Goodbye, Columbus

by Philip Roth

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Student Question

In Goodbye, Columbus, why is Neil quick to point out others' Jewishness or non-Jewishness? How does the Patimkins' wealth affect his view of them?

Quick answer:

Neil is quick to notice the quality of "Jewishness" partly because he's ambivalent about his heritage and has felt constrained and, to some extent, judged by both those of his own background and by others. The affluence of the Patimkins makes him feel defensive because of his own relatively modest status on the socioeconomic scale. It also adds to his ambivalence about embracing his heritage and brings up questions about the degree to which material success is illusory.

Expert Answers

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Goodbye, Columbus is a kind of a prototype within Philip Roth's oeuvre of his depiction of conflict and and ambiguity in a young man's perception of his religious and ethnic background. Neil is a progressive with regard to these issues. Like other Roth protagonists, including Alexander Portnoy, Nathan Zuckerman, and Seymour Levov, Neil doesn't embrace the traditional mindset—or what he perceives it to be—of many people in the Jewish community. He also doesn't buy into the typical American belief about wealth and material success as the be-all and end-all of life. His focus upon "Jewishness" or "non-Jewishness" is a kind of ironic reaction to the attitude of the older generations which tried to enforce an exclusivity regarding ethnicity and religion. He also recognizes that the insularity of many in the Jewish community was the inevitable result of the antisemitism that was rampant in Europe and even in America for many years.

The Patimkins are an upwardly mobile family who in some sense have overcome the prejudice against Jewish people and have fulfilled the American Dream of wealth and success. They live in upscale Short Hills while Neil's family is still in working-class Newark. Yet Neil senses that this success is based on illusion. Brenda is unhappy with her seemingly perfect life. Her affair with Neil is a rebellious act against her parents, particularly her domineering mother, but it also shows that although the Patimkins have achieved the Dream, the dynamic within the family is still a traditional one governed by the old attitudes. Neil observes all of this and seems to understand, in a way Brenda and her family do not, that the Patimkins have not really escaped the older world and its (from a progressive perspective) outdated attitudes about religion and ethnicity.

Neil is both more, and paradoxically less, "Jewish" than Brenda and her family. He knows the meaning, for instance, of Yiddish words such as gonif ("thief"), causing Mr. Patimkin to comment that "you know more than my kids." But his knowledge of Judaism is scanty, and he doesn't know quite what to say when Mrs. Patimkin brings up religious matters. Brenda seems to recognize that in becoming wealthy, she and her siblings have lost their roots, and the old world they've seemingly left behind is symbolized by the room with old furniture in which her father has hidden money for her and told no one else about it. For Neil, the Patimkin family is an object of envy even as he recognizes that their preoccupation with wealth and status has made them shallow. They have "advanced" in society in a way he and his family have not. But Roth's overriding theme, arguably, involves the question of just what it means to advance in the modern world. Something is gained, and something lost. The interplay between material success and the religious/ethnic concerns and conflicts of young Jewish people is a subtext of the narrative. In the end, when Neil and Brenda's affair is over, Neil seems to have been granted a confirmation of his feeling, all along, that material wealth has not freed the Patimkins from the older world and its values. The parents have judged Brenda in the way tradition would dictate, and Brenda herself, in her seeming carelessness that has led to the discovery by her mother of the affair, has perhaps subconsciously acted out of a sense of guilt. In any event, the outcome shows the relationship between Brenda and Neil as a kind of metaphor of the illusions upon which both the American Dream and, ironically, the older traditional attitudes about religion and ethnicity, have been based.

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