Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Philip Roth’s first published volume, Goodbye, Columbus, won for the young writer not only the National Book Award in 1960 but also accusations, as a result of the book’s comically piercing portraits of middle-class American Jews, of Roth’s harboring self-hatred. The ambivalent exploration of Jewish American life in Goodbye, Columbus, and its mixed reception among Jewish readers who were sensitive to the public image of Jews established two of the central themes of Roth’s fiction: a frank and often ironic look at Jewish American identity, and an intense but playful examination of the relationship between art and life.
In the novella “Goodbye, Columbus,” Neil Klugman’s confrontation with his Jewish American identity is represented by his love affair with Brenda Patimkin. Brenda signifies the American Dream, her parents’ suburban prosperity symbolized by a refrigerator in the basement overflowing with fresh fruit. Neil’s ambivalence toward the Patimkins’ conspicuous consumption and their eager assimilation into American culture is expressed by the guilt he feels when he helps himself to fruit from the refrigerator. Although Neil finally rejects Brenda, the novella closes without offering Neil a clear sense of where he might belong.
Roth poses other choices in the book’s subsequent stories. Ozzie Freedman in “The Conversion of the Jews” believes he must choose between Jewish authority and the American...
(The entire section is 466 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In Goodbye, Columbus, Neil Klugman meets and falls in love with Brenda Patimkin, the spoiled, attractive daughter of a middle-class Jewish family. The family has recently moved from Newark to the suburbs in Short Hills, New Jersey, where they have a large, comfortable home, typical of the nouveau riche class to which they belong. For Neil, however, Brenda and Short Hills represent an enticing version of a pastoral ideal. When he met her for the first time at a country club swimming pool, she was for him “like a sailor’s dream of a Polynesian maiden, albeit one with prescription sun glasses and the last name of Patimkin.” She has an older brother, Ron, a basketball star just graduating from Ohio State University, whose favorite record, “Goodbye, Columbus,” gives the story its title. She also has a kid sister, Julie, a younger version of Brenda, equally as smart and equally as spoiled.
By contrast, Neil’s more humble family consists of parents, permanently absent in Arizona because of their asthma, and his Aunt Gladys, with whom he lives and who cooks his meals as well as her husband’s, her daughter’s, and her own—all different and all served at different times. Aunt Gladys is modeled on the stereotyped Jewish mama and has a funny accent, but she also demonstrates the most common sense and genuine humanity of any of the characters in the novella.
As their affair progresses, Neil and Brenda spend more and more time together at her family’s home in Short Hills, where at the end of the summer Neil is invited to spend a week of his vacation. They have sex clandestinely in her room every night. The family is suddenly plunged into a frenzy of activity when Ron announces his engagement to Harriet, his Ohio State sweetheart, and they decide to get married over Labor Day weekend. In all the turmoil that ensues, Brenda gets Neil an extension on his visit as well as an invitation to Ron’s wedding.
Neil is not sure whether he feels more love or lust for Brenda, and he debates with himself whether to ask her to marry him. Fearing rejection, he proposes instead that she get a diaphragm. At first, she demurs, but Neil argues that...
(The entire section is 891 words.)