Sometimes called a novella, Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus” offers a thorough introduction to some of the key themes, techniques, and character types that will populate Roth’s subsequent novels. While “Goodbye, Columbus” provides sharp social criticism, it is equally resonant on a surface level as a classic story of summer love. The story is narrated by Neil Klugman, a 23-year-old graduate of Newark Colleges of Rutgers, a secular Jew, and an employee of the Newark Public Library. Over the course of a summer, Neil dates Brenda Patimkin, a wealthy Radcliffe student and stereotypical Jewish-American princess whose family lives in the ritzy suburb of Short Hills; the relationship seems to have potential as more than just a summer fling but dissolves soon after Brenda returns to school.
Although “Goodbye, Columbus” is about social class and Americanization, it does not present the entrenched polarities that audiences are trained to seek. Neil and Brenda are of the same race and the same religion; both have or will obtain a college degree; their families have nothing against each other. What separates the two is simply that they are at different stages on the path to seeking and achieving the American Dream and have conflicting attitudes about the compromises such a journey entails. Most prominently among its themes, “Goodbye, Columbus” offers a reexamination of the American dream, questioning its attainability and whether its benefits are worth its costs. While the trajectory of Neil’s relationship with Brenda comprises the main plot of the story, several interlocking subplots evolve in parallel ways; each features a foil for Neil and sheds light on Neil’s dilemma, ultimately suggesting a cost or limitation of the American dream: the African-American boy in the library and his romance with Gauguin, Ron Patimkin and his mother, and Leo Patimkin’s unsuccessful marriage to Harriet, the relationship between Brenda and pursuit of the American dream.
The nameless little boy in the library is a foil for Neil and a source of irony in the story. While Neil is keenly aware of the challenges the boy faces—he is treated with suspicion, has difficulty making himself understood, and does not understand how the system works—Neil remains remarkably obtuse about recognizing the parallels between the boy’s situation and his own in Short Hills. The boy’s misplaced confidence in the continued presence of his Gauguin book is analogous to Neil’s lack of awareness of the fragility of his relationship with Brenda. What the boy shows us is that the myth of the American dream is precisely that—a myth.
A second foil is Brenda’s brother, Ron, an All-American athlete who is marrying his mother-approved girlfriend and going into the family business, right on schedule. One has the sense, however, that Ron’s glory days have already passed him by. Although Ron had planned to become a gym teacher, a fitting profession and one in which he would excel, he follows his father into a business for which he is unsuited and that he will not enjoy. Ron’s acceptance of “responsibilities” (61) and his plans to defer his own gratification to give greater possibilities to his yet-unborn children constitute another casualty of the American dream, the loss of personal dreams.
While Ron sacrifices his personal dreams to comply with the goal of success his parents have ordained for him, the disintegration of the relationship between Brenda and her mother suggests that family can become a casualty of success. The three major sources of tension between Mrs. Patimkin and her eldest daughter all originate in the family’s material success: loss of ethnic identity, different attitudes toward money, and failure to share values. Mrs. Patimkin maintains her sense of herself as Jewish, but Mr. Patimkin pays for the nose job that will remove the inscription of ethnic identity from his daughter’s face; Mrs. Patimkin laments: “[Brenda] was the best Hebrew student I’ve ever seen . . . but then, of course, she got too big for her britches” (89). Money itself has also become divisive, as Mrs. Patimkin frets that Brenda does not appreciate it, while Brenda counters that her mother cannot enjoy it. Finally, financial success has driven a wedge between the two women because they do not share core values. While Mrs. Patimkin achieved her status through hard work, her daughter takes maids and lawn services for granted.
If Brenda’s nuclear family shows Neil what he might have to sacrifice in order to “become a Patimkin” (120) and live the American dream, another Patimkin serves as a cautionary tale about what happens to a person whose dream quest fails. Like the Ancient Mariner, Leo Patimkin corners Neil at Ron’s wedding and tells a tale of failed aspirations, adjuring Neil, “Don’t louse it up” (108). His discontent suggests that it might be better not to reach beyond one’s grasp than to live with regret.
What Neil ultimately realizes is that the relationship with Brenda requires him to give up too much of his personal identity. If Short Hills is indeed paradise, it is a troubled one; Neil’s innocence, like Brenda’s virginity, is lost. Defying audience expectations, Neil breaks up with Brenda. The ending also suggests an irony, that perhaps what Neil took for a serious relationship was actually just Brenda’s using Neil to get her mother’s attention. Certainly this would be a very different story if told from the point of view of either of the Patimkin women. Ultimately, the story’s title proves prophetic. A play on Ron’s alumni album from Ohio State University, the title foreshadows both the dissolution of the relationship and the protagonist’s return to his homeland. Indeed, the story begins almost exactly where it left off. Brenda is back at Radcliffe (with a new coat to console her for her losses), the little African-American boy is on the street, and Neil is back at the library. Clearly Brenda is a static character, remaining essentially unchanged in outlook and behavior despite the events of the text, and although Neil might not know exactly what he wants, he does seem more clear about what price he is and is not willing to pay to pursue his dreams.
Rabin, Jessica. “Still (Resonant, Relevant and) Crazy after All These Years: Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories.” In Philip Roth: New Perspectives on an American Author, edited by Derek Parker Royal, 9–23.Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2005.
Roth, Philip. “Goodbye, Columbus.” In Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories. New York: Vintage International, 1993.