Merry Levov's BLT Crusade:Food-Fueled Revolt in Roth's American Pastoral
In American Pastoral (1997), Philip Roth pits the Swede's eager consumption of the assimilated, bourgeoisie lifestyle against Merry's bulimic and, later, anorexic renunciation of this consumer-centered existence. Food and the act of consumption become an increasingly potent means for Merry—and by extension, Roth himself—to fuel a crusade against America's post-war era of seeming plentitude, wholesomeness, and benevolence. Yet, Merry is driven to such extremes by her middle-class guilt and her hatred of pastoral America that her relationship with food soon decays into self-destructive starvation as a Jain. Now enslaved by food, once a source of freedom and selfhood, Merry becomes a postmodern, female incarnation of the Wandering Jew: essentially homeless, deathly gaunt, and entirely fearsome yet fearless.
"[C]oncentrating on her BLT as fixedly as her mother's livestock focusing on the fodder at the trough […] gave her courage to go on alone. […] By the time she left Chicago she had discovered she no longer needed a home."—Philip Roth, American Pastoral
"[F]ood is a strong 'edible dynamic' binding present and past, individual and society, private household and world economy, palate and power."—Warren J. Belasco, Appetite for Change
In Philip Roth's American Pastoral (1997), the "post-Jewish" (73) American protagonist, Seymour "The Swede" Levov, lives the charmed, American [End Page 13] pastoral life of the 1950s. He is an all-star athlete with prodigious strength and good looks who enlists in the Marines but is spared going to war. Then he marries a "post-Catholic" Irish beauty queen, takes charge of his immigrant father's glove-making business, and settles down in a colonial stone house built in beautiful Rimrock, New Jersey. However, Philip Roth, via his remarkably imaginative narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, reformulates this idealized age of rags-to-riches glory. For, although the Swede is the successful, third-generation inheritor of the American dream, he abruptly becomes "history's plaything" (87). Merry, his once cheerful daughter, evolves into a 1960s anti-war, anti-American radical who rejects the family wealth, embraces anti-capitalist politics, and plants deadly bombs,1 murdering four people. The Swede's daughter is driven by an inexorable hunger to brand America's political dealings and mainstream lifestyle as capital crimes. Moreover, Merry consistently exploits—and is exploited by—the potent link between consumption and autonomy, or "palate and power" (Belasco 5), in order to dismantle the complacent pastoralism of the bourgeoisie American dream.
Roth's critique of twentieth-century American ambition zeroes in on the optimistic ranks of 1950s, middle-class American immigrants to which the Levovs belong. This segment of society is powered by conspicuous consumption, fiscal security, feelings of entitlement, and a naïve, almost imperialistic, desire to "convert" other cultures and countries to this standard of living. Roth pits the Swede's eager consumption of the assimilated, bourgeoisie lifestyle against Merry's bulimic and, later, anorexic renunciation of this self-satisfied, consumer-centered existence. As a result, food and the act of consumption become Merry's (and Roth's) potent means of destabilizing America's post-war era of seeming plentitude, wholesomeness, and benevolence.
Many critics have already explored the raw, bittersweet zeal with which Zuckerman scrutinizes and often reworks the turbulent paradoxes of Jewish American consciousness in American Pastoral (and the nine other Roth novels featuring Zuckerman as narrator and/or protagonist). However, in terms of Merry's insurgence, the pervasive presence of what Craig Cox terms "dissenting consumption" (38) has yet to be presented for serious consideration. Even so, these other critiques only enrich my reading. For instance, Derek Parker Royal sizes up Roth's narratological maneuvering of Zuckerman, stressing that the novel isn't truly the Swede's story, as many reviewers failed to notice ("Fictional Realms" 4). Royal also notes, "What makes [Roth's] American Trilogy," of which American Pastoral is the first book, "so intriguing are the ways in which history reveals the fiction behind the American dream" ("Contesting" 120). Given Zuckerman's role in reconstructing the rise and fall of the Levov family, the dietary choices Merry makes are, as we shall see, all the more significant.
Another critic, Aliki Varvogli, even posits that Zuckerman identifies much more strongly with Merry than with the Swede, his childhood hero. Essentially, [End Page 14] Varvogli argues that Merry, as a political activist, and Zuckerman, as a writer, are kindred spirits in that they are both potential agents of cultural change: "Whereas the writer uses language in his attempt to be an agent of change, the inarticulate Merry resorts to bombing" (111) and to consuming or not consuming various foods, I would add. On a related note, Sandra Kumamoto Stanley affirms that while Zuckerman genuinely mourns the demise of America's "Greatest Generation," he is far more absorbed with pitting the ethereal mythos of America, personified by the Swede, against the gritty reality of history, embodied by Merry. In a sense, Stanley reasons, the myth of pastoral America is doomed to spawn Merry (and others like her) because "the American mythos is not a self-contained artifact" or a historical reality that is "able to legitimize its hegemonic status by self-written rules" (5). Thus, history trumps myth. This argument, too, complements my own: time and again, Merry enlists food in her crusade against the mythic constructs of the American Dream.
