Zuckerman the Unreliable
American Pastoral is narrated by Philip Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman, a friend and admirer of the Levovs, in particular of Seymour “The Swede” Levov. Zuckerman tells the story of The Swede’s tragic fall from youthful perfection due to his daughter’s act of terrorism in protest of the Vietnam War. However, if Zuckerman is truly a friend and peer of the Swede, Zuckerman’s seemingly omniscient knowledge of the Swede’s private affairs and liaisons proves that Zuckerman simply made up much of the Swede’s exciting life.
From an early age, Zuckerman is infatuated with the perfection of the Swede and his embodiment of the American Dream. When the Swede calls Zuckerman “Skip,” Zuckerman tells the reader, “I was thrilled. I blushed, I was thrilled,” which clearly denotes how emotionally charged Zuckerman was after being given a fairly innocent and common nickname. However, the tricolon of terse first-person verbs and the repetition of “I was thrilled,” emphasizes that this was a very personal moment for Zuckerman and that the “secret, personal link” they apparently shared had an immediate, deep effect. This obsession and hyperbolic reaction to an ordinary scene suggests that Zuckerman is blindly infatuated with the Swede, a fact which might ultimately lead him to make scenes up or read too much into the Levovs’ lives, clear signs of an unreliable narrator. Moreover, at the very beginning of the novel, Zuckerman opens with simply “The Swede” before mentioning that Zuckerman himself was a classmate of the Swede’s younger brother, and only ten pages after that do we finally acknowledge that Zuckerman is “the author.” Indeed, even when we do find out the identity of the narrator, it is entirely subordinate to the Swede’s —“The Swede’s younger brother was my classmate…’You’re Zuckerman?’/‘I’m Zuckerman.’” Zuckerman, then, does this to set out the novel as entirely about the Swede’s life, which would perhaps suggest a level of reliability; however, by placing his own hopefully unbiased ideas as accessory to the story, Zuckerman allows for them to be altered depending on the excitement and thrill that the Swede is generating. Roth’s narrator thus “appears as self-deceived as the character he is attempting to lay bare” (Literary Kicks) as he does anything to persuade himself that the Swede’s life is exceptional.
Zuckerman, fairly early on in the novel, admits that what he will write may actually be wrong. He tells the reader that “You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people…without an overload of bias,” which at first reading somewhat explains the task of a biographer: to view the person’s life as impartially and objectively as possible, documenting simply the facts of that life. However, Zuckerman then admits that “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living.” Such ideas invert Zuckerman’s early explanation, as he implies that even though one might attempt to be unprejudiced, it is futile and we thus get the wrong understanding. However, while the passage presents some brutal honesty and “is clearly intended as a disclaimer” (Literary Kicks), we cannot pass over the fact that Zuckerman openly admits that what he is about to write is most likely wrong, no matter whether he perceives that imperfection as human nature. Indeed, not only does the “bias” extend to his initial misreading of the Swede, but also to his overall documentation of life. Only thirty-five pages in, and Zuckerman himself has told us that he is an unreliable narrator.
Zuckerman narrates the novel seemingly omnisciently, telling the reader of various episodes which may never have happened. He openly leaves time gaps in the narrative, and the use of hindsight in Roth’s storyline could suggest that Zuckerman then spends the remaining novel filling in those breaks. Zuckerman writes about “One night in the summer of 1985” only to then jump on the next page to a letter received “a couple of weeks before Memorial Day, 1995.” This ten year break perhaps implies that Zuckerman only has an firm idea of what occurred in 1985 and in 1995, and in order to tell the Swede’s story must imagine what happens in between. Later on in the novel, Zuckerman even writes “To the honey sweet strains of ‘Dream,’ I pulled away from myself…and I dreamed a realistic chronicle and…I found him in Deal,” prefacing an incestuous moment between the Swede and his 11 year old daughter at the beach—“Daddy, kiss me the way you k-k-kiss umumumother”. This language of dreaming and creation could only lead the reader to believe that Zuckerman turns away from the Swede’s actual life, and reimagines it, perversely, at a moment of extreme taboo.
