Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth

Editor’s note: Jeanne-Rose Arn wrote this paper while she was an LL.M. student at HLS for a course called “The Fiction and Biography of Philip Roth: A Meditation on American Identity.” We present it here.

Goodbye, Columbus is a story about assimilation and about social ascension. But perhaps more importantly it is an initiation novella, in which, of course, Neil’s initiation relates to his assimilation and to his ascension. The story draws a circle, in a short period of time, from the moment he starts trying to be more assimilated, willing to defy his Jewish identity, to the moment he returns to his identity: “what was it inside me that had turned pursuit and clutching into love, and then turned it inside out again? What was it that had turned winning into losing, and losing – who knows – into winning?” (p. 135) The novella takes place during one summer; Neil is 23, he meets his first love, and he is confronted – maybe for the first time – to the real struggling life. It is a transitory summer of questioning, of experiences – an accelerated process of assimilation, during which everything happens “very fast” (p. 17) until he closes the circle.

One key object of the story is the cars, and especially Neil’s car. It is the first medium to his assimilation – the connection between the identity he has developed since his young age and the new one he tries to acquire, and it embodies, later, this whole process. Indeed, the car – object that directly relates to the American culture, to the American dream and links one to the social class he belongs – appears at each stage of Neil’s initiation.

Therefore, the initiation starts with Neil escaping with his car the Newark he suddenly despises and breaking from his Aunt and Uncle. As he drives to Short Hills to meet with Brenda, the rich Jewish girl he met at the Country club, he “[thinks] of [his] Aunt Gladys and [his] Uncle Max sharing a Mounds bar in the cindery darkness of their alley, on beach chairs, each cool breeze sweet to them as the promise of afterlife” (p. 9). It is as if he was proceeding to an ascension: “once I’d driven out of Newark, past Irvington and the packed-in tangle of railroad crossing, switchmen shacks, lumberyards, Dairy Queens, and used-car lots, the night grew cooler (…) [i]t was, in fact, as though the hundred and eighty feet that the suburbs rose in altitude above Newark brought one closer to heaven” (p. 8). And when he reaches Short Hills, through his windshield, the town appears to him the place of all promises: “I drove up and down the streets whose names were those of eastern colleges, as though the township, years ago, when things were named, had planned the destinies of the sons of its citizens” (p. 9). Neil’s summer is a journey up to this paradise – and back home.

In Short Hills, Brenda’s family – the Patimkins – represents all what Neil’s Aunt Gladys and Uncle Max are not. They are the depictions of perfect integration and success: “since when do Jewish people live in Short Hills? They couldn’t be real Jews believe me” (p. 58). They own an American Chrysler, that Mr. Patimkin proudly “[pulls] out of the garage, carrying boss and son” (p. 69), and believe in sports more than in any religion “outside, through the wide picture window, I could see the back lawn with its oak trees (…) [b]eneath their branches, like fruit dropped from their limbs, were two irons, a golf ball, a tennis can, a baseball bat, basketball, a first-baseman’s glove, and what was apparently a riding crop” (p. 21-22). None of the Jewish traditions has survived – when the Yankees win, they even “set an extra place for Mickey Mantle” (p. 19), and the children are “goyim” (p. 94).

Neil proceeds to his assimilation and to his social ascension through his love with Brenda. But Brenda seems to constitute a “mean” rather than an “end” in herself: “the smallness of the wings did not bother me – it would not take and eagle to carry me up those lousy hundred and eighty feet that make summer nights so much cooler in Short Hills than they are in Newark” (p. 14). Even when they make love, Neil’s mind is concentrated on his goal: “how can I describe loving Brenda? It was so sweet, as though I’d finally scored that twenty-first point” (p. 46). At this point, the greatest fear he has is to be abandoned by Brenda, for that would throw him back to his old life: “I was sure that when I left the water Brenda would be gone (…) I’d be alone in this damn place” (p. 52). That is how he first tells her he loves her.

