The Swede’s Shattered Image in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral

In wrestling with Philip Roth’s 1998, Pulitzer-prize winning novel, American Pastoral, it is useful to remember that the book’s narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, offered a kind of disclaimer to his story: “The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”

Zuckerman’s view of the Swede was second-hand; the reader and literary critics hears at least third-hand. So even as the story reveals the shattering of the Swede’s image, Zuckerman (and we) still cannot be certain of complete accuracy. It is the old problem of the unreliable narrator. Even so, “everywhere he looked, people were in love with (the Swede).” The Swede was the kind of person “for whom there were no obstacles, who appeared never to have to struggle.” Even his brother, Jerry, who wallowed in the obscurity of his brother’s shadows, said “Everybody loved him, a perfectly decent person who could have escaped stupid guilt forever.” Gary Johnson, in “The Presence of Allegory: The Case of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral,” calls the Swede a “symbol, someone who represents or stands for a multitude of abstract positive ideas” like “hope, strength, innocence, purity.” When he was in high school, cheerleaders created a cheer specifically for the Swede, which they chanted at his football, basketball, and baseball games.

The Swede married Miss New Jersey and raised his children in the pastoral setting of Old Rimrock in New Jersey. Zuckerman, a high school acquaintance of the Swede’s younger brother Jerry, described the Swede as “if not divine, a distinguished cut above the more primordial humanity of just about everyone else at school.” When the Swede acknowledged his presence as a child, Zuckerman says, “The adored had acknowledged the adoring.” But even then Zuckerman figured “it couldn’t have been as easy for him as it looked…a part of it was a mystique.”

Such fantasy cannot be sustained. Truthfully, the Swede had actively contributed to the constructed image that was created for him. Rather than subjecting himself to any conflict that would have resulted from the pursuit of his own desires, he was, as Jerry put it, “fatally attracted to his duty.” He made decisions, according to Jerry, “for the appearance.” His adherence to the expectations of others led him to serve in the Marines in World War II and also to choose taking over his father’s glove-making business instead of pursuing a professional baseball offer.

As Zuckerman pointed out that “Even those who had it all as kids sooner or later get the average share of misery.” The misery is foreshadowed by a narrative reflection on The Kid from Tompkinsville, a John R. Tunis book for teenagers that both Zuckerman and the Swede read. While “the kid,” the book’s protagonist, played baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers, “each triumph is rewarded with a punishing disappointment or crushing accident.” Zuckerman asks the obvious question: “Did it occur to (the Swede) that if disaster could strike down the Kid from Tompkinsville, it could come and strike the great Swede down too?

Devastation was on its way. There was plenty of conflict with a daughter who would eventually be raped and experiment with political radicalism, lesbianism, and the religious fringe. According to Zuckerman, “There wasn’t much difference, and she knew it, between hating America and hating (her family). He loved the America she hated and blamed for everything that was perfect in life and wanted violently to overturn.” But the Swede’s daughter, whose political convictions led her to set off the bomb that “detonated (the Swede’s) life” was far from his only problem. His life was also full of tension with his father, a lost intimacy with his wife, affairs, a quest for who was to blame, and the political disorder of his time. As Zuckerman observed, “Alone we are, deeply alone, and always, in store for us, a layer of loneliness even deeper.” Try as he did, the Swede could not escape his pain, though he did continue to believe in his family and his America: “He was trying hard to continue to exist as himself despite the unlikeliness of everything.” The Swede lived his whole life “with all the shame of masquerading as the ideal man.”

In the aftermath of his wife’s face lift and finding out that a friend of his hid his daughter after her political crime, Swede asked the question, “What kind of mask is everyone wearing?” The question possesses an irony because Swede feeds his own mask as much or more than anyone else does. For example, when the Swede and Zuckerman had dinner in New York to talk about the Swede’s father, the Swede all but avoided the topic altogether, talking instead about how brilliant his and his sons’ lives were. The Swede was in complete denial; he preferred telling the story that had always been told about him. Everything was great. Happiness and achievements abounded. His family loved each other. The only problem is it’s all a lie.

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