Zuckerman’s knowledge of the moments with Rita Cohen in the hotel room, Merry’s confession to the bombings, and the affairs between Dawn and Orcutt and the Swede and Sheila all further begs one question: how does he know these things? However, in line with the belief that humans should always get it wrong, Zuckerman questions the art of writing, and suggests that making it up is what fiction is all about. He asks, “Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do…summoning people out of words…?” and concludes again that “It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong.” This metafiction whereby Zuckerman connotes that to strictly and accurately confine a person’s life into 400 pages is demeaning suggests that the life of the Swede is, within the story of American Pastoral, fictitious. In a way, Zuckerman becomes Roth’s alter-ego: “Zuckerman acts as an added layer between author and fiction” (Paul Smith). However, to argue that Zuckerman is Roth would be to suggest that Roth was a childhood friend of the Swede but then also omniscient, a paranormal statement. And so, the only conclusion is that the only reason Zuckerman can write about the Swede’s traumatic events is that he made them up. Zuckerman then, beyond the moments he does actually spend with the Swede, is not only unreliable but also entirely false.
The narrator thus questions what it means to be ordinary and debates, within the American lifestyle, whether this is actually a good thing. After the Swede tells Zuckerman about his “eighteen-year-old Chris, sixteen-year-old Steve, and fourteen-year-old Kent,” Zuckerman calls the Swede a “human platitude.” Zuckerman, perhaps sarcastically, writes that “Swede Levov’s life, for all I knew, had been most simply and most ordinary and therefore just great, right in the American grain.” And so this might imply that while earlier on Zuckerman saw the Swede as totally perfect, this conception has now gotten boring, and having become an author, Zuckerman desires a higher degree of excitement. Even further, however, “right in the American grain” becomes a criticism of the American Dream; if being ordinary means that the Swede has succeeded at the American Dream, then the American Dream must therefore be boring. In analyzing Zuckerman, “we can see his motivations for using the narrative to shape his own views of America” (Paul Smith). And so Zuckerman makes a foray into his metafiction once more, as he suggests that writing about an ordinary life is not worthwhile. Whenever authors have written about the American Dream — John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman — on the whole they have demonstrated the hardships and fruitlessness that come from trying to achieve this ideal. Hence, Zuckerman creates the Swede’s life as a vehicle for his own ideology, perhaps changing events to suit his own message. Perhaps even the opening tactic of entirely centering on the Swede was simply a way to trick the reader into thinking that the novel is uncontaminated with bias.
Within American Pastoral, Roth creates his narrator as a blindly infatuated yet finally cynical author, who openly admits that a writer’s job is to dream, get the truth wrong and makes things up to keep the story interesting. Indeed, while Roth’s statement could apply to even himself to suggest that perhaps he got Zuckerman’s life wrong to keep the story interesting, if we are to believe that Zuckerman is a narrator in his own right, the reader must conclude something rather different. The only reason that Zuckerman is able to know so much about the Swede’s private life and then remember it all to write in hindsight is that he made it up, and hence he is, ultimately, an unreliable narrator.
