Study Guide

American Pastoral Part 1, Chapter 1

By Philip Roth

Part 1, Chapter 1

  • Part 1 is called "Paradise Remembered."
  • The novel begins with the following sentence: "The Swede." (1.1)
  • The narrator (unnamed at this point) explains that the Swede is the name of an amazing "high school athlete" (1.1) when the narrator was a kid.
  • Then we get a flashback:
  • The Swede is amazing in part because of his looks.
  • The narrator says that "the few fair complexioned Jews in our predominantly Jewish public high school" (1.1) don't look anything like the Swede.
  • The Swede is Jewish, too, but he doesn't look Jewish. He has blue eyes, blond hair. He looks like a Viking.
  • (Viking: "any of the Scandinavian people who raided the coasts of Europe from the 8th to the 11th centuries." Swedish people are Scandinavian, hence the nickname.)
  • The Swede has starring roles in high school football, basketball, and baseball.
  • As long as the Swede is on the team, everybody is happy, win or lose.
  • The parents of the Jewish kids in the neighborhood, many of them without education, work really hard to support families and value education (grades) over sports.
  • Because of the Swede, 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 war against Germany and Japan (World War II) will come home alive.
  • The neighborhood worships him like a god.
  • The narrator wonders what this must have been like for the Swede.
  • At the games, The Swede even has his own cheer:
  • "Swede Levov! It rhymes with… "The Love!"...[…]" (1.4).
  • No grownups are ever rude to him. They show him respect and call him "Swede." Some of the mothers call him "Seymour" (his real name).
  • Sometimes girls call him "Levov of my life!" (1.5).
  • In those days, the narrator is friends with the Swede's brother, Jerry Levov.
  • Jerry is kind of the opposite of the Swede—skinny, dark, and brainy.
  • He doesn't really have any friends other than the narrator.
  • Jerry would invite the narrator over to play ping pong in the basement of the Levov house.
  • Jerry plays ping pong super aggressively.
  • The narrator normally wouldn't put his life in danger like that, but he likes telling people he hangs around the Swede's house.
  • The narrator used to think it would be awesome to be the Swede's brother, but now he thinks it must have been awful.
  • In the Swede's room, the narrator sees a set of books by John R. Tunis about baseball.
  • This is when the narrator is ten. He reads those books and loves them. He imagines the Swede as the young hero, Kid.
  • He says those books are about "a sweet star unjustly punished" (1.11), and in his mind the Swede and the hero of the books are the same person.
  • The Levovs live on Keer Avenue, where other wealthy Jewish people in the neighborhood live.
  • The narrator's father is a chiropodist (foot doctor) and makes enough for the narrator's family to get by on.
  • But the Levovs are rich; the Swede's father, Lou Levov, has an extremely successful business manufacturing ladies' gloves.
  • (Now we go deeper back in the past, and then forward again)
  • Lou's father (the Swede's grandfather) comes to Newark, New Jersey (where much of the novel is set) in the 1890s. He works in awful conditions in the leather industry, tanning leather and making leather goods.
  • Lou starts working in tanning when he's fourteen and spends lots of time among the grease and "hunks of skin all over the floor" (1.14)—the brutal environment of the tannery.
  • Lou and his brothers eventually open their own business, but it goes bankrupt. Alone, Lou starts Newark Maid Leatherwear soon after.
  • He doesn't really start making any money until 1942 when the Women's Army Corps orders dress gloves from him.
  • Then he gets a huge account, the Bamberger account.
  • Bamberger's admiration of the teenage athletic star, the Swede, plays a big role in Lou getting the account.
  • By the end of World War II (1945) the business begins to prosper and is stable.
  • In 1958 they open a factory in Puerto Rico, and the Swede becomes president of his father's company.
  • He now lives in Rimrock New, Jersey, "a wealthy, rural" (1.16) small town on a big farm. He commutes to Newark every day to work at Newark Maid.
  • (Now, we're moving back to the past again.)
  • In June of 1945 the Swede graduates high school and joins the Marine Corp.
  • The narrator hears rumors that his parents are trying to get him to join the navy instead, fearing "notorious Marine Corp anti-Semitism." (1.17)
  • But, the Swede wants to be among "the toughest of the tough." (1.17)
  • He is still in basic training in Parris Island, South Carolina when the US bombs Hiroshima and the war soon comes to an end.
