Study Guide

American Pastoral Family

By Philip Roth

Family

[…] men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything. And we were their sons. It was our job to love them. (1.12)

Zuckerman is signaling us that father-son relationships feature in the novel. He's also giving us a peak into the philosophy that's helped to shape the Swede, who does keep going despite everything.

"Two wives, that's my limit." (1. 96)

The Swede seems to toss this off casually to Zuckerman at Vincent's in 1995. When we learn about his life with Dawn, the first wife, they have a deeper resonance.

"I always knew he knew where she was. He'd been going to see her in hiding for years. I believe he saw her frequently." (3.71)

These lines near the beginning of American Pastoral are the way we know the Swede probably continues a relationship with Merry after Labor Day, 1973.

"I miss my daughter." (3.70)

Four really heart wrenching words, even though we don't know the whole story. The image of the Swede, sitting in his car crying while the rest of the family celebrates is painful.

"She's dead, Jerry." (3.70)

This is how we know that Merry dies in 1993 at about forty-one years old. We don't know how she dies, or what her life was like after 1973.

If only he could have let her just fade away. But not even the Swede was that great. (3.104)

These lines can be read as ironic, or not, or both at the same time. Is it really "great" to forget about a child, whatever the circumstances are? Or are there times when it's in the best interest of all involved to let the child go? Would your feelings toward the Swede change if he had forgotten about Merry?

The worst of the world has taken his child. If only that beautifully chiseled body had never been born. (3.217)

In this awful moment, the Swede's wishing that Merry had never been born seems to have much more to do with her being raped than with her killing people

"Christ, you even gave him a mistress. Perfectly misjudged, Zuck. Absolutely off." (3.79)

This is what Zuckerman imagines Jerry will say if Zuckerman sends him the book about the Swede. Nice way to discreetly foreshadow the revelation of the Swede's affair with Sheila?

"Black or brown, honey." (4.41)

That's the Swede, about to make Rita Cohen a pair of Newark Maid gloves, before he knows she's psychopathic. He's calling her honey because she somehow reminds him of Merry, and life feels the way it was before the bomb.

Three generations in raptures over America. […] And now with the fourth it has all come to nothing. The total vandalization of their world. (5.13)

Lou Levov's father came to the US in the 1890s. Merry is the fourth generation American child. She shatters the American dreams of her family.

When he overheard her telling the architect, Bill Orcutt, that she had always hated the house, the Swede was as stunned as if she were telling Orcutt she hated her husband. (5.24)

When the Swede sees Dawn and Orcutt having sex together in the kitchen, he does feel hated by Dawn. Do you think she hates him?

[…] he saw Meditation #27 go up on the very spot where once there had been a portrait of Merry that he'd loved […] (7.150)

A chilling moment for the theme of family. Merry's photograph is replaced by one of Orcutt's paintings of nothing. It seems really harsh, but grief makes people act in desperate ways.

He has seen that we don't come from one another, that it only appears we come from one another. (9.343)

The Swede seems to be saying that there is something beyond genes and blood that decides which child is born to which parents.

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