Early on in life, Merry wields her relationship with food as a means of rebellious empowerment: first to secure autonomy from the expectations and values of her family, and later from those of society. As a teenager, she discovers that altering her eating habits can grant her political authority. Not long thereafter, her subversive dietary choices soon facilitate her rejection of and attack on the American dream. Her dissenting consumption even fortifies her against the "aspartame" appeal of the home she has cast aside. Yet her unhealthy relationship with food eventually spins out of control. After killing four innocent people, she converts to Jainism,2 taking up extreme starvation as a mantle of physical transcendence. Ironically, she becomes "chaos itself " (Pastoral 231), the very thing she had hungered to neutralize with her anti-war politics. In effect, her decision to become a Jain also transforms her into a postmodern, female version of the Wandering Jew—frail, dirty, unfathomable, and homeless of her own volition. This reworking of the Wandering Jew figure is key. Although Roth's novel confirms an absolute need to question and overhaul the homogenizing epistemes of pastoral America, Merry's unpalatable fate, as we shall see, illustrates the danger in rejecting one totalizing worldview for another.
Importantly, Zuckerman ponders how the conditions of society at large both account for Merry's guilt and explain why food is such a powerful tool in her fight against America. His musings offer an account of American wealth and consumerism at the end of World War II. The ranks of comfortably well-off, ambitious middle-class were swelling, along with the nation's birthrate. Roth captures how this generalized affluence created an increased sense of contentment and an intensified focus on the bourgeoisie family. In his book, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1987), Todd Gitlin presents an insightful exploration of the shattering impact that this affluent culture had on the generation maturing in the late 1950s and 1960s. Jewish himself [End Page 15] and an ex-hippie turned writer, Gitlin reminds us that post-war America was "richer than any other country or block had ever been" (13). It was, Gitlin remarks further, an age of seeming plenty and bliss: "No longer did you have to be a criminal poseur to believe, with Jay Gatsby, 'in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.' Tomorrow we could all 'run faster, stretch out our arms farther….' And so, when the majority of Americans called themselves middle class, they meant at the least that they were on their way" (17).
Zuckerman, Roth's ever-perceptive narrator, offers some satiric assessments of the time period that align closely with Gitlin's comments. For example, Zuckerman urges, "Let's remember the energy" (Pastoral 40). With mock-patriotic rapture, he says, "Americans were governing not only themselves but some two hundred million people in Italy, Austria, Germany, and Japan." The "upsurge of energy was contagious," he continues, and the "[Great] Depression had disappeared. Everything was in motion. The lid was off " (40). Ah, if only Jay Gatsby could have lived to see such an era.
The epoch's financial optimism also translated into a revived glorification of the family, with the Swede delighting in his perfect little family and his colonial home. "The family," Gitlin states, "was the raison d êtra of affluence, its point and locale" (15). Zuckerman himself emphasizes that the futures of the children were at the heart of the Jewish American shtetl: "there was the […] communal determination that we, the children, should escape poverty, ignorance, disease, social injury and intimidation—escape, above all, insignificance" (41). And, for the most part, this generation rose to the challenge entrusted to (or thrust upon) them by their parents. "It would have taken," Zuckerman admits ruefully, "a lot more courage—or foolishness—than most of us could muster to disappoint their passionate, unflagging illusions about our perfectibility and roam very far from the permissible" (42). The Swede, like many of his real-life counterparts, is highly intent upon emerging victorious in the hunt for red, white, and blue authenticity. But as fate (or Zuckerman) would have it, his daughter is intent upon demolishing his precious authenticity by whatever means possible, including an all-out "food fight" of a rather distinctive nature.
In fact, up until Merry turns sixteen, the extent of her defiant quest for independence is confined almost exclusively to food-related incidents. At the age of ten, for example, she pledges to make dinner once a week. However, this "selfless" gesture is actually a subtle power play. This is "a fairly generous offer for a ten-year-old," Zuckerman observes, "but one she made good on and kept up largely because that way she could be sure that one night a week they got baked ziti; also, if you made dinner you didn't have to clean up" (228). So, by promising to make dinner, Merry secures two important victories: she gets to eat one of her favorite foods, and she escapes cleanup duty.
More importantly, the young Merry also refuses to eat the brown bag lunches her mother packs for her. Many sack-lunch toting children have felt [End Page 16] embarrassed because their schoolmates might think they are weird or, worse, poor. But the Swede certainly earns enough money to allow Merry to buy her lunch. Dawn simply prefers to send Merry off to school with lunches she packed herself. Always striving to satisfy Merry's picky appetite, Dawn buys "special breakproof [thermoses]" (227) because her daughter says she likes hot soup. Of course, Merry still manages to break the breakproof containers. Moreover, Merry strikes back at her mother's "interference" with her taste buds by either discarding or trading away almost everything in those lunches—except of course the dime, which she uses to indulge in ice cream.
When Dawn learns of this, she is exasperated and hurt. "You're sometimes a troublesome child," she complains. Merry's defiant response is very telling: "I'm not that t-t-t-troublesome if you don't ask what I had for lunch" (227). The issue is not just about being given the food she wants—after all, her mother obviously tries to do this—but about being able to decide what to eat without any parental interference. In time, her rebelliousness becomes more overtly political, a development which the narrator hints at when he says, "Didn't like mustard. That was another complaint in the years before she began to complain about capitalism" (227). "Bagging" her brown bag lunches allows Merry to undercut her mother's parental jurisdiction.