  • So, the Swede spends his time as a Marine on Parris Island as a drill instructor.
  • He gets engaged to "an Irish Catholic girl" (1.17).
  • Lou Levov comes down to Parris Island and doesn't leave until the couple is broken up.
  • The Swede comes home in 1947, when he's twenty, and enrolls in Upsala College.
  • At this point in time, the narrator is in high school. He and his friends would go to watch the Swede play baseball at the home games.
  • When the narrator is in college he hears that the Swede has joined Newark Maid.
  • He later hears that the Swede is married to a Miss New Jersey who competed in the 1949 Miss America Contest.
  • "A shiksa," the narrator thinks. "Dawn Dwyer. He'd done it." (1.18)
  • ("Shiksa" is a term that shows up often in Roth novels. Shiksas are any non-Jewish women. The term can be used derogatorily or for humorous effect. Jewish parents like Lou Levov don't want their sons marrying shiksas.)
  • (Now the novel skips forward)
  • In 1985 the narrator is in New York with friends to watch a baseball game, the New York Mets vs. the Houston Astros.
  • Suddenly, the narrator sees the Swede, who is thirty-six years older than when Zuckerman last saw him.
  • He's looking good and is wearing an incredibly nice suit. He has a child with him, obviously a son.
  • The narrator goes up to the Swede and tells him he used to be friends with the Swede's brother in the neighborhood.
  • The Swede says to the narrator, "You're Zuckerman? […] The author?" (1.20)
  • Zuckerman says that he is indeed Zuckerman the author.
  • They make a little small talk. The Swede introduces Zuckerman and his son, Chris; Zuckerman introduces the Swede and his friends.
  • When the Swede leaves, he calls Zuckerman "Skip."
  • His friends tease him about it. This was Zuckerman's nickname when he was a kid because he skipped some grades.
  • After the Swede leaves, one of Zuckerman's friends tells him, "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).
  • Ten years later (1995), Zuckerman gets a letter from the Swede.
  • In the letter, the Swede says he wants to take Zuckerman to dinner in New York City and talk to him.
  • He says that his father (Lou) died the year before, at ninety-six.
  • The Swede has been "trying to write a tribute" (1.37) to Lou to share with friends and family, and he wants Zuckerman's advice.
  • He ends the letter by saying, "Not everyone knew how much he suffered because of the shocks that befell his loved ones" (1.39).
  • He says he'll understand if Zuckerman doesn't have time to meet him.
  • Zuckerman tells us that he wouldn't normally agree to meet someone to talk about a tribute for their father.
  • But he has "compelling reasons for […] getting a note off to the Swede — within the hour" (1.42), agreeing to meet him.
  • First, the Swede was his idol, and he is flooded with memories of him.
  • Zuckerman wonders "where was the Jew" (1.45) in the Swede? He thinks, "You couldn't find it yet you knew it was there" (1.45).
  • The Swede just looks and acts so perfectly "all-American."
  • He wonders, "what did [the Swede] do for subjectivity? What was the Swede's subjectivity?" (1.45)
  • (In other words, is the Swede something besides his perfect good looks, his complete success, and his star quality? A person's "subjectivity" is their introspection, their self-analysis, their beliefs and desires: what is "under their skin.")
  • Because Zuckerman idolized the Swede, he can't imagine anything that is under his perfect surface.
  • Zuckerman tells us that "the second reason [he answers] the Swede's letter" (1.46) is because he's curious about the Swede's "substratum," (1.42) what's underneath his visible surface.
  • He wants to know about the Swede's inner life, and if there were things that challenged and disrupted all that perfection.
  • Zuckerman knows that "no one gets through unmarked by brooding, grief, confusion, and loss" (1.47).
  • But Zuckerman just can't imagine it in the case of the Swede.
  • Zuckerman ponders the line in the letter where the Swede talks about shocks.
  • He thinks that, "The Swede has suffered a shock" (1.47) and that this shock is what he really wants to talk about.
  • But, Zuckerman tells us, "I was wrong" (1.49).
  • He and the Swede meet at the Italian restaurant, Vincent's, where the Swede is a regular, and Zuckerman can see instantly that he isn't going to get anywhere near the substratum.
  • Rather, the Swede seems to be showing Zuckerman that nothing has changed; the Swede is just as adored and worshiped as before.
  • The Swede doesn't have to order. His running order for the past thirty years is baked ziti and clams posillipo.
  • Zuckerman orders chicken cacciatore.
  • Now Zuckerman is bored.
