Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth, 1959

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by Philip Roth, 1959

"Goodbye, Columbus" first appeared in the autumn-winter 1958-59 issue of the Paris Review and shortly thereafter in Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories (1959). The collection brought Philip Roth recognition as one of America's most important fiction writers.

"Goodbye, Columbus" treats many of the themes for which Roth is best known: acculturation and assimilation of second-and third-generation Jews into American life; their attempts to fulfill the American dream; their relationship to their heritage, both American and European; and the tension between wealth and intellect. The story's central character and narrator, Neil Klugman, embodies all of these themes. Living with his Aunt Gladys in the Jewish section of Newark, New Jersey, he meets and falls in love with Brenda Patimkin, daughter of Ben Patimkin, who made a fortune in kitchen and bathroom sinks. The Patimkins live in Short Hills, an affluent suburb. As Neil drives there, he feels that he is approaching heaven. When he arrives, he is struck not only by the Patimkins' affluence but also by their athletic prowess and by their eating ability as they all gorge themselves at the table. Neil contrasts this meal to those in his aunt's home, where Gladys feeds each person separately, one after the other.

The title of the story derives from a record owned by Ron Patimkin, Brenda's brother. It recounts the events of his senior year at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, and it ends with the words "goodbye, Columbus … goodbye, Columbus … goodbye…." Yet the story's title also refers to Christopher Columbus. Neil, too, is a discoverer of a new world, the world of the Patimkins, one that promises fulfillment for all of his worldly dreams. But it demands a sacrifice in return, for to become a part of that world he must, he feels, become a Patimkin. When Ron decides to marry, he abandons his dream of being a physical education teacher to meet his "responsibilities" by entering the Patimkin business. At Ron's wedding Ben says to Neil and Brenda, "There's no business so big it can't use another head," implying that, if Neil marries Brenda, he, too, will enter the business. But Neil ultimately rejects the Patimkin world.

Neil connects his trips to Short Hills with a black boy's coming to the library in Newark to look at a book of Gauguin's paintings of Tahiti. In a key dream Neil pictures himself and the child on a ship moving inexorably away from an island in the Pacific. The women on the island throw leis at them and speak the concluding words of Ron's record. Neither the child nor Neil wants to leave, but neither can do anything about it. In the dream Neil is Columbus, and the land he must leave is the world of Brenda. He ultimately decides that he is unwilling to become a Patimkin, and he realizes the truth of what he has thought earlier: "No sense carrying dreams of Tahiti in your head, if you can't afford the fare."

When Neil spends his two-week vacation just before Labor Day at the Patimkin household, he realizes that he has fallen in love with Brenda, but he also gets a taste of what life as a Patimkin would be. Shortly after moving in, he sees the hostility between Brenda and her mother as they argue over his visit, which occurs just after Ron has announced that he is getting married in two weeks. As Brenda runs from her mother, Neil finds himself sitting on his one Brooks Brothers shirt and pronouncing his own name aloud. Neil's last name, Klugman, is the Yiddish word for clever, or smart, one, but it also means cursed one. In fact, the story's title inevitably connects Neil's name with a saying ubiquitous in Jewish neighborhoods in East Coast cities in the early twentieth century—a klug tzu Columbus, "a curse on Columbus," the discoverer of the New World in which the immigrants found themselves suffering so much. Ben's brother Leo assumes that Neil will marry Brenda. At Ron's wedding Leo tells Neil that he is "a smart boy" who will "play it safe" and not "louse things up." But after Neil apparently decides to ask Brenda to marry him, he discovers that he cannot.

Toward the end of his stay at the Patimkin house, Neil asks Brenda to buy a diaphragm. She initially refuses, which Neil believes indicates her lack of commitment to their relationship. She then relents, but when she goes back to Radcliffe at the beginning of the school year, she leaves her diaphragm in a drawer at home, where her mother finds it. Neil visits her in Cambridge, where she tells him what happened. With what seems to be justification, Neil feels that Brenda left the diaphragm on purpose to hurt her mother. He apparently feels that Brenda has been using him all along, and he tells her, "I loved you, Brenda, so I cared." She responds, "I loved you." Both then realize what tense they have used, and Neil leaves.

Before he calls a cab to take him to the train station, he looks through a window into the library of Harvard University, where he knows that Patimkin sinks have been installed. He sees his own reflection in the window and beyond sees the stacks with their "imperfectly shelved" books. He returns to Newark in time to go to work the next morning.

Neil is ultimately unable to stay in the new world that Brenda represents. He is unwilling or unable to pay the fare. Instead, he returns to the imperfect world of Newark and his job at the Newark Public Library, with its own "imperfectly shelved" books.

In 1969 "Goodbye, Columbus" was made into a popular film directed by Larry Peerce and starring Richard Benjamin, Ali MacGraw, and Jack Klugman.

—Richard Tuerk