Rethinking the end of Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus.”
What is “Goodbye, Columbus”? A story of a summer romance, a satirical sketch of suburban arriviste Jews in the fifties—sure. But when I stumbled on Philip Roth’s first book on the shelf of my high school library, “Goodbye, Columbus” seemed to me above all a brief against marriage. The story’s point—or so I thought of it—unsettled me. I had no intention of heeding it. I was for marriage, a born ball and chain.
In the story, Neil Klugman, recently out of Rutgers and the army, works behind the desk at the Newark Library. His summer girlfriend is Brenda Patimkin, a Radcliffe student from tony Short Hills, New Jersey. “We lived in Newark when I was a baby,” she tells Neil—that is, before the Patimkins’ social climb. For Neil, Brenda’s allure is tangled up with his fascination of her prosperous world, and the closer the two of them get, the closer Neil comes to signing up for the whole Patimkin package: a fancy wedding, a lifetime management job at her father’s factory (Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks), a country-club membership, a house in Short Hills, and, inevitably, babies. It’s cushy, but Neil isn’t sure he wants that life, while Brenda seems to consider no other.
The second time I read “Goodbye, Columbus,” I was in my late twenties, living in New York City, working in the editorial department of a magazine, and had no aspirations to move to the suburbs. I didn’t think I particularly resembled Brenda Patimkin or the rich young matrons of Short Hills, whose ranks she seemed destined to join, yet I felt very much the thing being cautioned against. I knew myself to be a future wife; I harbored dreams of having children. And I was surrounded by Neils, leery of family life. On the subject of family planning, a beau had recently leaned back in his chair and recited “This Be the Verse.” I have not forgotten his smugness, or my defensiveness: he had some pretty good writing on his side.
He might have read aloud from “Goodbye, Columbus,” from a scene that preoccupied me in those days. While Brenda goes dress shopping in New York, Neil drives up to the mountains alone and observes a group of picnicking young mothers and children: “Young white-skinned mothers, hardly older than I, and in many instances younger, chatted in their convertibles behind me, and looked down from time to time to see what their children were about.” Neil has seen them in the mountains before; “in clutches of three or four they dotted the rustic hamburger joints that dotted the Reservation area.” While their kids feed the jukebox, the mothers, “a few of whom I recognized as high school classmates of mine, compared suntans, supermarkets, and vacations. They looked immortal sitting there.” They looked immortal sitting there. The irony needled me. The line stayed with me for years. I was sure, on last reading it, that Roth meant not that the mothers individually looked immortal but that the condition of motherhood—and fatherhood—was immortal, the inescapable, wearying lot of most of humanity. Neil was girding himself to get out while he could.
I read it now and I wonder what made me so sure. The next sentence is “Their hair would always stay the color they desired, their clothes the right texture and shade; in their homes they would have simple Swedish modern when that was fashionable, and if huge ugly baroque ever came back, out would go the long, midget-legged marble coffee table and in would come Louis Quatorze.” A more local satire than I remembered. And then: “Their fates had collapsed them into one. Only Brenda shone. Money and comfort would not erase her singleness—they hadn’t yet, or had they? What was I loving, I wondered, and since I am not one to stick scalpels into myself, I wiggled my hand in the fence and allowed a tiny-nosed buck to lick my thoughts away.”
“Goodbye, Columbus” is full of foreboding about Neil and Brenda’s possible marriage. But on this reading, the story’s specificity came rushing in. It’s not about marrying but about marrying young; it’s about the prospect of working for your father-in-law; it’s about the wisdom of trading your modest independence for air-conditioning and garbage disposals; it’s about marrying within your insular tribe before you ever have a chance to leave. Maybe it really is a story of the American mid-twentieth century—the last time a young man with no particular prospects could so confidently turn down his future father-in-law’s fortune. Except Neil doesn’t actually turn it down. I had forgotten that it’s Brenda, not Neil, who decides they should break up, and she unconsciously brings about a crisis that forces the issue: she leaves her diaphragm back home for her (shocked, disapproving) mother to find. Of course, you could say that it’s Neil who brings the crisis about by pushing Brenda to get a diaphragm in the first place. The story’s meanings loosened and shifted, and it was more interesting than I had remembered: two frightened people halfway in love who collude to bring about the end of their relationship before they give any more of themselves away.
And then my husband supplied a point I’d been missing. “It’s about getting away clean!” he said. This man, my husband, also likes to quote Larkin, but we’ve had some children anyway. “Look at this last line: I was back in plenty of time for work.” He goes on, animated, “They can just walk away from it. Everyone is better off, including Brenda.” After all—I was catching his drift—was Brenda destined to be a Short Hills matron? Is she really aligning herself with her parents’ values at the end? Or is shaking off Neil, under the cover of her parents’ disapproval, her own way of forestalling a too-early marriage? Roth leaves room to wonder. “They even get to have sex”—the husband continues—“but they don’t have to marry. Her reputation isn’t ruined. He’s not on the hook. It’s not Jude the Obscure or Tess of the D’Urbervilles. No harm done!” Indeed. Yet Neil isn’t gloating or mopping his brow. He doesn’t assign a value—as some of Roth’s later characters would—to this kind of freedom. He (and presumably Brenda) only had an intuition that the union was wrong or that they wanted more time, which may be the same thing. And they bought themselves time. Neither they nor we nor possibly even Roth, back then, could say what for.
Elaine Blair is an advisory editor of The Paris Review.