Study Guide

American Pastoral Guilt and Blame

By Philip Roth

Guilt and Blame

No one gets through unmarked by brooding, grief, confusion, and loss. (1.46)

Zuckerman is basically trying to humanize the Swede by imagining his pain. He's saying that if he is human, he must suffer and he must feel guilty about something.

"The Swede has suffered a shock." (1.47)

Since this is a Philip Roth book, there's a good chance there's a healthy dose of guilt mixed up with this shock that Zuckerman is (almost sadistically) trying to uncover.

I am thinking of the Swede's great fall and of how he must have imagined that it was founded on some failure of his own responsibility. […] It doesn't matter if he was the cause of anything. He makes himself responsible anyway. (3.121)

Doesn't it sound fun to be the hero in a Zuckerman story? But really, this is after Zuckerman learns of the bombing. Wouldn't this be true of many parents in a similar situation?

"To pay everybody back for her stuttering, she set of the bomb." (3.71)

One might expect a more medically accurate statement from hot-shot cardiac surgeon Jerry Levov. He's close though, at least on one level. Merry tells the Swede that working with bombs made her stop stuttering.

"Daddy, kiss me the way you k-k-kiss umummother." (3.123)

The first thing Zuckerman thinks the Swede might have done to feel guilty about is the questionable kiss that the Swede gives Merry. It's not just kissing her that makes him feel guilty, however, but also the way he physically withdrew from her afterwards. As far as we know, this is one thing the Swede and Merry never discuss.

"She is an extremely bright and vindictive child. […] I'm telling you that stuttering can be an extremely manipulative, an extremely useful, if not even a vindictive type of behavior." (3.134)

Merry's psychiatrist is blaming Merry for her stuttering. He claims it's a reaction against having two extraordinarily good-looking and successful parents.

"Don't you know what made Merry Merry? Sixteen years of living in a household where she is hated by that mother." (4.90)

Rita blames Dawn—not necessarily for the bombing (which Rita undoubtedly thinks is a good thing), but for Merry's unhappy childhood.

That was what had done it. Into their home the monk came to stay, the Buddhist monk calmly sitting out his burning up as though he were a man both fully alert and anesthetized. (4.181)

The novel questions the role the media plays in shaping the realities of both adults and children. In this way, it enters the debate over what is appropriate viewing for children at different ages.

"I killed four people," she replied, as innocently as she might have once told him, "I baked cookies in the afternoon." (6.189)

There goes the Swede's hopes of Merry's innocence, although he continues to see her as a victim for sure.

Now that he could not stop imagining the rapes, there was no relief, not for one second, from the desire to go out and kill somebody. (6.209)

The worst of the guilt and blame come out in the Swede once he hears about the rapes.

"As a thing—you loved her as a f***ing thing. The way you love your wife." (6.241)

The Swede does seem rather blind to the real Dawn and admits to us that her beauty is a huge part of his attraction to her. (Big surprise!) He seems to negate, at least in his mind, her own versions of her life when they differ from his. He seems less guilty of doing this to Merry.

"I gave her all I could, everything, everything. […] I swear to you I gave everything." And now he is crying easily, there is no line between him and his crying […] (6.271)

This is the Swede after Jerry has told him in no uncertain terms that everything is his fault.

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