Importantly, Zuckerman also highlights Merry's childhood friendship with Patti in order to illustrate Merry's hunger for independence and domination. Patti often comes home with Merry after school so they can make snacks. Yet Merry thinks it is "silly" that Patti is grossed out by cracking eggs. And so, with little thought for her friend, "one afternoon [Merry] cracked the egg right in front of her and Patti threw up" (227). Merry's behavior betrays an appetite for control. "Probably the most irresponsible thing the child had ever done," Zuckerman also writes, was to "just melt cheese on a piece of foil" and then "[gobble] it down" ravenously (227–228). As most parents would agree, gobs and gobs of melted cheese are not a very healthy after-school snack. Besides, eating such snacks might even spoil her appetite for dinner, another rebellious act. Summing up the young Merry, Zuckerman observes, "And that was her destructiveness—breaking a thermos and cracking an egg. And getting rid of whatever her mother gave her for lunch" (227). Thus, as a child, the scope of Merry's growing defiance is located largely within her food-related actions. Furthermore, Merry's subversive dietary habits are all the more potent given pastoralism's heavy emphasis on plentitude and family unity.
The dynamics of food and family during Merry's lifetime were especially explosive because the older generation of immigrants in America, such as the Swede's own father, remembered all too clearly the hunger in their homelands as well as the scarcity of food in America during the Great Depression. Throughout American Pastoral, Zuckerman is at pains to illustrate how the backgrounds of immigrant families, as well as the economic disaster of the Depression, profoundly complicated the parent-child relationship at the [End Page 17] dinner table and, by extension, the entire nation's love affair with consumer culture.
In A Walker in the City, Alfred Kazin, one of Roth's fellow Jewish intellectuals, paints a striking pre-Depression picture of immigrant parents who, out of love and a history of sparse nourishment in their native lands, practically force food on their children. And should their children ever resist or scorn such bounty, the female "breadgivers" keep their offspring in line by professing themselves betrayed, even cursed. Kazin presents a lively recreation of parental harangues replete with Yiddish intonations: "Eat! Eat! May you be destroyed if you don't eat! What sin have I committed that God should punish me with you! Eat! What will become of you if you don't eat! Imp of darkness, may you sink ten fathoms into the earth if you don't eat! Eat! We never had a chance to know what hunger meant. At home we nibbled all day long as a matter of course" (32).
If rejecting abundant food meant that Kazin and his boyhood pals were comporting themselves in an ungrateful, treasonous manner, then accepting liberal amounts of food signified that they were behaving in a most loyal and honorable way. Basically, as Hasia R. Diner explains, "The obsession with children's consumption, the belief that food indicated love and ensured health, grew out of the immigrants' pre-immigration encounter with hunger and [then with] America's possibilities" (193). The Swede, enamored of his shiksa wife, thriving business, and colonial house, is all too happy to be a successful consumer of the American Dream. Dawn, though not an immigrant, is also part of an America that feels entitled to "a car in every garage and a chicken in every pot." But Merry's wily eagerness to make Friday night dinner and her unwillingness to eat her brown bag lunches are clear signs of food-based disobedience.
Unsurprisingly, the dietary choices that Merry makes as a teenager become all the more destructive and insubordinate. At age sixteen, she packs on the pounds to rebel against her parents and against societal norms. First, by eating "almost nothing she was served at home" (Pastoral 100), she is rejecting the food itself right along with the parental concern and authority it represents. Yet her uncouth absence at the family dinner table is also her means of flouting the 1950s etiquette of a well-behaved, bourgeoisie family member. Second, by purposefully setting out to do everything in her power to gain weight, Merry is protesting (as best she knows how) the Western female bodily narratives that promote the "you can never be too thin" adage. The young girl who once idolized the fashionable, remarkably slim Audrey Hepburn is long gone. Perfectly cognizant of her diet's subversiveness, Merry gorges herself on huge quantities of unhealthy "Americana" food. She consumes "cheeseburgers with French fries, pizza, BLTs, fried onion rings, vanilla milk shakes, root beer floats, […] and cake of any kind, so that almost overnight she became large, a large, loping, slovenly sixteen-year-old" (100). Appallingly overweight, as well as sloppily dressed and groomed, Merry is everything that her beauty queen [End Page 18] mother is not. All this she does at a time when women who do not regulate and fret about their weight and appearance are increasingly frowned upon.3
Simply put, Merry—"the grasshopper child" (100) once upon a time but now more of a locust—chooses to skip family dinner and devour fast food as bold acts of empowered revolt against her family and the society in which her family has thrived: "Vehemently she renounced the appearance and the allegiances of the good little girl who had tried so hard to be adorable and lovable like all the other good little Rimrock girls—renounced her meaningless manners, her petty social concerns, her family's 'bourgeois' values" (101). As Merry's girth increases, so too does the frequency and force of her vocal tirades against President Lyndon Johnson and all things conservative or pro-war. If Johnson shows up on the evening news, Merry is sure to snarl, "You heartless mi-mi-mi-miserable m-monster!" (100) in mimicry of her grandfather's cantankerous, leftist paranoia. By skipping family dinnertime and gorging on milkshakes and fries, she brews her biggest victory yet at a sizable personal cost. Merry not only flouts the "sanctity" of her middle-class family in a cornucopian post-war economy but also defies the gendered ideals for the female body.
Thus, to some extent, Merry's food-propelled insurrection is caused by her father's subtle, patriarchal oppressiveness and by her burgeoning middle-class guilt. For Merry, it is bad enough to be a part of a sheltered middle-class family, but it is even tougher to deal with a father who doesn't provide the deep, unconditional love that she needs. In Marshall Bruce Gentry's opinion, one of the Swede's three critical failings is that "he never genuinely loves women." As Gentry argues, "The name of the glove company is symbolic: Newark Maid. The glove is a girl, a maid to be molded by the glove-maker into the lady he wants her to be. Swede expects his wife, Dawn, as well as his daughter and probably all women, like his gloves, to be the perfect products of his own manufacturing process" (79). If Merry is a "glove" in her father's estimation, then her grandfather's statement that "a Levov makes a glove that is perfect" (Pastoral 223) certainly gains a new layer of meaning. Within her willful transformation into an overweight, slovenly teenager lies a kernel of a young girl rebelling against her father's expectations—not just those of her mother or society.