Appearance Versus Reality in Three Contemporary American Novels
Appearance versus reality is a major theme of contemporary American fiction. The characters of American Pastoral, We Were the Mulvaneys, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf may appear to be living one way, or portray a strong public face, but the reality of their lives contradicts the appearance that they adopt.Philip Roth creates an almost perfect and idealistic character, Swede, in his novel American Pastoral. The novel opens with Nathan Zuckerman and his high school reunion. As Zuckerman recalls his high school years he remembers Seymour Levov, or Swede, who was the picture of perfection. Swede was one of Zuckerman’s older brothers and someone to look up to and idealize. Swede was a star athlete, loved by all, successful in all that he attempted. As far as anyone could see Swede’s life was sure to be a success. After graduating from college Seymour, a Jew, married a Catholic woman and former Miss New Jersey. Swede had it all. In 1985 Zuckerman’s childhood model connected with him and asked to meet up. Zuckerman and Levov grabbed dinner in New York where Zuckerman had expected Levov to divulge his grief over the death of his father. Instead, most of the dinner was spent discussing Zuckerman’s home life. Swede wall a wall of bland exterior. He was polite, smooth, and cool, but it was clear that there was something he was not saying. Swede’s life was not as simple and glorious as Zuckerman had portrayed it to be early on.The initial appearance claims that the life of Seymour Levov will be one of a success. Then, his cool faced appearance at lunch present calm and control. In reality neither of these appearances holds to be true. Swede explains in the novel that “everything he shouts is wrong… causes, clear answers, who there is to blame. Reasons. But there are no reasons. She is obliged to be as she is. We all are…. Jerry tries to rationalize it but you can’t. This is all something else, something he knows absolutely nothing about. No one does. It is not rational. It is chaos. It is chaos from start to finish.” This quotation comes from Swede’s reflection on a conversation that he has with his brother, Jerry. Swede has been discussing his daughter Merry with Jerry. For the past five years Merry has been living a life away from her family in a world that the rest of the Levovs, particularly the older generations, cannot understand. Her father laments that his daughter has been raped, that she lives in a state of filth, and that she partakes in radical and dangerous bombings. Levov’s life, despite the original appearance, has been one of struggle, suffering, and difficulty as his familial life continually initiates stress into his situation.Jerry Levov blames Merry for the downfall of his brother. He claims that his brother’s life was destroyed by explaining her rebellion against her father and the subsequent stresses of her life choices. No matter how much evidence Jerry brings to the table, his claim cannot be as simple as it appears. Merry engages herself in political battles, partakes in bombings, runs away from her family, and much more. Jerry claims that these are the reasons his brother’s life fell apart. However, though it may seem that way to Jerry, the fact remains that Merry’s life can only be explained through chaos. In the aforementioned passage Swede seems to realize that there was no way to predict how Merry would react to any given upbringing. The result and her reaction of the way her father treated her and punished her are subject to many other things. It, like most in life, seems like pure chaos. The ability to predict an outcome, to know how a person will respond is nonexistent. The journey in which a single life take, that of Swede or Merry, cannot be fully understood and explained by the story of their life unless one accepts that chaos and a lack of concrete reasoning plays into how that person may end up. This reality is one that Jerry Levov cannot grasp, unlike his brother, due to the overwhelming appearance of the situation. So for many people, what appears to be masks the pure irrational nature of life.Another novel that addresses the theme of appearance versus reality is We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates. For the Mulvaney family public image is the key to life. This family, according to those around them, knows success and happiness. Michael Mulvaney, the father of the group, runs a successful roofing company whilst his wife, Caroline, runs the idyllic home and farm in addition to a small business. This power couple has everything one could ever dream for. Along with their multiple talents and financial stability the couple parent four children. Their children are well liked and great students. The picture of the perfect family is painted through what appears to be the Mulvaney way. However, despite the shiny exterior of the family, after Marianne, the daughter, experiences a trauma all they know and love falls apart. Suddenly, the Mulvaneys, a strong-willed and successful family was hiding behind anger, shame, and pain.Marianne is raped at a school dance and attempts to hide it from her parents. After the truth comes out her father moves to press charges against the boy, but Marianne will not testify against her rapist in court. Everything Michael ever was proves to be a lie. Michael could do nothing to regain his status as father, leader, and success. His world view collapsed upon him when he could not accurately protect his family and ensure success for every member. He could not help Marianne and that was a failure to large to face. Instead, he forgot about her presence; at least he tried to