Reading the Body in Philip Roth's American Pastoral

By Hobbs, Alex | Philip Roth Studies, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Reading the Body in Philip Roth's American Pastoral


Hobbs, Alex, Philip Roth Studies


As the first in Philip Roth's best-selling American Trilogy and a Pulitzer Prize winner, American Pastoral (1997) has received a great deal of critical attention in the thirteen years since its publication. While critics have studied this novel for its comment on identity, they have tended to focus on the identity of the nation - the apocalyptic landscape of the novel and the deadi of the American Dream (for example, David Brauner s analysis of an American anti-pastoral, in Philip Roth, 2007) - or the protagonist's denial of his ethnic/Jewish identity (for example, Debra Shostak's Philip Roth - Countertexts, Counterlives, 2004). However, as the novel provides a seemingly perfect specimen of a male hero only to tear him down again, it also invites a discussion of gender stereotyping and how this affects the formation of masculine identity. Seymour "the Swede" Levov is a third generation Jew who swaps urban Jewish Newark for rural WASPish Old Rimrock. The novel conveys the tragic course of the Swede's life: from local adolescent hero to achieving what he considers the perfect American life to his downfall resulting from his daughter's terrorist actions during the Vietnam era.

Using American Pastoral as a case study, this article considers the body as a site of meaning. As Roth is not one for subtlety, the pages of American Pastoral hold at least five characters whose bodies can be interpreted as visual indicators of aspects of their personalities and values. Here I will focus on the hero of the piece: the Swede, the atbletic protagonist, who is spurred into a life of archetypal American success by a community that presumes his good looks and strong body will bring him a good and easy life. In analyzing the Swede's body, this article employs the work of two critical theorists: Judith Butler's work on gender as a performative construct, discussed in her trilogy, Gender Trouble (1990, 1999), Bodies that Matter (1993), and Undoing Gender (2004); and Jean Baudrillard's writings on American culture, scattered throughout his work, but most densely situated in America (1989) and Cool Memories (1990). These writings offer an exploration of body politics and gender or identity formation, an ever-expanding critical field that gains increased attention as contemporary culture and society become progressively more dependent on the visual for discerning meaning. While these theorists share a common subject matter, Baudrillard offers an overtly masculine view both of America and the meaning of bodies - indeed, he is often accused of misogynistic rhetoric - whereas Butler utilizes founding theories of feminism, questions them, and adds elements of queer theory to undermine presumptions made about the link between sex/body and gender/identity. This dual critical framework allows for a fuller discussion of what the body means within Roth's America.

Since these critics' work on the body spans several texts and has developed over time, it is difficult to encapsulate the ideas of either Baudrillard or Butler in a simple summary, but the statting points of their theses can nonetheless be identified. Baudrillard begins from the point of view mat there is no depth, only surface, and he postulates that this is true of all things, including people. He argues that prior to the twentieth century, the body was denied importance and existence, while the soul was considered the essence of a person. Reflecting the changes of the sixties, Baudrillard believed that the dynamic had been reversed, and that now focus rests firmly on that which can be seen as the site of meaning. He has argued that a person is like any other sign, with meaning discerned from appearance: "In the consumer package, there is one object finer, more precious and more dazzling than any other - and even more laden with connotations than the automobile, in spite of the fact that diat encapsulates them all. The object is the BODY" (Consumer Society 129). Growing obsessions with youth, health regimes, diets, and cosmetic surgery all seem to point to a society that considers the body mote valuable than any "soul" it may contain. …

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