically runs on stereotypes).

Dawn is an impressive woman. She runs her own cattle breeding business and works at even the dirtiest parts of the job from morning to night and beyond. She's also a hottie, a former Miss New Jersey, Miss Union County, and a contestant in the 1949 Miss America Pageant. As we read, pageantry requires gusto and control.

Her kick-butt attitude and courage is further displayed when she battles super-tough Lou Levov over the religious faith of Merry (the Dwyers are Catholic and the Levov's are Jewish) before Merry's even born.

After the bombing and Merry's disappearance, all of that awesomesauce attitude and moxie gives way; she becomes suicidal, only to rise again, seeking renewed life and trying to drive away the sorrow. Her post-Levov life is a mystery, much as her life as Dawn Levov is a mystery.

While American Pastoral focuses on what role the Swede might have played in Merry's actions, it throws lots of blame Dawn's way as well. Readers have very mixed feelings about her. She's often viewed as selfish and vain, but some readers identify with her and see her strength and vulnerability. Others think she doesn't get much of a voice and that it's not fair to judge her without hearing her side of the story.

American Pastoral is told from the point of view of the Swede, not Dawn. Do you think the Swede tries to see things from her point of view? Is he able to? Are there times when he seems to be showing us the "real" Dawn? How does Zuckerman see her? How does his viewpoint compare with the Swede's? These are some of the approximately ten gajillion questions to ask when considering Dawn's character.

Pretty Dawn

She's always been beautiful, and probably she has always been a little torn about the fact. When she makes her beauty public (by entering pageants) she reinvents it and tries to make it useful in a new way. In doing so, Dawn experiences a barrage of conflicting emotions.

She isn't sure it's right to use her beauty to get money, even if it is to help her brother go to college. She isn't sure she's being true to herself when she puts her beauty on display. On the other hand, the fame and excitement are exhilarating, and she gets a taste of power, success, and wealth.

The disappointment of losing the pageant impacts Dawn more than the Swede realizes. When she's hospitalized for depression, she tells him,

"They put you on a pedestal […] and then they rip you off it so damn fast it can blind you." (5.6)

The Swede doesn't really believe her. He thinks she's projecting her grief onto the past. In this instance, he has trouble seeing that she's multifaceted, and capable of holding conflicting emotions. She can both love and hate having been in pageants. She could show the Swede she doesn't care she lost, but inside be roiling with self doubt and disappointment, all these years later. Is this extreme vanity or just normal human emotion?

Dawn's ambivalence over her beauty and how it impacts her life extends to her face lift, although she seems to treat it pretty matter-of-factly. After losing her beauty to her grief over Merry's disappearance, Dawn comes to value it again. She feels it's her only chance for a new life, a life where grief and shame and desperation lie in the background and are not imprinted on one's face for all the world to see. Her beauty becomes a mask, a protective covering, even as it exposes her to certain dangers, like being judged on beauty alone.

Dawn and the Swede

According to the Swede, he and Dawn have shared a romance, a good life built on companionship and love, with little argument and upheaval, other than where Merry is concerned. They were in love and excited to share a life together. From the outside looking in, it probably looks ideal: a beautiful couple living a beautiful life in a beautiful castle in the beautiful countryside.

But when Dawn is in the hospital she calls their entire relationship into question. It scares and threatens him—partly because it includes insults directed at the Swede. In the hospital she expresses something like disgust for him:

"Those hands! Those shoulders! Towering over me with your jaw. This huge animal I couldn't get rid of […] You had to make me into a princess." (5.4)

The things Dawn is saying are obviously painful to the Swede, and in his mind he chocks it up to her depression and despair over Merry. But he admits he could have been misreading his wife for years. Since we don't get her point of view, it's really hard to tell what she really feels for him. This compounds the mystery wrapped in the enigma that is Dawn.

Dawn and Merry

A lot of blame gets directed towards Dawn when it comes to Merry's problems. Rita Cohen blames Dawn. Merry doesn't want to talk about Dawn to the Swede: she says it could cause him pain to hear how she feels about her mother. The Swede does not blame Dawn, though it's through him that we hear the details that help paint her as an overly demanding, perfectionist mother whose daughter can never rise to her standards.

There are many indications that Dawn loves her daughter very much. Like the Swede, she refuses to believe that her daughter detonated a bomb and killed a man. When she admits the possibility it's with the caveat that someone else put her up to it.

And then Dawn takes Merry's disappearance a step further and tries to get her out of her head. The pictures of Merry are taken down, and she's edited out of descriptions of family vacations. The Swede remembers their joy as a family and thinks that maybe the only way Dawn can live is by not thinking about Merry at all, if possible.

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