Follow TV Tropes


Literature / American Pastoral

Go To

"He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach that it makes no sense."

Considered by many to be one of Philip Roth's greatest works, the 1997 novel American Pastoral chronicles the life of Seymour "the Swede" Levov, the hero of a Jewish neighborhood in Newark whom the narrator idolized in childhood and who still fascinates him. At the beginning of the story, Levov appears to be a one-dimensional personification of bland American decency, but then we learn a few things about him. For instance, his beloved daughter bombed a post office and killed a local doctor in order to protest the Vietnam War.

Adapted into a feature film in 2016. Ewan McGregor directs and stars as Levov; also in the cast are Jennifer Connelly and Dakota Fanning.

Tropes include:

  • Author Avatar: The narrator, Zuckerman, is thought to be a version of Roth himself, though he's actually a very minor character.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: A non-incestuous father-daughter instance occurs when Swede and Merry reunite for the first time in five years. Despite all the terrible things that happened between them, they cry and hold onto each other and express their love... and then trouble starts again.
  • Foreshadowing: Much is made in the movie of the fact that Merry has trouble making friends in her little town, which begs the question where did she come by her radical leftist political ideas and New York friends. She got them from her therapist, who has connections with the radical movement.
  • Godwin's Law: During a dinner argument, Lou Levov compares pornography to the Holocaust. Slightly subverted in that he's a traditional Jewish man who lived through WWII (albeit in the United States) and understands how awful Hitler was.
  • Riddle for the Ages: We never find out just who "Rita Cohen" really was and whether she really knew Merry or not.
  • Shout-Out: Several to Leo Tolstoy, particularly The Death of Ivan Ilyich; Zuckerman compares the Swede's life to Tolstoy's protagonist, who lives a happy, satisfying life but dies forgotten by everyone. Roth even paraphrases Ilyich in the novel's final chapter.
  • So Beautiful, It's a Curse: Dawn, the Swede's wife, briefly became famous as a model and beauty pageant contestant in her early 20s. An intelligent and ambitious woman, she deeply resents how it makes people unable to take her seriously, and (it's implied) short-circuited her plans to become a music teacher. Besides the obvious of Merry's disappearance, a big part of her mental breakdown comes from her facing how much her life has been defined by her appearance, to the point where she undergoes a face lift to overcome her depression.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Nathan Zuckerman (although it is easy to forget that he's the one narrating the story, as he disappears as a character at some point during the 3rd chapter). Having access only to some of the bare facts of the Swede's life, and confronted with his apparent "blankness", Nathan Zuckerman claims concerning his story that he "dreamed a realistic chronicle", and speculates at some point about the objections that the Swede's brother would make.
  • Where Did We Go Wrong?: The Swede struggles with this question in the entire book.