  • The Swede comes out with (groan) the photos of his children, Chris, 18, Steve, 16, and Kent, 14.
  • Their mother is a blond woman who looks about forty.
  • As the meal "wore on" (1. 55), Zuckerman sees more and more surface Swede. Still no sign of what could be underneath.
  • The Swede, he thinks, is "incognito" (1.55), a person with a hidden identity.
  • Soon, Zuckerman wonders if the Swede might actually be insane, if something has "warned him" (1.56) against ever "run[ing] counter to anything" (1.56).
  • The Swede is almost seventy, six or seven years older than Zuckerman, and still a perfectly beautiful specimen. Still, he looks hollow around the cheeks.
  • When they are almost finished eating Zuckerman finds out it's because the Swede had prostate surgery less than a year ago, and has lost weight as a result.
  • At some time during the conversation, Zuckerman asks the Swede about business.
  • Apparently, Newark Maid had left Newark in the 1970s.
  • After the 1967 riots the Swede had kept the factory open for another six or so years and then moved it out of town.
  • Now, we get a long paragraph of the Swede telling Zuckerman how dangerous Newark is these days.
  • He says it's "the worst city in the world" (1.60).
  • Kids stealing cars, and people being murdered.
  • The Swede's own car was stolen at gunpoint by a twelve-year-old kid just before he closed the Newark factory for good.
  • As of now, Newark Maid is in Puerto Rico.
  • He used to partner with a Czechoslovakian glove manufacturer, but now it's just the Puerto Rican plant.
  • (What used to be Czechoslovakia is now two states, Czech Republic and Slovakia. In 1973, Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule.)
  • When Zuckerman asks, the Swede provides details of the glove making process and of the glove itself.
  • Soon, the Swede brings the conversation back around to the kids and Zuckerman is totally bored, wishing he could get the Swede to talk about gloves again.
  • Before desert, the Swede and Zuckerman talk prostate cancer.
  • Apparently, Zuckerman has friends who had the surgery.
  • One of them, he tells the Swede is now "impotent and incontinent" (1.64) (he can't have sex or hold his urine).
  • Zuckerman tells us that the person he's talking about is actually himself.
  • The Swede still hasn't brought up his father, which is what the dinner was supposed to be about.
  • He thinks the Swede is completely mysterious, like a code that can't be cracked.
  • Zuckerman imagines that the Swede asked him here because, "He wants something recorded" (1.74).
  • He wonders what it could be.
  • Then he thinks that maybe the Swede is just a happy guy—such people do exist.
  • For some reason, Zuckerman asks the Swede if his brother, Jerry, is gay.
  • The Swede finds this amusing.
  • Zuckerman remembers that when he and Jerry were kids, Jerry made a hamster skin coat for a girl as a Valentine's Day present.
  • (So here's another flashback.)
  • He gets the skins from biology students at school and sets about skinning them and drying them in the sun.
  • He lines it with cloth cut from a parachute the Swede had brought home from his Marine Corps days.
  • The coat is too stiff and Jerry can't get it into the fancy department store box, so he and Zuckerman have too tear it apart and re-stitch it so it folds.
  • The girl freaks out when she opens the box.
  • His father gets mad at him for not properly curing the skins and for cutting up the Swede's parachute.
  • Jerry knows the coat smells awful, so he pours his mother's expensive perfume all over it.
  • By the time it gets to the girl's house, it smells really, really awful.
  • She thinks Jerry hunted the hamsters himself and made the coat as some kind of cruel joke.
  • (Flashback over)
  • The Swede tells Zuckerman that Jerry is a heart surgeon now and has been married four times.
  • He asks the Swede how many times he's been married. He thinks the Swede's wife in the picture looks too young to be a first wife, but he can't imagine the Swede getting a divorce.
  • The Swede says, "Two wives, that's my limit" (1. 96).
  • Jerry, he says, keeps marrying the nurses in his office and has six kids.
  • Lou Levov didn't like it, but he loved his grandchildren and each of Jerry's wives.
  • Apparently, Jerry is a very abrasive figure who gets what he wants by yelling.
  • The conversation never does get around to the "shocks" the Swede promised in his letter. Zuckerman wonders why he wants to see inside the Swede so badly.
  • He leaves the dinner with the feeling that the Swede is "the embodiment of nothing."
  • He tells us, "I was wrong. I was never more mistaken about anyone in my life" (1.100).

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