Merry easily pinpoints her father's most basic shortcoming when she attempts to awaken his sympathy for those who are relegated to the margins because they do not belong to the "authentic" center of society. Disgusted, Merry yells, "All you can think about, all you can talk about, all you c-c-care about is the well-being of this f-fucking l-l-little f-f-family!" (107). Unperturbed, her father offers a justification for the Vietnam War that issues from the very core of America's grand mission to export a homogenized, middle-class, cornucopian construct of life: "You are angry about the families in Vietnam. You are angry about their being destroyed. Those are families too. [End Page 19] Those are families just like ours that would like to have the right to have lives like our family has. Isn't that what you yourself want for them?" (108). Her father's argument, however, relies on the ideas that there is only one "real" way for a family to be happy, one way for a government to govern its people, and that America has it all figured out. Gentry, in analyzing the Swede's major flaws, contends that the most basic "of major charges against Swede is that he accepts the injustices of capitalism" which is, without a doubt, "complicated by the fact that capitalism helped Jews in America assimilate" (78). Metaphorically speaking, the Swede has no wish to bite the hand that feeds him. Of course, Merry is determined to prove that capitalism isn't the idyllic, infallible system that her parent's generation believes it to be.
Moreover, the Swede's lack of concern for the innocent victims of the war testifies to the existence of his and America's reliance upon pastoral salvific metanarratives or "podsnappery," Dickens' term for the same type of worry-free ethics in his novel, Our Mutual Friend (1865). Merry's rebellious rage, often expressed through food, betrays a sense of middle-class guilt, which is intensified all the more by her own father's " fata[l] attraction [with] duty" (72) or his "[n]oblesse oblige" (79) to the epistemes of the American pastoralism. John D. Caputo offers a dramatic conceptualization of this unethical worldview: "Life is a dis-aster. […] Obligation is on its own and will have to fend for itself. That is the faith of an incredulous infidel about salvific metanarratives" (24). Certainly, the Swede displays a persistently detached acceptance of the war. In what Zuckerman labels "Conversation #18" (Pastoral 105), Merry's father makes the mistake of forbidding her to visit New York based solely on maintaining his familial unit: "My responsibility," he declares, "is to you and not to the war" (107). This is precisely what Merry loathes about the Swede. Delighted to be given such a wonderful segue way into her beefs with America, Merry responds with scalding disdain: "Oh, I know your responsibility is not to the war—that's why I have to go to New York. B-b-b-because people there do feel responsible[…] B-but you don't, and neither does Mother. You don't care enough to let it upset a single day of yours" (107).
Harsh, but all too true. In other words, the Swede can't be bothered with such concerns because, as Royal explains, "[t]he pastoral is a state of mind that cannot account for conflict, contradiction, or uncertainty" ("Contesting" 126). And, as Gitlin so eloquently put it, members of the younger generation were so revolted by affluence precisely because "[t]he revelation that there were people blocked from affluence not only offended them, it discredited the dream. […] They felt cramped by the normal middle-class pursuits of career, family, and success, and they brandished their alienation as a badge" (27, emphasis added). But this badge of responsibility weighs quite heavily on Merry.
Nevertheless, after she bombs the post office, inadvertently killing the town doctor, Merry relies upon two particular foods to swallow the urge to call her [End Page 20] parents for help. Resisting the false lure of safety built into her past, bourgeoisie lifestyle, Merry fortifies herself by ingesting a meal of "sacramental" comfort foods: a simple BLT sandwich and a vanilla shake.4 Despite her self-imposed isolation as a result of her violent crimes, Merry is terribly lonely. Yet although "the loneliness had been so all-enveloping," and "there wasn't a day [. . .] when she did not set out to phone Old Rimrock," Merry forces herself to walk into a diner and "order a BLT and a vanilla milk shake" instead (258). This becomes a sacred ritual for her. With worshipful rapture, she sat
watching the bacon curl on the grill, watching for her toast to pop up, carefully removing the toothpicks when she was served, eating the layered sandwich between sips of the shake, concentrating on […] extracting the smoke-scented fat from the brittle bacon and the flowery juices from the soft tomato, swilling everything in with the mash of the mayonnaised toast, grinding patiently away […and] thoughtfully pulverizing every mouthful into a silage to settle her down […] gave her the courage to go on alone. She would eat the sandwich and drink the shake and remember how she got there and go on. [… S]he would never again come close to succumbing to the yearning for a family and a home.(258)
Her intense, methodical consumption of this food elevates it to a Eucharistic repast, fueling her continued defiance of parental and societal norms. She has no desire to marry, have children, and teach them to be good little American boys and girls. Instead, she would rather protest America's bourgeoisie values and military policies. The BLT and vanilla shake propel her farther down this path. Importantly, Zuckerman refers to Merry's favorite meal as "the ritual sacrament" (261). This comparison is key, especially if we take into account the fact that, back in late medieval Europe, a great deal of "religiously inspired [female] fasters did not only refuse all kinds of food, but also appeared totally incapable of swallowing anything but the consecrated Host" (Vandereycken and Van Deth 24). For these female saints, only this one food would do because other everyday foods were "unholy" and therefore unfit to eat. For Merry, sacramental BLTs and milkshakes are the only foods that cure her craving for hearth and home. Clearly, Merry harnesses this food as a potent, salvific Eucharist, thus temporarily satisfying her hunger for personal sovereignty. But nowhere in the novel are the ties between palate and power so shocking and poignant as near the conclusion where the Swede finds his daughter near death from self-imposed starvation as directed by Jainist principles. Now twenty-five, with another three deaths to her name, Merry dwells in a "piss-soaked building" (Pastoral 265)—a dark hellhole of filth and refuse. Living as a Jain, Merry is practically starving yet believes she is eating "more than enough" (243). Her fierce thinness terrifies the Swede. When his daughter calmly states that she only eats "plant life" because she is "insufficiently compassionate as yet to refuse to do that," her father is justifiably baffled. With bewildered panic, he demands, "You mean you eat vegetables. […] How [End Page 21] could you refuse to do that? Why should you?" When she claims that she is "bound to harm no living being," her father exclaims, "you would die if you did that. How can you be 'bound' to that?" (243). Still, Merry is unmoved. Frozen in a state of "divine delirium" (Gitlin 435), her "oppositional identity" (Belasco 63) now appears to be actualized in a fatal capacity. According to Zuckerman, Merry cannot be persuaded to seek safety even after she has been raped on multiple occasions.
