“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.
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