Philip Roth Essay - Roth, Philip (Milton) (Short Story Criticism)

Roth, Philip (Milton) (Short Story Criticism)


Roth, Philip (Milton) 1933-

American short story writer, novelist, essayist, and critic. See also Philip Roth Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 4, 6, 9, 15, 22, 86, 119.

One of contemporary literature's most prominent and controversial writers, Roth achieved early critical and popular acclaim with his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, a collection of five short stories and a novella. The book was hailed as the opening volley from a daring and brilliant new voice on the American literary scene, particularly from the Jewish American sector. However, as quickly as critics classified him with Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, they also set him apart by virtue of his disaffected and caustic handling of Jewish American culture, his suburban settings, and his third-generation heritage. In terms of Roth's subsequent output, the book proved premonitory of his thematic concerns—the search for self-identity, conflicts between traditional and contemporary moral values, the relationship between fiction and reality—and of the controversy that he would generate. Roth has won numerous literary awards, twice winning the National Book Award—for Goodbye, Columbus (1959) and Sabbath's Theatre (1995). In all, he has published twenty-one books, though only one collection of short stories. Critical discussion of Roth, the short story writer, focusses on the stories, "The Contest for Aaron Gold" (1955), the collection Goodbye, Columbus, and on the essay-story "'I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting'; or, Looking at Kafka" (1973).

Biographical Information

Philip Roth grew up in Newark, New Jersey, the son of Beth Finkel and Herman Roth, a salesman for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. There he attended Hebrew school and spent one year at Newark College of Rutgers University. From 1951 through 1954, Roth attended Bucknell University, where he majored in English and graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa. He edited and helped found the Bucknell literary magazine, Et Cetera, which published his first stories. In the Fall of 1954, the Chicago Review published "The Day It Snowed." In 1955, the year Roth earned his University of Chicago M.A., his story "The Contest for Aaron Gold" was published in Epoch and anthologized in Martha Foley's Best American Short Stories. He taught English at Chicago and later instructed creative writing at Iowa and Princeton. Goodbye, Columbus, which contains several stories previously published in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, and Commentary, appeared when Roth was only twentysix. It was followed by a number of novels, the majority of which feature Jewish Americans and center around such self-reflective themes as identity, alienation, sex, and illness.

Major Works of Short Fiction

In addition to the title novella, Roth's only collection contains five short stories: "The Conversion of the Jews," "The Defender of the Faith," "Epstein," "You Can't Tell a Man by the Song He Sings," and "Eli, the Fanatic." His short fiction most often centers on assimilated Jewish Americans who "are distinguished by their Americanism rather than their Jewishness," according to Joseph C. Landis. Each of Roth's stories features unlikely heroes, who find themselves trapped within the social constraints of their immediate environment, usually the family, religion, or American society in general. While Roth's fiction depends heavily on theme, it is likewise replete with dark humor and keen observation, which is at its best in the acclaimed novella, Goodbye, Columbus. Here, Roth examines a summer romance between Neil Klugman, a poor Jewish intellectual, and Brenda Patimkin, a wealthy Jewish suburbanite. Though initially attracted to Brenda's comfortable lifestyle, Neil quickly becomes repulsed by the vacuous materialism of the Patimkin family. So much emphasis is placed on the Patimkin's materialism that some scholars, most notably Saul Bellow, have suggested that the true subject of the novella is American society's predilection toward the material—houses, cars, sports equipment—rather than the spiritual. Still others have taken both the romance and materialism of Goodbye, Columbus into account, comparing the novella to Fitzergerald's The Great Gatsby. As Alfred Kazin has remarked, "in the midst of the tense romance between poor boy and rich girl, one catches lampoonings of our swollen and unreal American prosperity that are as observant and charming as Fitzgerald's description of a Long Island dinner party in 1925."

The stories of Goodbye, Columbus, along with a handful of other fictions published indepently, constitute Roth's most significant work in the genre. They are frequently anthologized, and they continue to speak meaningfully about what it means to be Jewish American in the contemporary world. In "The Contest for Aaron Gold" a summer camp art instructor wrongfully completes a student's project to keep his job. In "The Conversion of the Jews" a Hebrew school student brings to his knees a rabbi who will not allow him to ask questions about his religion. In "Defender of the Faith" a Jewish American army seargent has to resist the crass manipulations of a self-serving private who couches his requests for special favors in calls to ethnic solidarity. The title character of "Epstein" suddenly feels at age fifty-nine that because he has accepted fully the responsibilities of business, marriage, and parenthood, he has missed out on life. In "Eli, the Fanatic" the assimilated Jews of Woodenton fear that their peaceful coexistence with the Gentiles will be put at risk by the establishment of an Orthodox yeshiva in their community. In the 1973 story '"I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting'; or, Looking at Kafka," writer Franz Kafka, a teacher at nine-year-old Roth's Newark, New Jersey school, has a brief affair with Roth's aunt Rhoda, a former puppeteer, before his death. John M. McDaniel considered this story "a continuation of one of the earliest thematic conflicts in Roth's fiction: the conflict between the sensitive man . . . and an insensitive society that constricts, stupefies, and maddens the would-be hero to despair."

