Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Letting Go is a novel about human responsibility, a novel that asks what we owe to those around us. Gabe Wallach spends the four years that are chronicled in this novel rushing this way and that, trying to find a proper relationship between his own good fortune and the misfortune of others. His behavior is a sort of frenetic contest between his sympathies and his instinct for self-preservation. Through comic and tragic and often melodramatic events, Gabe tries to rescue others without drowning himself. What he cannot see is the difference between ephemeral attention to others’ needs, and genuine commitment to their future. Only at the end of the book is Gabe able to release himself from the self-centeredness of his well-ordered existence and plunge into the turmoil of human life on an equal footing with everybody else.

The odds are too heavily weighted against Roth’s characters. He seems to be saying that the present condition of things in the United States is so inexorably negative that there is no point in struggling. Certainly, his attitude about the United States is vividly presented. As he has said elsewhere, in an essay, Roth believes that American society is essentially insane. This point of view underlies much of his writing, even in the later books, and is the foundation for much of his humor and satire. This country is, in other words, no place for a rational man to live. Yet people do live, and they somehow make the best of it; at times, Roth seems to be scolding his characters for their struggles rather than admiring them.