forget about her presence. In the novel, and to Marianne, it seemed that Michael no longer recognized his daughter at all. In appearance, he had erased her completely from his life. Eventually, Marianne was physically exiled from the home, and the appearance that Michael had forgotten his daughter grew stronger. In reality, this was simply a front to mask the pain he was suffering from. Michael failed his daughter through his inability to protect her. His ideal and perfect world proved to be a complete sham and his only way of coping is to resort to another sham: the façade of forgetfulness instead to reality of shame and anguish. As a result, Michael turned to alcohol as the life he knew crumbled apart.Michael lost his business, his daughter, his pride, and even his wife. Each member of the Mulvaney family slowly departed in order to independently find a way to live with themselves and cope with the destruction they had witnessed. This family could never really be the picture that everyone took them to be. If the Mulvaneys were as truly perfect and strong as the original public view would account, then the rape of Marianne would not have so harshly affected the family unit. It tore them apart. This can only be rationalized through the concept that the family, despite appearances, was operating under false pretenses of perfection when in reality the unit was weak enough that just one blow would bring them tumbling down. The dynamics of this family was redefined by one event, and individual reactions to that event. Michael and his family allow the public to see only one version of them, which allows for their downfall to be even more tragic to the public eye. Yet another piece of literature that presents the theme of appearance versus reality is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. This play is compounded by the idea of illusions, games, and hidden truths. Martha and George, a middle-aged couple, welcome Nick and Honey into their home one evening. Nick and Honey hope to learn from the more experienced couple about life at the college they are involved with. They have come to gain knowledge from the seemingly happy and wise couple before them. Martha and George are nothing what one would expect. Instead of living in a life of normalcy and truth, the couple partakes in what they indicate as games. These games, each framing a different section of the play, are ways in which illusion, or appearance, are introduced to the work. The most shocking game that the couple plays concerns the life of their child. According to Martha and George, they are parents to a child of their own. The reality is, there is no child. Martha and George, in reality, are not parents. However, in creating a game, they allow themselves to raise a child together. They often fight over the child, though no child truly exists. Finally, George kills off their fictional child by claiming that the child died. Martha is beside herself with grief. Their kid, though simply a game, was something the couple created together. Though not real, it allowed the two of them to be together in imagination and falsified memories. They created their own lives in illusion so that their appearance is starkly different than the truth. George and Martha are not a happily married couple raising a child together as they attempt to appear, but are simply two people struggling to cope with the truth set before them.This struggle can be related back to George and Martha’s actual marriage. The couple lives their lives through illusory games, allowing appearance to become their realities. Throughout the play the couple tries to one-up each other while playing the games. This is how they find joy and happiness, through a false reality. The creation of this alternate reality gives George and Martha a chance to live out their appearance. In reality, in the real world, George and Martha would be challenged to confront emotions and situations that may be difficult for anyone. The façade is safety net, protecting them from the difficulty of the real world, real emotions. The games that they play in marriage allow them to feel a rush that they compare to reality, that they make seem like reality, but in fact, it is their escape from reality. The appearance they put up in their games drives the marriage to absolute insanity. Martha exerts her fear of reality when sharing that she in fact is “afraid of Virginia Woolf”. Martha and George are both terrified to face real life, real emotions, and the struggles of their real marriage. The illusory games give them an opportunity to live falsely in a perceived reality, a simple appearance of the truth. It appears, after the “death” of the false child that the couple may choose to leave behind their appearance and begin to live in reality after the play closes. There is a possibility that the walls and appearance created in their games will be tumbling down slowly to allow both Martha and George to embrace the truth in reality, no matter the drastic pain and suffering this may cause.In the literary works American Pastoral, We Were the Mulvaneys, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf the theme of appearance versus reality is a crucial issue. The appearance of life allows for a misrepresentation or false reality for the characters encountering it. They may hide behind their appearance in safety or simply fail to live up to their appearance. Either way, what seems to be hardly ever is the reality of the situation. Contemporary American fiction continually explores the relationship that appearance and reality have with each other, and the underlying problems that they pose to one another and the people who must face those problems.