In order to assimilate, Neil must disown his family and be “adopted” by the Patimkins. It begins when he arrives to their House: “inside my glove compartment it was as though the map of The City Streets of Newark had metamorphosed into crickets, for those mile-long tarry streets did not exist for me any longer” (p. 9). And takes work – for example, Brenda makes him run so that he adopts the Patimkins’ values: “we’ll get up and have two grapefruits, and then you’ll come out here and run. I’ll time you. In two weeks you’ll break four minutes” (p. 71-72), and one day, “when [he] pulled up to the Patimkin house that night, everybody but Julie was waiting for [him] on the front porch: Mr. and Mrs., Ron, and Brenda, wearing a dress” (p. 38). At this moment, he feels perfectly integrated and the only thing he can think about is, “wishing (…) that [he’]d had [his] car washed” (p. 38).

And indeed, the Patimkins’ world is a world of appearances. Brenda had her nose done: “now I’m prettier” (p. 13), and Mr. Patimkin tries to appear someone he is not “the mirrored bar that was stocked with every kind and size of glass, ice bucket, decanter, mixer, swizzle stick, shot glass, pretzel bowl – all the bacchanalian paraphernalia, plentiful, orderly, and untouched, as it can be only in the bar of a wealthy man who never entertains drinking people, who himself does not drink, who, in fact, gets a fishy look from his wife when every several months he takes a shot of schnapps before dinner” (p. 41-42). In fact, everything lacks substance – “[a]ll was surfaces, and she [Harriet] seemed a perfect match for Ron, and too for the Patimkins” (p. 83). Moreover, the Patimkins have dirty secrets and their life is not as smooth as it appears from outside – they hide their true identity as they hide their old Newark furniture in a storeroom, and avoid hanging any pictures of Mr. Patimkins past as a poor Jew.

To discover the Patimkins’ true identity causes a disillusion for Neil, a disenchantment of the American dream, and a return to his own identity: “I sat down on my Brooks Brothers shirt and pronounce my own name out loud” (p. 66). Finally, the world he has entered – a world of materialism and conventions – will affect his relation with Brenda who chose her parents over him for they provide her with the money she needs, and lead to their breakup. His breakup with Brenda is also a breakup with the American dream, a goodbye to his will of assimilation and of social ascension, a “Goodbye, Colombus…” Taking the train, he leaves Boston and comes back to Newark “just as the sun was rising on the first day of the Jewish New Year” (p. 136). It is the revenge of his identity over classes and society.

But is it only a matter of Neil’s Jewish identity? Is there a reason why this story takes place in the form of an “initiation” novella? Is Neil supposed to learn something greater – and what about the reader?

One hypothesis is that Roth wants Neil to understand that the Jewish Americans are part of the middle-class and assimilated enough not to be forced to “play a role” as the Patimkins do. Indeed, he pictures the Jews as not anymore at the bottom of the social scale in contrast with the black people: there is the young black boy from the library who “ha[s] the thickest sort of southern Negro dialect” (p. 34), the maid at the Patimkins’ house “Carlotta, a Navaho-faced Negro who had little holes in her ears but no earrings” (p. 21), and the black workers at Mr. Patimkin’s store, “six Negroes [who] were loading one of the trucks feverishly” (p. 91). In many occasions, the black people have replaced the Jews: “Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks was in the heart of the Negro section of Newark. Years ago, at the time of the great immigration, it had been the Jewish section” (p. 90), after the young Jewish people “had struggled and prospered, and moved further and further west towards the edge of Newark, the out of if” (p. 90).

But probably, Roth tries to convey an even broader denunciation of classes and races’ struggles. Indeed the line between Neil’s quest and that of the young black boy is sometimes blurred – as if they were both sharing a fight: “I would have to get gas before I started up to Short Hills, which I could see now, in my mind’s eye, at dusk, rose-colored, like a Gauguin stream” (p. 38). And when he dreams, the young boy is next to him on a boat and “suddenly (…) [they] mov[e], [their] ship, [their] of the harbor, and the Negresses mov[e] slowly down to the shore and began to throw leis at [them] and say “Goodbye, Columbus… goodbye, Columbus… goodbye” (p. 74). It is then not anymore about Neil, neither about Jewish people… rather, it is the quest for a freer life, and a “goodbye” to a world of social injustice.

Jeanne-Rose Arn is a member of the Harvard Law School LL.M. Class of 2016.