Study Guide

Meredith Levov (Merry) in American Pastoral

By Philip Roth

Meredith Levov (Merry)

Merry is one of literature's ultimate outsiders and one of the most heartbreaking figures we've ever read. And that's saying a lot: we've read a bunch of totally depressing books. A bunch.

Our first impression of her is what Jerry Levov, her uncle, tells Zuckerman at the high-school reunion. The portrait is intriguing and frightening. He calls her "the monster" (3.61), "this killer" (3.71), "the angry kid who gets nuttier and nuttier" (3.71), and a "freak of nature" (3.71). We might think of this as the surface view of Merry.

But Zuckerman tries to see beyond this surface. Part of seeing beyond the surface is exploring the possibility of empathy for Merry, without excusing her actions. This is extremely difficult when she admits to killing three innocent people in addition to Doc Conlon.

Yet, there are countless pages devoted to showing that Merry's actions are driven by empathy in many ways. Empathy and political awareness collide disastrously with frustration and powerlessness, and Merry is transformed into a misguided revolutionary, a fugitive, living in exile in her own land as Mary Stoltz.

The question is, can Merry be both a sympathetic character and the Rimrock Bomber? Her intentions are good, even honorable, but do her actions make her evil?

Merry and Speech

Merry's stuttering gets lots of play in the novel. There are a host of issues that can cause stuttering in the extreme—stuttering that causes the person discomfort or keeps him/her from living a happy life; stuttering that is out of the person's control. These issues can be psychological, neurological, or other.

Merry's psychiatrist thinks she stutters as a way to exert power or control over her parents. The Swede thinks that her brain is simply working faster than her mouth. It's not clear why her speech therapist thinks she stutters, and while Merry trusts her, the speech therapy doesn't work.

It's pretty clear that Dawn is really bothered by the stutter, but not necessarily why it bothers her. The Swede tells Merry's psychiatrist that, "watching [Merry] stutter is killing my wife" (3.134).

Merry's lifestyle choices seem very influenced by how they impact her speech. She tells the Swede that when she started making bombs, she stopped stuttering. Jerry tells the Swede this: "To pay everybody back for her stuttering, she set off the bomb" (3.71).

There's something to what Jerry is saying, though we aren't sure he's phrasing it accurately. We know the stuttering makes Merry feel powerless. Detonating a bomb makes her feel powerful. She's confused, angry, and not even sure precisely what she's fighting for… or how to fight for it. It's quite conceivable that she's psychologically motivated by vengeance against the non-stuttering world she's isolated from. But Roth is too intelligent a writer to state that stuttering = Merry's violent tendencies.

Late in the novel, we learn that she's stopped making bombs and is now a total pacifist. She even wears a veil over her mouth to keep from killing life forms living in the air. The thing is: she still isn't stuttering. It's interesting that she speaks clearly only when she's doing violence, preparing to do violence, or by going to the opposite extreme of being completely non-violent. Of course, the Swede isn't a big fan of his daughter's new way of speaking. He thinks, "What was missing from her unstuttering words […] was the sound of life" (6.62).

What do you think about Merry's stuttering, and stuttering in general? If you need a topic for a research paper, Merry and stuttering could be just the thing. Oh, and check out this list of very famous stutterers. Moses is on there.

Merry's Religious Trajectory

A big part of Merry's life, both on and below the surface, is religion. We use "religion" in the sense of these broad definitions:

  • A particular system of faith and worship; and
  • A pursuit, interest, or movement, followed with great devotion(OED Online)

So, we can include her childhood penchant for Catholic saints (inspired by Grandma Dwyer), her political positionings, and her Jainism, to name only those most discussed in the novel.

Lou Levov's perspective on raising a child without a set religious faith is important here. Dawn and the Swede believe Merry should be allowed to choose her religion when she's older; Lou believes this is a recipe for disaster. He believes that children need a solid, single religious faith and religious community for support and stability. Some readers will identify strongly with this position. But, would a stronger single religious affiliation have made a difference for Merry?

She's definitely religiously inclined; she looks for solutions in movements and systems which others have designed and then she makes them her own. She's taking a very post-modern approach to religion, drawing whatever she finds useful in her quest to find something to believe in, and something to help her live rightly in the world.

Could she have found such solutions in further devotions to Catholicism or in Judaism (as Lou would argue)? Could she have found it in religions not commonly known or understood by westerners, like the Jainism she eventually adopts? Had Merry been exposed to Jainism as a child, would she have still thrown bombs?

If Jerry is accurate, Merry lives until 1993, to the age of forty-one. We would bet that her religious searching and her religious reinvention continues. Whether she finds a way to live easier in the world, we don't know. But we have a feeling that whatever her religious choices, she will continue to live as an outsider, yearning for human connections and a just world.

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