American Pastoral by Philip Roth


But in Old Rimrock, New Jersey, in 1995, when the Ivan Ilyches come trooping back to lunch at the clubhouse after their morning round of golf and start to crow, “It doesn’t get any better than this,” they may be a lot closer to the truth than Leo Tolstoy ever was.


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. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that — well, lucky you.


He had learned the worst lesson life can teach — that it makes no sense. And when that happens the happiness is never spontaneous again. It is artificial and, even then, bought at the price of an obstinate estrangement from oneself and one’s history.


This is how successful people live. They’re good citizens. They feel lucky. They feel grateful. God is smiling down on them. There are problems, they adjust. And then everything changes and it becomes impossible. Nothing is smiling down on anybody. And who can adjust then?


Here is someone not set up for life’s working out poorly, let alone for the impossible. But who is set up for the impossible that is going to happen? Who is set up for tragedy and the incomprehensibility of suffering? Nobody. The tragedy of the man not set up for tragedy — that is every man’s tragedy.


The students in her class at Montessori school were asked ten questions about their “philosophy,” one a week. The first week the teacher asked, “Why are we here?” Instead of writing as the other kids did — here to do good, here to make the world a better place, etc. — Merry answered with her own question: “Why are apes here?” But the teacher found this an inadequate response and told her to go home and think about the question more seriously — “Expand on this,” the teacher said. So Merry went home and did as she was told and the next day handed in an additional sentence: “Why are kangaroos here?” It was at this point that Merry was first informed by a teacher that she had a “stubborn streak.”


The final question assigned to the class was “What is life?” Merry’s answer was something her father and mother chuckled over together that night. According to Merry, while the other students labored busily away with their phony deep thoughts, she — after an hour of thinking at her desk — wrote a single, unplatitudinous declarative sentence: “Life is just a short period of time in which you are alive.” “You know,” said the Swede, “it’s smarter then it sounds. She’s a kid — how has she figured out that life is short? She is somethin’, our precocious daughter. This girl is going to Harvard.” But once again the teacher didn’t agree, and she wrote beside Merry’s answer, “Is that all?” Yes, the Swede thought now, that is all. Thank God, that is all; even that is unendurable.


“You talk about what I’m dealing with as though anybody could deal with it. But nobody could deal with it. Nobody! Nobody has the weapons for this. You think I’m inept? You think I’m inadequate? If I’m inadequate, where are you going to get people who are adequate . . . if I’m . . . do you understand what I’m saying? What am I supposed to be? What are other people if I am inadequate?”

  2 comments for “American Pastoral by Philip Roth

  1. Avatar
    25 Nov 2006 at 11:38 am

    Merry is a smart kid! Her answers are awesome! Even adults can’t see life so clearly.

  2. PE
    25 Nov 2006 at 4:50 pm

    MM –

    She’s a very bright kid! You should read the book to find out what happens to her.

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