Study Guide

Seymour Irving Levov (The Swede) in American Pastoral

By Philip Roth

Seymour Irving Levov (The Swede)

"The Swede" (1.1) is the first sentence of American Pastoral, which is a big ol' clue that the Swede is our hero, the guy who carries the story on his shoulders. The Swede is a high school and college sports star—a hero to everyone in his neighborhood. Women want him and men want to be him. In high school he even has his own cheer (which is also a pronunciation guide):

"Swede Levov! It rhymes with… "The Love"… Swede Levov! It rhymes with… "The Love […]" (1.4)

Back in those days, Zuckerman is friends with the Swede's younger brother, Jerry, and so he actually gets to be inside the Swede's house. While there, he checks out what the Swede is reading—baseball books that Zuckerman himself reads as a result. He can't be the Swede, but he can read what the Swede reads (say that five times fast).

The first part of American Pastoral is spent setting up the Swede as Zuckerman's childhood idol. He worships him and, according to Zuckerman, so does the rest of the neighborhood. But it's the reasons behind this worship that are particularly interesting.

In any case, the Swede's appearance is very important. To Zuckerman he seems too perfect, too good, too responsible. When Zuckerman and the Swede meet for dinner at Vincent's a few months before the Swede's death at seventy years old, Zuckerman tries to see beyond the perfect surface. He wants to see the inner Swede, but fails. The tragedy of Merry, which Zuckerman learns about after the Swede's death, is the clue Zuckerman needs to imagine the Swede's inner life, "the substratum" (1.42).

American Idol

Of the few fair-complexioned Jewish students in our predominantly Jewish public high school none possessed anything remotely like the steep-jawed, insentient Viking mask of this blue-eyed blond. (1.1)

Why is the Swede worshiped in his neighborhood? Why does Zuckerman worship him? First of all, the Swede is a high school sports star during World War II. During that particular war, participation in sports was a way to show patriotism. As Zuckerman explains, even though the neighborhood is more focused on educational achievement, sports help the neighborhood deal with the pain of having family members fighting in the war. Having the Swede as their star makes this possible for them. This is due in large part to his looks.

Zuckerman explains:

The elevation of Swede Levov into the household Apollo of the Weequahic Jews can best be explained, I think, by the war against the Germans and the Japanese and the fear it fostered. (1.3)

Jewish people in America during this time knew that the Holocaust was going on, but not the full extent of it. They were very aware that Jewish people in America were still open to persecution and anti-Semitism. They want to show that they are true Americans to avoid losing the protection of the United States. They are also aware of the anti-Japanese sentiment in the US. During World War II, 120,000 people of Japanese origin in the US were interred in camps. There was lots of fear over looking or being too "different."

Zuckerman says that the tall, blond Swede embodies "the contradiction in Jews who want to fit in and want to stand out, who insist they are different and insist they are no different" (1.42). Zuckerman also asks:

Where was the Jew in him? You couldn't find it and yet you knew it was there. (1.41)

Because the Swede is both a Jew and a person who looks like a "perfect" blonde American, the neighborhood is able to "enter into a fantasy about itself" (1.2), a fantasy that sports can help them forget about "real life" and focus on, well, sports. The neighborhood uses sports as a way to "forget the war" (1. 2). Somehow the Swede gives them hope that their relatives fighting in the wars against Germany and Japan (World War II) will come home alive.

American Man

The Swede loves America, and he believes in a particular version of the American dream. He's worked hard all his life, played sports, even joined the Marines when he got out of his school (just before the end of World War II). He's the wealthy president of Newark Maid, the glove manufacturing plant built by his immigrant family from the ground up. He has a beautiful, strong wife and a wonderful daughter. He lives in a big stone house in the country and owns over a hundred acres.

When he buys the house, he tells his wife, "We own a piece of America, Dawn! I couldn't be happier if I tried" (7.143). It's not surprising that the Swede's own idol is Johnny Appleseed. The Swede thinks:

Johnny Appleseed, that's the man for me. Wasn't a Jew, wasn't an Irish Catholic, wasn't a protestant Christian —nope, Johnny Appleseed was just a happy American. (7.145)

Until Merry's bomb, the Swede is able to revel in America, in the fulfillment of his American dream. But Merry calls the Swede's version of America into question. She can't justify a life of wealth and privilege, a life she sees as built upon exploitation of poor American workers and on the people of nations like Vietnam (with whom the US was at war during the time she's growing up).

After Merry, the Swede still believes in his version of the American dream. He believes he's earned his life through hard work and dedication. He believes he's treated his workers well and that he's provided jobs for the community. But, because he can't forget what Merry's done and what's been done to her, he can no longer truly enjoy the dream. To survive the tragedy, he continues to wear the dream on the outside. He becomes an allegory for an America that looks good on the surface, but is chaos underneath.

Merry Swedemas

Is the Swede a good father to Merry? At one point in the story, he reveals that he would have had more children with Dawn, but she only agreed to one. So, he devotes himself to Merry. He spends lots of time with her, listening to her, talking to her, showing her affection. He's a good provider, but it doesn't seem like he spoils her. He understands where she's coming from, but tries to offer her some less extreme perspectives on life. Merry's always been a challenging kid, but he sees this is part of who she is; he loves her and sees her as beautiful.

It's hard, though, for the Swede to feel like father-of-the-year when Merry bombs a post office to protest the Vietnam War, killing a prominent doctor in the process. When she goes missing for years after, he's constantly questioning where he went wrong. There are several possibilities the Swede turns over and over in his head.

Was he too honest with Merry? At several points in the story, he worries that Merry's path in life was influenced when, at eleven years old, she watched Buddhist monks set themselves on fire as a protest to the communist takeover of Vietnam. Some might argue he shouldn't have let her watch this; that she was too young to watch such violence. Did this early exposure to radical political acts influence her later in life?

Was it the kiss? In one flashback, Merry "half innocently and half audaciously" (3.123) says, "Daddy, kiss me the way you k-k-kiss umumumother" (3.123). The Swede says, "N-n-no," and is immediately sorry. He's never made fun of her stutter before. Merry is hurt and the Swede kisses her on the mouth passionately.

The Swede wonders if 1) the kiss itself hurt Merry, and 2) he has "withdrawn from her too radically" afterwards to try to "let her know she needn't be concerned that he would lose his equilibrium again" (3.127). In other words, did she feel molested and/or rejected?

Did he not treat her like a human being? That's what the Swede's brother, Jerry, seems to think. He accuses the Swede of treating Merry like an object. When the Swede turns to him for support, Jerry yells, "As a thing—you loved her as a f***ing thing. The way you love your wife" (6.241).
He accuses the Swede of not doing the right thing by Merry because he's too concerned with appearances. Is this true?

American Pastoral ends on the night of September 1, 1973, Labor Day. (See "Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory".) On this day, the Swede meets Merry for the first time since she disappeared five years before. This reunion does nothing to ease his mind. The story she tells him of her past few years is a father's worst nightmare. She's set off more bombs, killing more people, and she's been raped several times. Though Merry now practices Jainism, a non-violent Indian religion, her new beliefs cause her to starve herself and live in absolute squalor. After the Swede sees Merry, we are told:

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

We don't get the details of the Swede's relationship with Merry between that day in 1973 and her supposed death in 1993. Jerry tells Zuckerman that he thinks they saw each other often, but we have no idea what their relationship is like. It's intriguing and heart wrenching to think of, though. Whether we are child, parent, or both we can relate to the Swede's dilemma: What do you do when your child is a wanted killer? Is it their fault? Yours? Both? How can you ever know? How can you find peace?

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