Study Guide

American Pastoral Memory and the Past

By Philip Roth

Memory and the Past

"I figured that of all the forms of bulls***-nostalgia available this was the one least likely to be without unsettling surprises" (3.9)

Zuckerman goes to the high school reunion hoping for a blast from the past that will hopefully give him an idea for a new book. He doesn't come right out and say this, but we can read between the lines.

"You should have seen your face—you might well have told us he was Zeus. I saw just what you looked like as a boy." (1.35)

Zuckerman's friend makes this comment after they run into the Swede in 1985. This provides some verification that Zuckerman isn't just making up his idolization of the Swede.

[…] how had he become history's plaything? (3.118)

Because Merry's action was so extreme, it is part of history. It's recorded in the newspapers and in the files of the FBI. As her father, he doesn't make history himself, but is controlled by the historical events around him.

There was no longer any innocence in what he remembered of his past. (3.129)

When we come to know how much the Swede loves his life before the bomb drops, this moment is extremely poignant. In a way, he becomes like Merry and now looks back on his ideal American life with an eye towards its global implications. With that view, the whole world seems sinister and inexplicable.

It could have been his father talking to her. For all he knew, every word of every sentence uttered by him he had heard from his father's mouth before he finished grad school […]. (4.9)

The Swede is extremely influenced by the memories of his father. His Dad's words are ingrained in his brain. Do you ever find yourself repeating the words of your parents? Is the Swede extreme in this regard?

Momentarily it was then again—nothing blown up, nothing ruined. (4.11)

The sight of Rita Cohen at Newark Maid, diligently taking notes and asking questions reminds him of Merry and of a more innocent time.

The stupendousness of the rape blotted out everything. (6.216)

Even though the Swede didn't see Merry raped, the fresh memory of her description of it, combined with his own imagining, creates a memory that he probably won't be able to forget for the rest of his life.

What she did not tell him about was Merry in her house—after the bombing, Merry hiding in her house. (8.64)

This is one of the secrets from the not-so-distant past that comes out when the Swede meets Merry. It definitely colors the memory of his affair with Sheila, which must have started almost right after she hid Merry. It also makes his memories of not knowing where Merry was even more frustrating. He thinks it would have made a difference if Sheila had called him, but he isn't sure how.

On the desk their used to be a snapshot of Merry, age thirteen. (9.29)

Dawn appears to be doing everything in her power to erase her memories of Merry. Some readers think this is selfish and cold; others agree with the Swede and think she's doing it to save her life. What do you think?

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