Interestingly, Merry even asserts that she has "relinquish[ed] all influence over everything." Supposedly, she has renounced the power she has sought and protected for so long. Although the Swede tends to be less than astute when it comes to understanding his daughter's behavior, he effectively refutes her claim. "You have an influence over me," he screams in agony, "you are influencing me! […] You are the most powerful person in the world!" (Pastoral 253). Thus, even Merry's decision to eat only a small amount of plant life empowers her, although it is to her own and her father's severe detriment. Gentry argues that, as regards the Swede, Merry's conversion to Jainism is just her way of turning the tables on him: "When Merry becomes a Jain and torments her father from a passive position of moral rectitude, she is giving her father his own medicine" (81). Without a doubt, Merry's conversion to Jainism also differentiates her from her parents in almost every respect: she is no longer a WASP, nor did she ever become a parent or homemaker or even really an adult. In effect, she becomes the perpetual child with no real responsibilities (other than that of her simple job) and no plans for the future. Merry's conversion, then, is much like a peevish, stubborn child throwing a tantrum. As an adult, however, her "tantrum" is much more devastating to herself and those around her.
Tragically, though, the Swede can't bring himself to really do anything about his daughter's appalling situation. Hindered by pastoral paralysis, he leaves Merry where he found her, only capable of despairing over the bitter irony of his disposition: "No, he wasn't a Jain, thought the Swede, but he might as well have been—he was just as pathetically and naively nonviolent" (Pastoral 252). Gentry identifies something even more spineless about the Swede's inaction. By both "telling others her whereabouts and revealing the full extent of her crimes so that […] others could turn her in to the police," this big man invites "others [to] act out his aggression" so that he can be "the apparently noble one" (81).
How is it that even the specter of his gaunt, rag-wearing daughter does not prompt the Swede to execute any decisive action besides phoning his brother, Jerry, so as to vent his woe-is-me outlook? Jerry is the one who offers, at least three times, to forcibly rescue Merry: "I'll clear out the office and get on a plane and I'll come. And I'll go in there, and, I assure you, I'll get her off the McCarter Highway, the little shit" (Pastoral 281). But, all too predictably, the Swede can't quite authorize such harsh force. This prompts Jerry to announce [End Page 22] scornfully, "Okay, Big Swede, gentle giant. […] You're on your own" (281). Soon, the Swede really is on his own. His daughter is a skeletal fugitive who refuses to come home; his wife divorces him for another man. His lush familial crop has been decimated. However, as Zuckerman already informed us at the novel's start, the Swede, "still terrifically handsome" (15), reverts to his customary, "unconscious oneness with America" (20) by marrying again and starting a new family.
Comparatively speaking, Merry's emaciated, violated body and chaotic state of mind are only slightly more shocking than her father's helpless posturing. At one point, the Swede does pause to ask, "Could how we lived as a family ever have come back as this bizarre horror?" (281). His panicked denial of, "It couldn't. It hasn't," is foreshadowed by how he categorizes Merry as a "bizarre horror." With his ideals at stake, the Swede pulls back from admitting any responsibility for her predicament. And yet, Merry isn't much of a prize herself. What are we to think about her wretched fate? Neither she nor her father can conceivably be construed as the "hero" of the book. Like oil and water, father and daughter ultimately repel each other, unable to resolve their differences.
Beyond blind, beyond easygoing, the Swede is hopelessly bound to his role as "the dependable father whose center is the source of all order, […and whose center] could not […] sanction the smallest sign of chaos" (231). Conversely, Merry occupies the most remote, outer edge of existence. Beyond reason, beyond real feeling, Merry is at cross-purposes with herself. Harnessing the link between palate and power, she transforms herself into a self-righteous juggernaut of revolution. And yet, all she does is attempt to raze society's pastoral norms and ideals with no thought of filling the resulting void. Her mother somehow recognizes the irony of Merry's political stance. "You're not antiwar," Dawn yells, "you're antieverything" (102).
