How is the main character Neil an outsider both in his New Jersey World and in American society?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Neil is an outsider because of his complex construction.  His entire relationship with Brenda makes him an outsider to his New Jersey world.  Neil embodies this outsider condition in the way he openly admits "Whenever anyone asks me where I went to school I come right out with it: Newark Colleges of Rutgers University," Neil has entered the world of the Patimkins.  It is a world of "new money."  In this entrance, Neil can be seen an outsider to his New Jersey world.  This estrangement can be seen in the form of Aunt Gladys.  She is critical of the choices he has made in choosing Brenda and wealth over identity. Aunt Gladys is a physical reminder of his New Jersey roots and a condition that he can never escape.  Aunt Gladys does not dominate him or control him.  Yet, her sentiments tug at Neil.  It is a reminder of how Neil has become an outsider to the world of being Jewish and at leaving the "old neighborhood" for suburbia.

Aunt Gladys's presence reflects how Neil is also an outsider to the world of the Patimkins.  The Patimkin world is one that has embraced "complacency, parochialism, and materialism."  Brenda shows a willingness to embrace what is expected of her in a future that is socially designed.  She has no problem getting fitted for a diaphragm, shopping for her wedding, and living the life of a suburban woman with wealth and privilege.  Neil's constant inability to fully embrace this world is why he is an outsider to it.  Neil cannot see past the Patimkins as "round-shouldered, burdened, child- carrying--like people fleeing a captured city."  No matter what is done and what is acquired, Neil will always see them as Jewish people still in search of something, and wandering to to find it.  

Neil's outsider capacity is seen in how he is unable to view himself as part of this world.  For example, Neil cannot fully see himself like Ron.  When he sees Ron, he sees a sense of estrangement and loss.  His act of listening to the "Columbus Record" is a last chance to envision something that is not going to be.  Even if Ron is experiencing this, the fact that he is taking over the family business , getting married, and the settling into the suburban life moves him into the realm of an insider, replicating the same socially expected patterns of behavior.  Neil could never do this.  He is unable to do this because of his the consciousness of his own ethnicity as well as his economic status. Neil understands that he is an outsider in this realm, as well.

Neil's complex reflection makes him an outsider in both worlds.  Neil is unable to appropriate any realm of being without questions and without doubt.  It is because of this condition of thinking and doubting that Neil is an outsider to both worlds.  Neil has one foot in one world and the other in another.  As a result, he finds equal dissatisfaction in both and is perceived to be an outsider in both.  This becomes a critical element in his characterization.  The title bids farewell to the ultimate of insiders.  Columbus, in the form of Ron's reverie of college or in the form of the explorer, is the embodiment of the insider.  Neil's bidding farewell is a reflection of how much an outsider to everything he is.

Read the study guide:
Goodbye, Columbus

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