Critical Reception

Roth's works, especially his satiric portraits of Jewish life, have inspired a considerable amount of critical debate. The gamut of negative criticism to Roth's work ranges from charges of anti-Semitism, degrading depictions of women, obscenity bordering on pornography, repetitiveness of theme, lack of humanity toward characters other than his alter-ego hero, and the joylessness of his humor. But the positive response to his work is equally strong, maintaining that Roth is a deeply moral writer, that his books are fantastically humorous, even if darkly so, and that his satires, although written from a Jewish perspective, offer insight into the foibles of American life.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

"Philosophy, Or Something Like That" 1952; published in journal Et Cetera

"The Box of Truths" 1952; published in Et Cetera

"The Fence" 1953; published in Et Cetera

"Armando and the Fraud" 1953; published in Et Cetera

"The Final Delivery of Mr. Thorn" 1954; published in Et Cetera

"The Day It Snowed" 1954; published in journal Chicago Review

"The Contest for Aaron Gold" 1955; published in journal Epoch

"Heard Melodies Are Sweeter" 1958; published in journal Esquire

"Expect the Vandals" 1958; published in Esquire

"The Love Vessel" 1959; published in journal Dial Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories 1959

"Good Girl" 1960; published in journal Cosmopolitan

"The Mistaken" 1960; published in journal American Judaism

"Novotny's Pain" 1962; published in journal The New Yorker

"Psychoanalytic Special" 1963; published in Esquire

"On the Air" 1970; published in journal New American Review

"'I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting'; Or, Looking at Kafka" 1973; published in journal American Review

Other Major Works

Letting Go (novel) 1962

When She Was Good (novel) 1967

Portnoy's Complaint (novel) 1969

Our Gang (Starring Tricky and His Friends) (novel) 1971

The Breast (novel) 1972

The Great American Novel (novel) 1973

My Life as a Man (novel) 1974

Reading Myself and Others (essays and criticism) 1975

The Professor of Desire (novel) 1977

The Ghost Writer (novel) 1979

Zuckerman Unbound (novel) 1981

The Anatomy Lesson (novel) 1983

Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue (novel) 1985

The Counterlife (novel) 1986

The Facts: A Novelist's Autobiography (fictional autobiography) 1988

Deception: A Novel (fictional autobiography) 1990

Patrimony: A True Story (fictional autobiography) 1991

Operation Shylock: A Confession (fictional autobiography) 1993

Sabbath's Theater (novel) 1995

American Pastoral (novel) 1997


Alfred Kazin (review date 1959)

Source: "Tough-minded Mr. Roth," in Contemporaries, Little, Brown and Company, 1962, pp. 258-62.

[In the following favorable review of Goodbye, Columbus, which was originally published in Reporter on May 28, 1959, Kazin commends Roth's innovative presentation of the Jew as an individual, particularly in the title novella .]

Several weeks ago I was awakened, while reading the New Yorker, by Philip Roth's "Defender of the Faith," a story with such extraordinary guts to it that I went around for days exhilarated by the change in the literary weather. Mr. Roth's story described the agonizing moment of decision in the life of Sergeant Nathan Marx, a...

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Irving Howe (review date 1959)

Source: "The Suburbs of Babylon," in The New Republic, Vol. 140, No. 24, June 15, 1959, pp. 17-18.

[In the following review of Goodbye, Columbus, Howe supports Roth 's characterization of suburban Jewry but disapproves of his moral pointedness .]

What many writers spend a lifetime searching for—a unique voice, a secure rhythm, a distinctive subject—seem to have come to Philip Roth totally and immediately. At 26 he is a writer of narrow range but intense effects. He composes stories about the life of middle-class American Jews with a ferocity it would be idle to complain about, so thoroughly do they pour out of his own sense of things.


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Saul Bellow (review date 1959)

Source: "The Swamp of Prosperity," in Commentary, Vol. 28, No. 1, July 1959, pp. 77-9.

[In the following excerpted review of Goodbye, Columbus, Bellow announces the arrival of a talented writer, accurate in his understanding of contemporary American Jewry, though excessively wry in his handling of the material.]

Goodbye, Columbus is a first book but it is not the book of a beginner. Unlike those of us who came howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair, and teeth, speaking coherently. At twenty-six he is skillful, witty, and energetic and performs like a virtuoso. His one fault, and I don't expect all the brethren to...