Here, Caputo's description of evil seems eerily pertinent to and prophetic of Merry's predicament: "I think Evil is highly unimaginative and uninventive; it keeps producing the same sort of bloodied, emaciated, or lifeless bodies, ruined, hopeless, desperate, [and] damaged lives […] with or without technology" and "with or without religion" (34). Merry tries to defeat one version of evil but merely transforms herself into another type of negating evil. In her wake, she leaves behind many broken bodies and wounded people, becoming, in the process, nearly lifeless herself. As Caputo cautions, "If what we seek is universal agreement, if we were all to speak with universal reason, we would be reduced first to sameness and then to silence" (40). A world diminished to monotonous uniformity and silence isn't an appetizing prospect. Although she has good reason to shun the privileged, complacent pastoralism of her parents' generation, Merry's fate is just as unappetizing.
But what could account for the direly oppositional, iconic nature of Merry and her father, the novel's two major characters? Why don't we get a clear-cut [End Page 23] hero in American Pastoral? If the self-starving Merry is, as I will argue, a postmodern rendering of the Wandering Jew and the peaceful, ever-so-honorable Swede represents an inferior, "imitation" Christ, then the Levovs' story is an unpalatable testament to the destructiveness and futility of any oppositional episteme. The clash between father and daughter sours the dream of American pastoralism. The father-daughter conflict denounces the wrongness of determining what something is by what it isn't or by constructing a center of savory Sameness and a margin of repulsive Otherness. Meticulously, Roth pits these two opposing forces against one another, knowing that they will ultimately cancel each other out, creating a void in the heart of the novel. Hence, there can be no clear-cut heroes in American Pastoral .
Naturally, it is tempting to suppose that further excavation of Merry's past will uncover even better reasons for her horrifying, radical behavior. But this would only discount Merry's primary function as the novel's emissary of counter-pastoralism. And to think, Merry started on the path to assuming this role by finagling her way into cooking family supper one night a week and ditching her homemade lunches.
The staggering scale and futility of Merry's oppositional existence is especially apparent when we take into account how Roth has conjured her into a postmodern, female version of the Wandering Jew. In the process of revisiting and reworking the idyllic mythos of pastoral America, Roth also revives and reformulates the Judeo-Christian archetype of the cursed Jew. The legend of the Wandering Jew has, in fact, evolved considerably, especially during the sixteenth century and, later, "under the careful nurturing of the English Gothicists and Byronic romanticists" (Anderson 95). Thus, a postmodern upgrade of this tale is right in line with the story's traditional metamorphosis.
In order to fully explore the significance of Merry's Jainist anorexia and her role as a postmodern Wandering Jew, we must review some important details regarding the myth itself. Historically, the wanderer in the story, c. 1223, is not a Jew at all but rather a Roman named Cartaphilius who served as Pontius Pilate's doorman (Edelmann 5). Supposedly, this Roman hit Jesus on the neck as He was leaving Pilate's palace, saying, "Go, Jesus, why do you tarry?" Forthwith, Jesus responds, "I will go, but you shall wait until I will come again." As R. Edelmann explains, this command indicates that Cartiphilius' only penalty was to suffer a damned immortality until the Second Coming (5).
However, by the sixteenth century, Edelmann observes, the tale took four significant turns (6). First and foremost, the protagonist becomes a Jew. Second, Cartiphilius-the-doorman becomes Ahasuerus-the-shoemaker. Third, the soon-to-be-wanderer rebukes Jesus because He attempts to rest up against the shoemaker's hut. Fourth, Ahasuerus is sentenced to wander restlessly in addition to awaiting Christ's return. "I will stay and rest," Christ pronounces, "but you shall go" until "I will come again" (6–7). But why is this man recast as Jewish? Why is his punishment now one of endless wandering? To phrase it bluntly, because traditional Christianity blames the Jews for crucifying [End Page 24] Christ, it made a sort of poetic (though bigoted) logic that the man should be Jewish. Ahasuerus the Jew, Edelmann reasons, "carries the collective guilt [of his "godless" people] upon his shoulders and consequently also the collective punishment through all ages and all countries." Once the Wanderer "becomes" Jewish, Edelmann writes, Christians could point to Ahasuerus's fate as "a testimony of Jesus' sufferings and death and as a warning for the godless people and the unbeliever" (7).5
But if Ahasuerus's accursedly long life is supposed to testify of Christ and to caution those who disbelieve or betray him, then of what does Merry's skeletal frame testify? Essentially, Merry is "anti-everything" that her father and much of America believes in. Hence, she stands as a witness to the ideological and physical violence of 1960s bourgeoisie America. Merry's often dietary-powered crusade against her family and America is driven by her desire to give rise to a pristine, cleansed society. Yet her solution isn't really a solution; she simply throws out the baby with the polluted bathwater. The oxymoronic themes Merry embodies as a Wandering Jew figure are rightfully at odds with one another because she is neither blameless nor completely guilty, just as American society is neither entirely innocent nor entirely at fault for fostering apocalyptic zealots such as herself. Put another way, Merry fights to rupture the romantic narratives about a blessed America—which are rooted in modernist notions of capitalism, consumerism, linear progress, and salvific metanarratives—only to replace them with another totalizing and even less rational set of grand narratives. As a result, her identity takes a postmodern turn: Merry becomes about as bottomless and irreducible as one individual can be.
