Introduction

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 111

Philip Roth 1933–

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American novelist and short story writer.

Roth exhibits in his fiction a brilliant satirical wit. His work explores problems of contemporary Jewish life. Roth has a flair for reproducing the speech patterns of American dialect, whether it is the idiomatic Yiddish quality of Jewish conversation or the cliché-ridden speech of a midwestern WASP. Roth has had the good fortune to achieve both critical acclaim and the fame of a best-selling novelist. His recent novels, The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound, examine the artist's interaction with society.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed., and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2: American Novelists since World War II.)

Bernard F. Rodgers, Jr.

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4963

[As] an artist Roth has placed his faith in Realism, not Judaism…. [From] the wider perspective available when the ethnic emphasis is set aside for a while, Roth's career is not marked by a vagrant choice of subjects but by a single-minded dedication to a significant goal: finding subjects and techniques which will reveal the effect of the interpenetration of reality and fantasy in the lives of his representative Americans. This concern is what makes an aesthetically coherent whole of his otherwise diverse fictions and supplies the developmental logic which his critics have so often failed to discern. (p. 9)

[In Goodbye, Columbus] Roth is already preoccupied with the central conflicts in American life as they are experienced in the everyday lives of his Jewish characters. These conflicts are economic, psychological, and generational, as well as religious, and they repeatedly point to the underlying incongruity between ethical ideals and material realities in American culture…. [Even in this early work Jewishness is used not to universalize,] but to particularize: to make universal conflicts more specific—"of a time, a place, a group of people, a situation"—and thus more realistic. (p. 19)

In each of the stories [in Goodbye, Columbus] we learn what reality feels like to the protagonist and are encouraged to see the world as he sees it. And this is an important point to recognize at the outset, since this identification of hero and narrator has been Roth's most characteristic fictive voice from the beginning of his career to the present. (p. 33)

Neil [the protagonist of Goodbye, Columbus] should not be confused with Philip Roth. Neil's awareness of his own motives … is never fully equal to his creator's, for the ingenuous questions he poses at the end of his narrative have already been carefully answered in the story itself. Completely accepting Neil's version of events, then, is misleading; instead we must read between the lines, noticing what he does not say as well as what he does in order to draw essential conclusions and implications….

The libidinous and acquisitive part of Neil sees Brenda and the affluent suburban world she inhabits, transforms them into a Polynesian maiden dwelling in an exotic American Tahiti, cam-ouflages itself under the guise of love, and cries, "I want!" At the same time the disapproving moralist in him sees a spoiled little rich girl, a family of Brobdingnags living in a world of conformity and expedience, and decorously protests, "I am horrified." This internal struggle—and Neil's hazy awareness that he has been more willing than he would like to admit to heed the acquisitive cry and ignore the horrified whisper—is what gives his retrospective narrative its bitter, misanthropic tone. Like Portnoy [the central character of Roth's Portnoy's Complaint ], he seeks revenge and vents his frustration through verbal abuse; unlike his liberated successor, however, he is denied the outlet of...

(The entire section contains 11860 words.)

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