American Pastoral Quotes


"You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. . . The fact remains that getting people right is now 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."


After the betrayals of his wife and daughter, Seymour changes his opinion of humanity. He is also guilty of lying and manipulating for selfish purposes so how could he expect anything less from other people? He concludes that one can never correctly learn who another person is. Anyway, that's not the point, he thinks. Recognizing that to have control one has to fully submit to their lack of control, he despairs because he cannot make himself do so. He's doomed to remain unhappy and hopeless unless he can learn to accept being wrong and helpless.

"He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach -- that it makes no sense."


As Zuckerman pieces together the events of Seymour's life, he learns about himself too. He is no longer the high school kid who worshipped the older boy. In context, he can now appreciate the lessons which Seymour must have been learning through life's various twists and turns. Both men, by different means, concluded that the only thing upon which to depend is life's inconsistency and unpredictability.

"Yes, alone we are, deeply alone, and always, in store for us, a layer of loneliness even deeper. There is nothing we can do to dispose of that. No, loneliness shouldn't surprise us, as astonishing to experience as it may be. You can try yourself inside out, but all you are then is inside out and lonely instead of inside in and lonely. My stupid, stupid Merry dear, stupider even than your stupid father, not even blowing up buildings helps. It's lonely if there are buildings and it's lonely if there are no buildings. There is no protest to be lodged against loneliness -- not all the bombing campaigns in history have made a dent in it. The most lethal of manmade explosives can't touch it. Stand in awe not of Communism, my idiot child, but of ordinary, everday loneliness."


Five years after she bombs the post office, Merry runs across her father again. He counsels her to beware of what's inside her brain. Her situation, feeling lonely and lost, is not a unique one but the universal human experience. Everyone is alone. He tells her that everything she projected onto political events almost definitely originated within herself.

"What was astonishing to him was how people seemed to run out of their own being, run out of whatever the stuff was that made them who they were and, drained of themselves, turn into the sort of people they would have once have felt sorry for. It was as though while their lives were rich and full they were secretly sick of themselves and couldn't wait to dispose of their sanity and their health and all sense of proportion so as to get down to that other self, the true self, who was a wholly deluded fuckup. It was as though being in tune with life was an accident that might sometimes befall the fortunate young but was otherwise something for which human beings lacked any real affinity. How odd. And how odd it made him seem to be numbered among the countless embattled normal ones might, in fact, be the abnormality, a stranger from real life because of his being so sturdily rooted."


Zuckerman here continues to discuss his conclusions about Seymour. Seymour thought that each person is robbed of identity by life the older they get, until they wake up one day to realize they have compromised everything they firmly resolved never to do. They have become the thing they despised. On the rare chance that someone escapes life's cruel thievery, the person turns out looking like they have it all together. They are the weirdos, the exceptions, the fortunate. The vast majority of people, however, become who they dread and lose sight of anything higher than the day-to-day.

"Everybody who flashed the signs of loyalty he took to be loyal. Everybody who flashed the signs of intelligence he took to be intelligent. And so he failed to see into his daughter, failed to see into his wife, failed to see into his one and only mistress -- probably had never even begun to see into himself."


Zuckerman sums up the tragedy of Seymour's life, crediting it to ignorance. Seymour trusted what people told him about themselves, trusted them to be who they said they were. Unfortunately for him, they all betrayed him because they weren't who they said they were. Perhaps the real tragedy of the story, however, is that Seymour was guilty of the same. He presented a false face not because he wanted to mislead but because he didn't fully know who he was. In the end, maybe all the people are just too scared to admit that they don't know themselves well enough to be sincere, so they choose a face to wear. Too bad that face is often wrong.

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