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.)