“Goodbye Columbus” was published as a compilation of five short stories that were published in 1959. The novel contains the following short stories: “Epstein,” “The Conversion of the Jews,” “You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings,” “Defender of the Faith,” and “Eli, the Fanatic.” Principally, the book is concerned with the tribulations faced by the third generation of the incorporated Jews who are forced to leave their conventional ghettos and parents to attend college, official jobs, and life in the towns. The book was instrumental for Roth to win the National Book Award that he won in the year 1960. Furthermore, it earned him the status as one of the most gifted upcoming young writers of his time.
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Goodbye Columbus is recounted from Neil Klugman’s perspective, a middle-aged man who lived with his relatives in the ghettos of Newark, New Jersey, and worked in a public library. Over the summer, Neil is engaged in a relationship with Brenda Patimkin, an Upper-Middle class Jew who is attending college and lives with her parents in the suburbs. Through the relationship, Neil is able to display the bleak socio-economic contrast that existed between the lower and upper-middle-class Jews. The summer end coincides with Brenda’s brother’s wedding and she returns to college. During a planned meeting between the two “lovers” in a hotel room, Brenda informs Neil that she can no longer continue with the relationship since her parents had learned and disapproved of it. Though dejected by her girlfriend’s rejection, he leaves the hotel has acquired a new sense of self-knowledge; this is exhibited by the commencement of the Jewish New year as Neil enters Newark.
Among the values that are explored in the novel include: class variations among the Jewish society, spiritual conflicts over Judaism, the uniqueness of the Jews, love, sex, and relationship, and the struggles underwent in acquiring self-knowledge by young Jewish men. A significant aspect of love, sex, and relationship is displayed by the numerous sex encounters between Neil and Brenda all of which take place at Brenda’s home such as in the family’s Television Room and Brenda’s bedroom (Roth, p. 468, 2005). Neil perceives his sexual encounters with Brenda as a form of accomplishment. He describes his first sexual encounter with Brenda with a competitive game metaphor to display a sense of achievement; Neil’s relationship with Brenda is a form of social-economic uplifting. The first quarrel leading to a breakup between the two “lovers” results from Brenda’s parent’s discovery of her diaphragm; they express their disappointment and contempt for Neil (Roth, p. 854, 2005). This acts as the first and final blow to the relationship exhibiting the severity of the socioeconomic class conflicts among the Jews. Despite handling serious issues in Jewish society, the novel is distinguished by its rich sense of humor and the narrator’s well-crafted irony when he describes both his own family and his girlfriend’s family.
In conclusion, the novel displays the intrinsic nature of assimilation that is intrinsic to classism. The title of the novel, “Goodbye Columbus” is a record that was constantly played by Brenda’s brother as a reminder of his days as an athlete. Furthermore, the title is used to symbolically portray the Patimkins’ family extent of assimilation (Roth, p. 284, 1994). Despite the excellent craftiness of the book, it is not without controversy. A substantial number of the Jewish community has taken issue with the author’s flattering display of some of the characters in the novel. Of particular interest is the case of a Jewish Sergeant who is oppressed by three skirting, co-religionist recruits in the “Defender of the Faith.”
- Roth, Philip. Goodbye, Columbus: And Five Short Stories. New York, NY: Vintage, 1994. Print.
- Roth, Philip. Novels and Stories 1959-1962: Goodbye, Columbus & Five Short Stories / Letting Go. New York, NY: Library of America, 2005. Print.