Goodbye, Columbus is Philip Roth’s first book, consisting of a novella and five of his early short stories. In this book, Roth begins his prolific career and we can see his first time exploring the themes he would one day become famous for: sexuality, guilt, hate, discrimination, hypocrisy, aging, and what it means to be Jewish in modern America.
Goodbye Columbus Analysis:
The novella tells the story of Neil Klugman, a working-class Jewish young adult, and his summer love affair with Brenda Patimkin, a wealthy Jewish girl from the New Jersey suburbs. It observes the interplay between their class differences: wealth, work, family life, and piety. But to me, the main theme of this novel lies in the purpose of the record – Goodbye, Columbus. Brenda’s brother Ron plays it for Neil one night, and it turns out to be a recording of a farewell to the graduates of Ohio State University. Neil has heard Ron listening to it on certain nights, but tonight he watches as Ron lies with his eyes closed, listening to those words of farewell and the montage of sports announcements. Ron, now a working man about to get married, lies in nostalgia for what once was. He listens to his name being announced and lauded during a basketball game, realizing in the wider world there will be no fame or praise. And that is where the heart of the book lies – a nostalgia for the past and the realization that it is gone; that, maybe, it was the best time of your life.
Neil is living at the ends of this moment which Ron pines for – a last summer. It is the mid-point between graduation and a lifetime of work. It’s a moment where he can take those days to swim, spend time on vacations, and go off driving around the suburbs on a whim. But as we near the end, we see him even struggling to take a couple of days off to visit Brenda. The affair itself is a revelation of this loss of youth. At the beginning of the novel, it is pure lust and idealism, where Neil finds himself craving her and where the couple teases and kisses more than anything. But as it progresses, Neil finds himself worrying about marriage and children; he struggles to make an impression on the family; his visit to Brenda’s father at work leaves him thinking of the business and inheritance. All these thoughts of the future make him long for the past where his biggest worry was arriving to pick her up a bit too early. Perhaps his story with the young black child in the library is simply him projecting this longing by helping someone else form the memories they will one day wish to return to.
Neil’s aunt Gladys provides a wonderful counterpoint to his struggle. She has gone through it long ago as well, but now instead of longing for the past, she simply wishes to hold onto what remains. Despite her many humorous complaints and comments, her sadness about Neil’s growing up and his long trips away is still apparent. She has come to terms that those nostalgic, perfect moments from long ago are gone, and instead of lying in bed yearning for them like Ron, she lives in the present doing all she can to make new memories which she can hold onto.
It seems like a popular opinion to put down the novella as a simple romance, and many reviewers state that the short stories put this section to shame. While I do prefer some of the stories, I think the novella goes far deeper than the simple romance that people describe it as. It is simple in its plot, but has much more to offer – the nostalgia, sadness, and fear of the future described above, but also how it lays out the battle between differences in the Jewish community. How wealth changes belief and assimilation, how levels of piety form opinions, and how familial love is displayed. It’s an interesting introduction to Philip Roth because while it touches on many similar themes he will always come back to, he writes in a far more tender way. Personally, I love the novella, but it doesn’t even begin to compare to his later novels. It doesn’t have that same anger, ferocity, and passion that his sentences will later exhibit.
The Conversion of the Jews Analysis
The Conversion of the Jews is a brief look at a young boy, Ozzie, and the questioning of his religious teachings. Through Ozzie, Philip Roth observes the hypocrisy of religion and of adults. As any kid does, Ozzie questions the things around him whether that be general morality or how things are done in the world. But when it comes to his questionings of religion, he is berated, disciplined, and occasionally hit. His inquiries don’t even seem to question the reality of God or Judaism, but just the simple inconsistencies in the teaching. He asks, why is this possible if before we learned that is possible, or, if God can do that then why can’t he do this. To the adults though, this topic is something that cannot be broached. It forces them to come to terms with their concept of life and death which in turn leads to their hypocrisy. But in the final moments on the roof he forces them to understand; he doesn’t convert them to a new religion, but to a state questioning and doubt. He wants them to understand where his curiosity comes from, but more importantly to understand why they should not act violent in the name of religion.
Defender of the Faith Analysis
Defender of the Faith deals with a Jewish American sergeant, Nathan Marx, in WWII and his interactions with three Jewish army trainees. Having just fought against Hitler, Marx’s faith leads him to side with these trainees, allowing them to take advantage of him and use him for their selfish purposes. At the beginning of the story, we see the unbreakable camaraderie between those of the same persecuted faith. Roth examines the beauty of the greater Jewish family in their love and worry for each other, but also criticizes it in how they will take advantage of this love. The most important part of this story is how Roth pins it to the background of WWII. After an atrocity like the Holocaust, should Nathan look past his annoyance with Sheldon and help him escape the Pacific Theater, or should he look past his religion and treat him like the rest of the soldiers? As usual, Roth is criticizing both the Jewish people themselves and those who may persecute them. It’s a theme which he begins here and will carry on with until his final novel.
The story delves into another one of his go-to themes – sexuality. Specifically, that of sexual guilt, infidelity, desire, and aging. Roth uses the character, Epstein, to observe a mid-life crisis, where a 59-year old Jewish man feels no desire for his wife, and so sleeps around with another woman. The story incorporates many perfect instances of irony or, like each previous story, hypocrisy. He has Epstein viewing youth sexuality as natural but somehow still vulgar, yet he involves himself in a far more immoral affair. Epstein denies all accusations and internally protests and rants at the wrongs he has been dealt. And in the end, he had nothing to worry about. If he would have stayed faithful, or at least unobvious in his immorality, the accusations would have been baseless. In this story, we can see where Roth has those hints of one day becoming a master writer: how he explores internal guilt with the ranting, hypocritical excuses that his protagonists often give.
You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings Analysis:
In this story, Roth moves away from the hypocrisy of individuals to that of society. The title, You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings, is in reference to a number of moments within the story: being able to decipher a career path for high schoolers with a test, understanding a man’s morality based on his economic ideology, or viewing a child as a delinquent for a simple mishap years ago in school. The story shows how society has placed these obstructions to harm individuals despite that it may be a one-off mistake or a mistake with little consequences.
Eli, the Fanatic Analysis:
And so comes the best of the book, and easily one of my favorite short stories of all time. Like in Goodbye, Columbus and Defender of the Faith, we again see a clash between the Orthodox and the Modern. The story is observing the modern Jewish people’s xenophobia towards those of the more traditional sect. The modern Jews have now been allowed to pursue the American Dream and will do anything they can to keep that ‘gift’ – even if it means breaking off from their own. But the story also shows the guilt associated with this act. Eli’s descent into madness portrays him finding the only way to cope with his guilt, becoming one of them. If you ever find yourself wanting to introduce someone to Roth, this is the place to start. It is most similar to his later works and is by far the best thing he wrote before Portnoy’s Complaint, but it also is brief and can be read in a single sitting.
Philip Roth is one of the most renowned American writers for a reason, and this is his beginning. The collection has its high points and low points, but each story is worth reading carefully, from the tenderly written Goodbye, Columbus to the sex-crazed Epstein to the mind-blowing romp of insanity that is Eli, the Fanatic.
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