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Leslie Fiedler (review date 1959)

Source: "The Image of Newark and the Indignities of Love: Notes on Philip Roth," in Midstream, Vol. V, No. 3, Summer, 1959, pp. 96-9.

[In the following assessment of Goodbye, Columbus, Fiedler maintains that the title novella's "slovenliness" makes it superior to the book's remaining short fiction.]

There is more room in his single novella than in any of his shorter stories for non-theoretical life, for the painful wonder of what is given rather than the satisfactory aptness of what is (however skillfully) contrived to substantiate a point. Random and inexhaustible, such life is, after all, more the fictionist's business than any theme, even the rewardingly...

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Joseph C. Landis (essay date 1962)

Source: "The Sadness of Philip Roth: An Interim Report," in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. III, No. 2, Winter, 1962, pp. 259-68.

[In the excerpt below, Landis claims that sadness and a yearning for a more meaningful way of life motivate Roth's acerbic portrait of upper-middle class Jewry in his short fiction.]

The publication of [Goodbye, Columbus] in 1959 confirmed the already widespread impression left earlier by his stories in the New Yorker and Commentary that a young writer of great vigor and promise had appeared on the scene. Among his reviewers were Saul Bellow, Leslie Fiedler, Irving Howe, and Alfred Kazin. His honors included a National...

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Philip Roth (essay date 1963)

Source: "Writing about Jews," in Commentary, Vol. 36, No. 6, December, 1963, pp. 446-52.

[In the following essay, Roth defends his portrayals of Jewish Americans in his short fiction, specifically in "Epstein" and "Defender of the Faith," arguing that he writes about individual values and vices rather than those of the larger community.]

Ever since some of my first stories were published in 1959 in a volume called Goodbye, Columbus, my work has been attacked from certain pulpits and in certain periodicals as dangerous, dishonest, and irresponsible. I have read editorials and articles in Jewish community newspapers condemning these stories for ignoring the...

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Dan Isaac (essay date 1964)

Source: "In Defense of Philip Roth," in Chicago Review, Vol. 17, Nos. 2 and 3, 1964, pp. 84-96.

[In the following excerpt, Isaac examines Roth's protagonists in Goodbye, Columbus, "Defender of the Faith, " and "Eli the Fanatic," concluding that his characters "are men in the middle, lacking a sure sense of values. "]

Philip Roth is generally concerned with society and its values—the new society that second generation Jews are emerging into and recreating. Goodbye, Columbus, the novella that lends its title to a collection of stories, suggests the complex and irrational position of the rich, semiassimilated Jew in suburban society. The sporting...

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Irving Howe (essay date 1972)

Source: "Philip Roth Reconsidered," in Commentary, Vol. 54, No. 6, December, 1972, pp. 69-77.

[In his reconsideration of Goodbye, Columbus, Howe maintains that Roth's short fiction is limited by his willful shaping of the text.]

When Philip Roth published his collection of stories, Goodbye, Columbus, in 1959, the book was generously praised and I was among the reviewers who praised it. Whatever modulations of judgment one might want now to propose, it is not hard to see why Roth should have won approval. The work of a newcomer still in his twenties, Goodbye, Columbus bristled with a literary selfconfidence such as few writers two or three decades...

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John N. McDaniel (essay date 1974)

Source: "The Fiction of Philip Roth: An Introduction," in The Fiction of Philip Roth, Haddonfield House, 1974, pp. 1-36.

[In the following excerpt, McDaniel compares one of Roth's earlier works, "The Contest for Aaron Gold, " with a more recent piece, "I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting': Or, Looking at Kafka, " to demonstrate thematic and artistic consistencies in Roth's short fiction.]

Perhaps the best introduction into Roth's fictional world is to be found in Roth's very early "The Contest for Aaron Gold" and his very recent '"I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting'; Or, Looking at Kafka." The former was published when Roth was only twenty-one years old, and...

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Judith Paterson Jones and Guinevera A. Nance (essay date 1981)

Source: "Good Girls and Boys Gone Bad," in Philip Roth, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1981, pp. 9-85.

[In the following excerpt, Jones and Nance examine the themes connecting Goodbye, Columbus, "Epstein, " "Conversion of the Jews, " and "Eli, the Fanatic. "]

Goodbye, Columbus

Of Roth's major characters, Neil Klugman in Goodbye, Columbus most passively accepts the sway of casual circumstance in his life. In this, Roth's first departure from the short story, the surface plot is the familiar theme of the summer romance. Neil Klugman, the poor Jewish boy from Newark, has a summer affair with Brenda Patimkin, the affluent Jewish...

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Helge Norman Nilsen (essay date 1987)

Source: "Love and Identity: Neil Klugman's Quest in Goodbye, Columbus," in English Studies, Vol. 68, No. 1, February, 1987, pp. 79-88.

