American Pastoral Summary

Philip Roth

American Pastoral

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

American Pastoral Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of American Pastoral by Philip Roth.

American novelist Philip Roth first rose to prominence in 1959 with the publication of his novella Goodbye, Columbus, which won the National Book Award for Fiction. His fame gained an even wider scope a decade later with his controversial 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint. American Pastoral was published in 1997 and has as its narrator Nathan Zuckerman, a character who appeared in Roth’s previous novels The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson, The Prague Orgy, and The Counterlife, and who would emerge in subsequent works as well. American Pastoral was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. In addition to the aforementioned narrative voice of Zuckerman, at points the novel also employs a limited third person voice although mostly filtered through the character known as “the Swede.”

American Pastoral’s central character, Seymour Levov of Newark, New Jersey is the oldest of Lou and Sylvia Levov’s children. Lou Levov is a Jewish American businessman who runs a successful company manufacturing gloves. Seymour is nicknamed “the Swede” in reference to his blond hair and blue eyes. He is a handsome high school athlete as well as a veteran of the Marine Corps. Seymour is held in high esteem by Nathan Zuckerman. Zuckerman is close friends with his classmate, Seymour’s younger brother, Jerry, who grows up to be a heart surgeon. Seymour eventually marries Dawn Dwyer, a beauty queen he met while in college, and he takes over his father’s factory. In Seymour’s mind, he has found the ideal American life, which includes his wife, a daughter, and a career in business that he enjoys. Changes in the world around him, however, begin to erode the happy life he has built. A meeting of Nathan and Jerry on the occasion of their forty-fifth high school reunion serves as a frame for the rest of the novel.

By the late 1960s, racial tensions are rampant in America, and the escalating Vietnam War is breeding widespread national unrest; Newark is a city in decline. Seymour and Dawn’s daughter, Meredith, who is known as Merry, is in crisis like the world around her. She is against the war and suffers from a stutter. Her approach to the unsettling factors in her life is becoming more and more radical in nature. Merry’s discontent and rebelliousness come to a head when, in February of 1968, she plants a bomb in the local post office. When the bomb ignites and kills an innocent bystander, Merry flees and goes into hiding. She is found by Seymour some five years later living in squalor in the inner-city area of Newark.

During the reunion with her father, Merry confesses to him that the event at the post office was not the only one for which she was responsible. Her other actions resulted in three additional deaths. He knows that Merry was responsible for what she did and for the fatal results, but Seymour elects to keep silent about what he has learned. He is of the belief that some political group has been manipulating his daughter. Also involved, he thinks, is Rita Cohen, a character that is something of a mystery and who, within the context of the book, at times seems a figment of the narrator’s imagination.

Further complications arise in Seymour’s life. There is a dinner party at which he finds out that Dawn is having an affair with William Orcutt, an architect. Seymour realizes that she plans to leave him for Orcutt. Seymour had, for a short while, been involved in an affair of his own with Sheila Salzman, Merry’s speech therapist. Sheila and her husband had hidden Merry in their home following the bombing at the post office. Seymour finds himself feeling conflicted about all of the people in his life. It seems to him that everyone acts in a subversive manner at times while maintaining an appearance of being upstanding as well, so it seems impossible to him to discover the truth about anyone. The pastoral life he thought he was living is being threatened by changes in society that, while he still might not fully comprehend, he cannot ignore. In what is in some ways a microcosm of the world at large, Seymour also realizes from the dinner party that a person can never fully understand what is in the heart of another.

The themes Roth deals with in American Pastoral may not break new ground in his canon, but The New York Times Review of Books suggests that it stretches the scope of the themes. “Certainly the vexing relationship between fathers and children, and the mind-boggling disparity between one’s expectations of the world and its grim reality are perennial issues for Mr. Roth’s heroes, but in Pastoral, they are turned from purely personal dilemmas into broader social ones. We are made to contemplate the demise of the immigrant dream cherished by men like Seymour’s father, the souring of the generational struggle during the 60s, and the connections between assimilation and rootlessness and anomie.”