“Every Man’s Tragedy”: Historical Context and Personal Hardships in Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral
As World War II struck and anti-Semitism rattled Europe, Jewish immigrants migrated into the United States. The Jewish population continued to rise well after World War II, and with a decrease of anti-Semitism throughout the nation, the Jewish population were not discriminated against and were able to find economic and social wealth. One author who described the Jewish life in America was Phillip Roth, who emphasized upwardly-mobile Jewish communities in New York and New Jersey in his acclaimed novel American Pastoral. Having a change of events, the novel refutes all American immigrant dream and depicts colossal events that doom the protagonist’s life due to a choice his daughter made. In American Pastoral, Phillip Roth explains how the past hardships and sins that alter one’s life will eventually cause one to change one’s own perspective on life.
Throughout American Pastoral, Roth shows how one downfall leads to the continuation of more hardships in life. Merry Levov detonates a bomb at the post office to protest the Vietnam War. This event is the first of the downfalls to occur: “The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for-American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral – into the indigenous American berserk” (Roth 86). After Merry, Seymour’s sixteen year old daughter, detonates a bomb at the local post office, she sends her father into shame. While doing so she killed an innocent bystander. Merry blowing up the post office leaves Seymour no longer apart of the American dream that he achieved which included his wealth, family, and house. Blowing up the bomb at the post office also blew up Seymour’s life because following this event, he experiences more downfalls. Critics Debora Richey and Mona Kratzert notes “Much like a collage artist, Roth chooses the pieces that fit best in his work, so at the peak of activity by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1968, Merry explodes her bomb, exiles her family from their perfect American dream life, and makes redemption impossible for her father.” Due to the fact that Merry detonated the bomb her poor choices that were made, began to affect other situations and ultimately began the collapse of her family. Seymour’s relationship with his wife Dawn collapsed because she had an affair with another man: “The Swede could not stop imagining the particulars of Orcutt f****** his wife…” (Roth 359). Seymour discovered his wife Dawn and their architect, Bill Orcutt, in their kitchen doing what seemingly looked like they were shucking the corns, but they were actually in the process of engaging in a sexual hook up. Seymour’s perfect life continues to neglect him for his wife was no longer in love with him and enjoyed Orcutt much more as a result of their disarranged daughter creating tension in the house. Ultimately Dawn wants to rid of Seymour because he is a constant reminder of Merry in which she wants to rid of too. Critic Derek Parker Royal suggests “The core of American Pastoral is devoted to imagining the life of the Swede after this tragedy: the attempts to find his daughter, communication with her alleged associates, his and Dawn’s emotional hardships, and the ultimate disintegration of the family.” The hardships in Seymour’s life are continuously escalating due to the result of one bad decision made and lead to the continuation of more hardships in his life.
On top of the other hardships occurring due to Merry’s sin, the Newark Maid Glove Factory was on the verge of having to be closed down: “The Swede found himself hanging on in P.R., he explained, that what he had hung on in Newark…” (Roth 27). Seymour inherited his father’s glove making company in Newark. The business was slow at first but then grew in 1942 during World War II when the Women Army Corps ordered dress gloves from the company. Eventually there were factories in Newark, Puerto Rico, and Czech. The company no longer prospered and was on the verge of failing because there was now only one of the three factories left. Critics Debora Richey and Mona Kratzert notes “The American immigrant’s dream — if one excels, works hard, and is honorable, one will achieve success along with all one’s dreams — is the myth that Roth debunks.” Seymour represents the American dream immigrants have because Roth portrays Seymour’s life full of hardship and sin and refutes the myth of that dream. Being successful does not mean the entirety of one’s life will continue without the presence of hardships.
