Study Guide

Rita Cohen in American Pastoral

By Philip Roth

Rita Cohen

Rita Cohen is high up on the Most Outrageous Characters Ever list. She's sinister, malicious, and perverse. This tiny, young woman will say anything. Her social filter is in serious need of replacement. In addition to taunting the Swede sexually, while imitating Merry, she calls him:

" […] a s***ty little capitalist who exploits the brown and yellow people of the word and lives in luxury behind the n*****-proof security gates of his mansion." (4.68)

And this is one of her tamest lines. She's so wacky that readers and the Swede are constantly questioning her existence.

So, is Rita "real?" In terms of the fictional structure Nathan Zuckerman creates, she's not only real, but vital to the structure. Remove Rita and the novel falls apart. She's the Swede's only link to Merry, and finally, after five years, it proves to be a true link. She leads the Swede to his daughter. Without Rita, he might never have found her, and American Pastoral would be a very different book.

But, we find no Rita Cohen-like character suggested in the novel's opening section, where Zuckerman describes the "real" materials he gathers to construct the Swede's story. So, she might well be a figment of Zuckerman's imagination in a way that the other characters are not. Still, she's more than a plot device leading the Swede to Merry. As noted in Zuckerman's section, Zuckerman reportedly wrote the following lines to his creator, Philip Roth:

[…] I owe everything to you, while you, however, owe me nothing less than the freedom to write freely. I am your permission, your indiscretion, the key to disclosure.

Rita gives Zuckerman and Roth some of that freedom: some of that permission to tell everything. In a story chock-full of extreme characters, Rita goes where no character has gone before. What are her first words to the Swede when he comes to the hotel with the money for Merry?

In shocking parody of Merry she says, "Come to f*** Rita Cohen, have you? […] Let's f-f-f-f***, D-d-d-dad" (4.120, 122). And she doesn't get less vulgar as the novel goes on. So, in addition to linking Merry and the Swede, she's a repository for the outrageous, and for interesting points of view that would be hard to get out in the open in any other way.

Now here's something ironic. While the Swede is trying to sort everything out in his brain, he thinks, at one point, "Rita Cohen does not exist" (9.16). Yet, without her, he could not have found his daughter. But, since Merry denies knowing her, he can't make sense of either Rita or Merry.

With Rita the story falls apart, too. All semblance of order is destroyed. If Rita's version of events is true, if she is really Merry's "Disciple" (5.1) and/or her lover, and if she initially sent Rita to the Swede to ask for her personal items, and for money, then what are we to make of the story Merry tells the Swede?

This is the paradox that plagues the Swede and why he wants to believe Rita doesn't exist. So long as she exists nothing makes sense. If she is some figment of his mind, then he can believe Merry and at least have a story with a beginning, middle and end, each in its proper place. But, if Rita is a figment then how can we (or he) trust anything else in the story?

And this is the point of Rita Cohen. To inject uncertainty in the novel. To make us question what we are reading. To make us question our realities. In fact, she tells the Swede as much, when he asks what she's after. She says, "The aim? Sure. To introduce you to reality. That's the aim" (4.132).

Postmodernity finds reality in the fragments of the war torn world, in individual stories, in outrageousness. It also finds reality constantly deferred, and never quite within our reach. Rita Cohen is here for us in the novel for the same reason she's here for the Swede, to make us uncomfortable, and to "test" reality, pushing us (and the Swede) to interrogate it further.

She's also here to remind us that we are in the midst of fictional world that doesn't have all the answers, a fictional world which provokes us, but never ties things up neatly.

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