Once we consider the remade Wandering Jew legend in American Pastoral , Merry's anorexic fate is even more noteworthy. Ahasuerus, a single Jew, supposedly pays the ultimate price for humanity's rejection of Christ. By comparison, Merry is suffering for what she views as the sins of American society as a whole. Also like Ahasuerus, Merry is an itinerant wanderer. Ahasuerus is not only immortal, but without a country and without a home. Merry has no real "home" and certainly has no desire to claim America as her country. The run-down, stinking building where Merry resides is just a temporary stopping place. Zuckerman pointedly informs us that upon her departure from Chicago, "she had discovered she no longer needed a home" (Pastoral 258), a discovery fueled by her sanctified BLT-and-shake repasts. Having left the commune, she makes no effort to purchase a residence and set up housekeeping. Moreover, as a Jain, one of her vows is to "renounce all attachments, whether little or much, small or great, living or lifeless" (239) so as to be "done with craving and selfhood" (251). Since she claims to harbor no attachments and no personal desires, Merry certainly wouldn't lay claim to any place as a home, even though she rents a tiny room. Thus, both Ahasuerus's and Merry's nomadic existences contain a distinct, diasporic logic.
What about the immortality Ahasuerus must endure until "[h]e hears the [End Page 25] trumpet's blast" (Doré 270)? Is Merry deathless as well? Not literally, no. However, Merry shares Ahasuerus's immortality in the sense that she possesses an incredibly superhuman fearlessness. Ahasuerus is naturally unperturbed in the face of all disasters or calamitous situations: "Secure he stands, and fearless gazes round, / Where arrows fall and corpses strew the ground" (Doré 268). Merry, too, exhibits a death-defying composure. Though her accommodations be cold, strewn with waste, and infested with dangerous vermin—human and otherwise—Merry, "stick-skinny as a scarecrow" is not frightened (Pastoral 239). A supposedly animated scarecrow, Merry Levov is to be feared and given a wide berth. Importantly, Ahasuerus is typically depicted as ill-kempt, wasted figure or scarecrow. Clearly, the emaciated Merry, wearing a fetid nylon stocking over her face and ragged clothes, is his female counterpart.
Despite these similarities, however, it is vital to recognize that Merry is a self-appointed Wandering Jew. Her Jainist-based expiation, then, is a self-defeating and self-appointed mission. This fact imbues the Wandering Jew myth with a unique, postmodern flavor. Simply put, Merry embodies the postmodern version of selfhood: she is unknowable, unpredictable, contradictory. At the start of the novel, Zuckerman poses a postmodern definition of identity wherein identity defies definition: "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" (35).6
The modernist conceptualization of comprehensible, unified selfhood is nowhere to be found in this novel. Neither the Swede nor Merry is truly knowable. This should come as no surprise, though. After all, as Royal points out, "Zuckerman's story of the Swede, as far as we know, is not the actual life of the Swede" ("Fictional Realms" 7). Thus, Merry is a postmodern iteration of the Wandering Jew legend. First, she exemplifies the futility of conclusively understanding oneself (or someone else). Also, she reinforces the fruitlessness of utterly rejecting one set of totalizing narratives—namely, the consumption-based, homogenizing mythos of pastoralism—for another equally radical array of belief systems—whether those ideals be enacted via overindulgence or underindulgence in food, a fundamental necessity of life. All in all, Merry's dissenting consumption plays a part in transforming Merry into a present day incarnation of the Wandering Jew: a fearsome, Jewish wanderer who has chosen to be grubby, dauntless, and deathly thin.
In addition to revising the Wandering Jew narrative, Roth also rewrites the peaceful mythos of a noted American holiday. Underscoring the rich interplay between food, power, and American pastoralism, Roth concludes the novel with a portrait of a much-beloved American holiday feast gone very much awry: Thanksgiving dinner with the Levovs. In a sarcastic vein, Zuckerman writes that the Levovs, for all their familial devotedness, only get [End Page 26] together once a year on the "neutral, dereligionized ground of Thanksgiving" (402). Ironically, this holiday of national goodwill is homogenizing and idyllic because it is a fanciful instant
when everybody gets to eat the same thing, […] no kugel, no gefilte fish, no bitter herbs, just one colossal turkey for two hundred and fifty million people—one colossal turkey feeds all. A moratorium on funny foods and funny ways and religious exclusivity […] a moratorium on Christ and the cross […]. It is the American pastoral par excellence and it lasts twenty-four hours.(402)
Here, Roth illustrates how Thanksgiving represents the short-lived, unsustainable center of American pastoralism that hungers to standardize, mass-produce, and export its patriarchal, bourgeois, capitalist ideology. Emphasizing the fragility of the American dream, Roth also provides the Swede with an acutely unwelcome Thanksgiving Day revelation. The racy fashion in which Dawn Levov and Bill Orcutt are shucking corn informs the Swede in no uncertain terms that these two are having an affair.
As if that weren't enough to ruin the day, the fibrous link between palate and power is also apparent in the unforgettable, somewhat laughable, moment when Lou Levov is rewarded with a fork in the face for patiently, though condescendingly, feeding Jessie Orcutt. Since Jessie, a malnourished alcoholic, will not eat, Lou leads her off into the kitchen and feeds her bite after bite of pie—all the while delivering an inspirational lecture on the benefits of choosing real food over a liquid diet. Speaking to her as if she were a baby, he commends her by cooing, "Yes, Jessie good girl, Jessie very good girl" (422). Thinking he is performing a vital and noble task, Lou is so overjoyed when she declares, "I feed Jessie," that he sees no reason why he shouldn't hand over the fork. Little does he know that this woman, like Merry, will gladly attack someone who interferes with her independence, especially if it concerns what she chooses to eat. Basically, as Gentry observes, "Roth's women, like Swede's do not want to be shaped to the leather cutter's pattern, artistic or not" (82). Jessie's savagely launched cutlery offensive is what finally moves Professor Marcia Umanoff, who teaches literature in New York, "to laugh at their obtuseness to the flimsiness of the whole contraption, to laugh and laugh and laugh at them all, pillars of a society that, much to her delight, was going rapidly under" (Pastoral 423). Hers is the Borgësian laughter that shatters any leftover illusions of a perfect America. From within the gaping chasm at the novel's core, it echoes loudly.