During the course of the novel, Roth suggests that the hardships and sins occurring in the present changes one’s perspective. Upon her journey around the nation after her initial incident of bombing the post office, Merry had been raped twice: “The most perfect girl of all, one’s daughter, had been raped” (Roth 266). Once Seymour found out that Merry was abused, he was heartbroken. This shows that while he saw her innocence for a short period of time because even though she was forced into doing something she did not want to do, Seymour did not forget about her past. To many, the rape may have masked everything else but to Seymour he believed that Merry lost her innocence after bombing the post office. Critic David Brauner writes, “When Seymour meets Merry for the first time since her sudden disappearance after the bombing of the Old Rimrock post office, he is dismayed to discover that she was indeed responsible both for that terrorist act (in which a local doctor had been killed) and for two further bombings (in which three other people died).” In the past, Seymour used to view Merry as an innocent human being but because ever since Merry was accused of bombing the post office, he looked for her to confirm that she actually did it and believed she was innocent for all those years. Coming across her and finding out the truth dishearten him for he believed that his daughter was always innocent and no longer wanted to preserve her innocence.
Seymour realizes that Newark, New Jersey was not what he remembered it to be growing up: “It’s the worst city in the world, Skip” (Roth 24). Growing up Seymour was a popular kid at Weeqhauic High School and was an athlete for football, basketball, and baseball. Everyone including the parents knew him, especially for his good looks because he had blonde hair and blue eyes. Newark was an industrial city for many things were manufactured there. That was before the riots in 1967 which converted the city to be something else full of crimes and criminals. Seymour knows Newark the way it is currently and no longer considers it a good place. Critics Debora Richey and Mona Kratzert share their thoughts that “Swede’s ponderings are disjointed as he searches his memories for a transgression that he can blame for the tragedy his life has become.” Due to the hardships presented in his life, Seymour’s ego has been affected. His once seemingly perfect life in a perfect town no longer exists and changes his outlook on his life negatively despite his love for it in the past. Dawn replaces an old image of daughter on her desk with another image in an attempt to forget about her: “On the desk there used to be a snapshot of Merry, age thirteen” (Roth 373). On Dawn’s desk, there is now an image of one of her cows, Count. The cow image was the one that received the spot of where Merry’s picture was. Dawn is trying to remove the memory of daughter from her mind and household by getting rid of the smallest things.
After turning on her family, detonating a bomb, and killing a man, Dawn no longer viewed her as her sweet innocent child anymore. Her change of perspective leads her to want to rid Merry from her life. Critic Derek Parker Royal notes “The lives of the Levov’s become nightmarish with the media attention, the perceived accusations from their neighbors, the cruel threats from Rita Cohen, one of Merry’s supposed associates, and the depression into which Dawn plunges.” Merry’s mother Dawn became depressed and no longer loves her child, wanting to get rid of her from her life. Following Merry’s bomb, her decision caused more hardships to be phased in her family’s life. Phillip Roth convinces his audience that American Pastoral is a novel that refutes the American dream of having a perfect life. Instead, lives will contain hardships and sins that will eventually manipulate ones mindset and change their perspective on life. After one downfall has occurred and burdened Seymour’s life, many more come to follow. Merry’s denotation of her bomb leads to a destruction of Seymour and his wife’s relationship along with the termination of his factories. Additionally, the hardships that affect his life, led him to change his perspective. Being left to deal with Merry’s sin, Seymour realizes that the once beloved town of Newark was no longer how he remembered it. Dawn also being affected by Merry’s decision cause her to came into sense that her one innocent child is no longer so, leaving her to rid Merry from her life.
Of course, the tragedies that affect Seymour and his family are linked to a specific historical moment: during the Lyndon B. Johnson presidency, the Vietnam War was disliked or favored across the countries. There were antiwar protests that included the doves, which were populated by young adults, going against the views of the hawks or the pro war movement. Teenagers, young adults and doves were considered a part of the counterculture or the New Left and being in opposition of conformists and the social norms. Not being agreed with and heard lead to fatal protests such as the one taken place at Kent State. The violent protest organized by the antiwar movement resulted in in the massacre of four college students. The antiwar movement and their violent protests connects to American Pastoral and Roth’s message about sins changing lives and perspectives.