[In the following excerpted essay, Nilsen argues that protagonist Neil Klugman in Roth 's Goodbye, Columbus, separates from his lover to affirm his own identity.]

In Goodbye, Columbus the protagonist, Neil Klugman, is involved in a struggle to develop and preserve an identity of his own amid different environments and conflicting impulses within himself. Throughout the story he makes love to Brenda Patimkin and tries to find a role in society that corresponds to what he regards as his own, unique self. In the...

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Jay L. Halio (essay date 1992)

Source: "Nice Jewish Boys: The Comedy of Goodbye, Columbus and the Early Stories," in Philip Roth Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1992, pp. 13-36.

[In the following excerpt, Halio explores the dark humor present in each of Goodbye, Columbus 's five short stories.]

None of the five short stories collected along with Goodbye, Columbus in Roth's first published volume has quite the same range of wit and humor as the novella. But if "The Conversion of the Jews" is in part a ludicrous melodrama and "Epstein" borders on the tragic, they also reveal not only Roth's own moral earnestness but his witty perception into the contradictions and inconsistencies of...

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"The Conversion of the Jews"

"The Conversion of the Jews"

Little Ozzie Freedman is the kind of boy who, because of his independent spirit and relentlessly inquiring intellect, is constantly getting into trouble with his elders. The framework for "The Conversion of the Jews" is the heder, or Hebrew school, Ozzie attends and where he comes into conflict with his teacher, Rabbi Binder. What gets Ozzie into trouble is his insistence on following the logic of scripture even to the point of recognizing the possibility of a Virgin Birth. For a Jewish rabbi teaching a class of would-be bar mitzvah boys, this is surely asking too much. That Jesus was "historical. . . a person that lived like you and me" is as far as Rabbi...

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"The Defender of the Faith"

"The Defender of the Faith"

"The Conversion of the Jews," with its beatific ending, brought ample criticism to Roth from many in the Jewish community, who overlooked its comedy and concentrated instead on what they regarded as anti-Semitism in the story. "The Defender of the Faith" contains fewer funny moments but, if anything, a sharper wit and a toughmindedness that insist, both in the story and its telling, that Jews are in most respects like other human beings. If Malamud's recurrent theme is that "All men are Jews," then Roth's is that "All Jews are men," as illustrated in the fictional portrayal of Sergeant Nathan Marx and the three Jewish recruits whose basic training he supervises [Sanford...

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Mixed comedy and pathos, melodrama and farce characterize "Epstein" also, though in different doses and for different purposes. So do moral earnestness and what appears to be, on the surface anyway, a kind of poetic justice not unlike that meted out at the end to Private Grossbart. Old, hardworking Lou Epstein's life is suddenly transformed after his nephew Michael comes to spend a weekend at his home. Epstein is at an extremely vulnerable point in a middle-aged man's life. His wife of many years, Goldie, is no longer as attractive as she once was. His son, Herbie, dead of polio early in life, is kept alive only in memory, and in the bedroom where his baseball pictures still hang on the...

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"You Can't Tell a Man by the Songs He Sings"

"You Can't Tell a Man by the Songs He Sings"

According to critical consensus, the penultimate story in Goodbye, Columbus is the weakest. It is also the earliest of Roth's stories in the collection. Nevertheless, it has its humor too and its moral irony, though here the two are not as tightly interwoven as in the other stories. Jokes abound, as when the ex-con Albie Pelagutti, recently returned to high school, asks the boy sitting next to him for "the answer" while they are filling out an occupations questionnaire. Or when Albie turns up for a baseball game in an outlandish costume. Though he has bragged about his skill as a ballplayer, when a fly ball comes his way he lets it land on his...

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"EU, the Fanatic"

"EU, the Fanatic"

Like "The Defender of the Faith," "Eli, the Fanatic" is suffused with dark humor. The comedy derives from the contrasts and juxtapositions of an assimilated Jewish community in predominantly WASPish Woodenton suddenly confronted by an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva in its midst. The yeshiva consists of some 18 refugee children presided over by Leo Tzuref and cared for by a nameless survivor of concentration camps. The affluent Jews who have moved to Woodenton in suburban New York—merchants as well as professionals and their families—are disturbed by the presence of this outlandish settlement and want it removed. Not only does the yeshiva violate the town's zoning ordinances, but,...

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Further Reading

Baumgarten, Murray, and Barbara Gottfried. "The Suburbs of Forgetfiilness: Goodbye, Columbus" In Understanding Philip Roth, pp. 21-59. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.

Interpretative analysis of the novella and five short stories, focusing on Roth's representation of suburban Jewry.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Philip Roth. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986, 188 p.

Collection of critical essays addressing Roth's corpus.

Deer, Irving, and Harriet Deer. "Philip Roth and the Crisis in American Fiction." The Minnesota Review VI, No. 4 (1966): 353-60.

Proposes that...

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