Throughout the novel, Merry greedily seizes upon food as a tool of liberation; in due time, however, her spiritually and politically laden relationship with food undoes her with apocalyptic ferocity. Initially, her food-related rebellion empowers her, frees her. All too soon, though, Merry's relationship with food enslaves her. Agonized by her history of affluence, Merry essentially utilizes food to become a spiritual ex-patriot, hoping to flush America's corrosive norms and ambitions from her system. Gitlin provides an insightful [End Page 27] evaluation of this spiritual ex-patriotism: "If bumper stickers said, 'America, Love It or Leave It,' we eventually accepted the dare: spiritually, we left" (264). During one of her many conversations with her father about the trips to New York, Merry declares passionately, "I don't want to be understood—I want to be f-f-f-free!" (Pastoral 107).
Sarah Bylund holds a Master's degrees in Publishing & Writing from Emerson College and one in American Literature from Brigham Young University. For several years, she served as the editing intern for The Saul Bellow Journal. Her publications include contributions to Brigham Young's English 115 Teacher's Guide (2004), and the Encyclopedia of Jewish American Literature (Facts on File, 2009). Currently, she is a Permissions Specialist with Pearson Education in Boston, MA.
2. Merry practices starvation when she converts to Jainism. According to Merriam Webster, Jainism is an occidental religion that teaches "liberation of the soul by right knowledge, right faith, and right conduct" and that seems to have originated as early as sixth century B.C. in India. Specifically, Jains believe that souls (Jivas) are continually reincarnated as "different living forms" until they purge themselves of karma (a soul's accumulated force of good and evil that determines the circumstances of their future lives), end the cycle of rebirth and death, and achieve Nirvana, thus resting in heaven for all time with a perfect knowledge of all things ("Brief Overview"). Furthermore, Jains follow nine fundamental principles called Nav Tattvas, of which Ahimsa (to be non-violent or to protect all life) and Aparigraha (to be unworldly or to limit one's possessions) are the most commonly known and the most relevant to Merry's own life as a Jain.
3. In the early 1960s, for instance, Weight Watchers, the widely known, still successful, weight-loss company, was founded by a woman named Jean Nidetch ("History & Philosophy").
4. It is intriguing to contemplate the narrator's cursory reference to Merry's diet at the commune before she becomes a Jain. Zuckerman provides a succinct description of her diet at the commune: "There was plenty to eat at the commune. They grew a lot of their own food and so there was no need, as there had been when she first got to Chicago, to scavenge for wilted produce outside supermarkets" (259). This short passage vaguely suggests that she is now eating lots of vegetables, an important component of the countercuisine diet. [End Page 28] Warren J. Belasco explains that the countercuisine movement "brought the war home to the family dinner table" because "if the personal really is political, […w]hat could be more personal than food?" (28). Belasco's argument underscores the connection between the activists' unorthodox diets and their protest of Vietnam and capitalism. He cites Elaine Sundancer, who despairingly illuminates the correlation between what people eat and where their political fealty lies: "[W]e're buying our food with money that comes from the same government that is fighting the Vietnam war. I want good vibes in my food, but I'm eating Vietnam for breakfast" (80). The sentiment of the time, Belasco further reports, was that "[d]ietary primitivism would [not only] purge and protect you, but it would also make you well—even happy" (43). Craig Cox points out that "[w]hat appealed to them was the notion of control, a sort of 'dissenting consumption'" (38).
Moreover, the countercuisine was no mere flash in the pan: "Multiplying fivefold between 1965 and 1970, some 3,500 or so country communes put the counterculture [and countercuisine] into group practice" (Belasco 76). In turn, this movement led to a large crop of co-ops. "Between 1969 and 1979," Belasco relates, up to 10,000 "new wave food co-ops were established […grossing] about $500 million a year" (90–91). By the early 1970s, Belasco indicates, the countercuisine had mushroomed into enough of a threat for food industry giants such as Pillsbury, Kraft, and Campbell's to wake up and smell the, shall we say, homegrown bean sprouts (111). Indeed, Merry's agenda would have been suited perfectly by the countercuisine most likely present at the commune.
5. Hyam Maccoby stresses the legend's testimonial component as well: "The Wandering Jew aroused such passionate interest because he was a witness to the truth of Christianity—a witness sorely needed in the millennial excitements and conflicts of the 17th century" (240).
6. Speaking on this same topic in Roth's The Counterlife, Zuckerman explains the impossibility of fully mapping out identity: "The burden isn't either/or, consciously choosing from possibilities equally difficult and regrettable—it's and/and/and/and/and as well. Life is and: the accidental and the immutable, the elusive and the graspable, the bizarre and the predictable, the actual and the potential, all the multiplying realities, entangled, overlapping, colliding, conjoined—plus the multiplying illusions! This times this times this times this..." (306). Here, too, the postmodern fluidity of the self is an ever-present ingredient in Roth's novels.