We can probably find something good to say about most of the characters we've encountered, in spite of Neil's rather judgmental point of view. (Notice that point of view looks at the narrator's perspective, while tone looks at the author's attitude toward his or her work.) Roth seems to love these characters very much even though he makes them the butts of his jokes, as well as platforms for his musings on human behavior.
Roth can be quick to give a literary spanking or two, but he's also quick to forgive in Goodbye, Columbus. We know this by the pains he takes to provide a balanced view of most characters, which is a lot more difficult to do than it might seem when you're writing in the first person.
When Roth is exploring important issues, like the discrimination the boy faces in the library, the tone seems concerned. Not to say that Roth can't get very dark—like when Neil is tormenting Brenda about the diaphragm. But, as he himself has noted, there is a deep comic intent at work. He says that while Goodbye, Columbus "has a kind of sad or melancholy edge to it, [it is] a comic book, and the situation [is] funny, very often" (source).
Neil's "voyage of discovery" from the city to the suburbs is presented as a bold adventure—even though, overall, the story features a pretty mundane and run-of-the-mill course of events. You can call the novella a pastoral because of the way it contrasts the crowded city with the idealized suburbs.
In some ways, it kind of reminds of us William Shakespeare's As You Like It. When Neil plunges himself into a new and strange environment (the pastoral suburbs), he begins to learn who he is and what he wants. He returns to Newark with a heightened degree of self-knowledge, which completes the pastoral cycle of voyage and return (see "Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis" for more on that).
The novella is also funny. It fits the requirement of a comedy by having a happy ending. By the end, Neil seems to have discovered that he belongs in Newark and he knows that his work in the library is meaningful and important to him. We should point out, though, that the novella isn't a romantic comedy. The love affair ends badly, without even a farewell kiss or a goodbye—the quintessential summer fling, perishing like the leaves on the trees once fall rolls around.
This story takes its title from lyrics to the song sung at Ron Patimkin's graduation ceremony at Ohio State University in good old Columbus, Ohio. In Chapter 6, on the eve of Ron and Harriet's wedding, Neil gets to listen to what Ron calls his "Columbus record" (5.51), which is a recording of said graduation ceremony… which seems like a kind of a random thing to play such a major role in the story. Before that, in Chapter 5, Neil hears snippets of the record, coming from Ron's room at bedtime: "And so goodbye, Columbus, […] goodbye, Columbus…goodbye…" (5.142).
Neil doesn't know what to make of this at first, but it slips into the dream he has while staying at the Patimkins's house. In the dream, he and the "little colored kid from the library" (5.143) are on "an old sailing ship […] anchored in the harbor of an island in the Pacific" (5.143). Beautiful black women stand on the shore, but don't move until the ship begins to sail away from the island. As Neil and the boy sail away (against their wills) the women sing:
Goodbye, Columbus…goodbye, Columbus…goodbye. (5.143)
In the dream, the lyrics to Ron's song comment on infamous conqueror-explorer Christopher Columbus, poster child for the idea of seeking out new lands and conquering the people who live there. This is also known as colonization. This process is what led to the transatlantic slave trade and subsequent events that had a devastating impact on indigenous peoples and lands throughout the Americas and Africa. Yeah, that whole thing.
In wry irony, Neil has cast himself in the role of explorer-conqueror in Goodbye, Columbus. His "voyage of discovery" is from the crowded, poverty stricken city of Newark, New Jersey to the opulent suburbs of Short Hills, New Jersey. Short Hills is presented as an exotic paradise Neil seeks to conquer while claiming for his own "the king's daughter" (2.74), Brenda Patimkin.
In the dream, this collides with Neil's anxiety over the boy from the library, whom he views as a victim of not only the colonial past and of poverty, but also of current racism and discrimination at the hands of library employees and others. The book the boy reads every day in the library contains reproductions of the paintings of French artist Paul Gauguin.
In 1891, when Gauguin traveled to Tahiti, then a French colony, he began painting the beauty of the place and its inhabitants, and to some degree, the effects of colonialism. He incorporated native styles into his work, an act that is often thought to have revolutionized the art world. Still, Gauguin has his critics and has been accused of exploiting native culture and performing a kind of cultural colonization of Tahiti and the Tahitians.
In the dream, both Neil and the boy are being driven (by the boat moving on its own) from a Tahiti-like paradise. When the women sing "goodbye" to them it foreshadows Neil's being driven from the paradise of suburbia when he and Brenda break up. The dream also highlights the connection and identification Neil feels for the boy… that's quite the purposeful dream.
The final chapter of Goodbye, Columbus includes Brenda and Neil's separation and break-up, but a little backtracking is necessary to discover whether Neil finds resolution to any of his conflicts. We think that he does. After he leaves Brenda in the Boston hotel room, he spends some time looking at his reflection in the window of the Lamont Library at Harvard University. He feels that he doesn't really know who he is inside and wishes he could "scoot around to the other side of the window […] and catch whatever it was that looked through those eyes" (8.254). Of course, he can't do that, but a line from the end of the penultimate paragraph of the novella suggests that he does see something of what's inside him:
I looked hard at the image of me, at that darkening of the glass, and then my gaze pushed through it, over the cool floor, to a broken wall of books, imperfectly shelved. (8.255)
That's right—books are inside him. When a wall of books is broken, and when books are imperfectly shelved, it means they are being read, which is a good thing. As a symbol of Neil's insides, this also comments on his broken heart, and his ability to see the beauty in so-called imperfections, like a crowded city or a bumpy nose. On the other hand, if there is to be any order in the library, someone needs to be there to mend the broken wall and properly shelve the books. Otherwise, nobody will be able to find what they want to read. Similarly, Neil will need to mend his broken heart and reevaluate his priorities.
When we consider a few comments from earlier in the novel, we can see that the realization that books are inside him is a resolution to a big conflict that might escape notice next to the bright lights of the romance. When we see Neil at work after his first dinner at the Patimkins's house, he tells us, "The library was not going to be my lifework, I knew it" (3.5). But, when he's driving away from the library for his vacation with Brenda he tells us this:
I kept thinking that while I was on vacation […] the colored kid's book would disappear, that my new job would be taken away from me […]—but then why should I worry about that: the library wasn't going to be my life. (4.127)
As Neil is faced with the reality of separation from his job, he begins to think more seriously about his feelings for it. He knows that books are dear to him, but he isn't sure that his work is meaningful. If we think of that in combination with the idea that Neil is full of books, the boy's first words to Neil take on an almost prophetic significance. He says, "The heart section. Ain't you got no heart section?" (3.10). The play on the words "art" and "heart" foreshadows Neil's vision of his heart-made-of-books at the ending.
These are also metafictional moments, moments where a character in a book talks about or reads books, or otherwise reminds readers that they are reading a work of fiction. So, consider this: Goodbye, Columbus is the first major story by Philip Roth, and Neil his first major character. Perhaps Neil's seeming resolution to commit to the world of books represents a similar resolution on the part of his creator.
Now, let's take a quick look at the novella's very last lines:
I […] took a train that got me into Newark just as the sun was rising on the first day of the Jewish New Year. I was back in plenty of time for work. (8.255)
The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, is the first day of The Ten Days of Repentance, a period of intense self-reflection. The holiday is a time to repent for harms done toward others, one's self, and God. Is Neil's return to the library a kind of repentance? If so, for what? If not, how else might this idea comment on Neil's final movement toward the world of books? What does it mean that he chooses to spend the holiday working in the library, even though he's already gotten the day off? What does it mean?
Setting is extremely important to Neil. You might say he's obsessed with it. Perhaps this is because he's twenty-three and trying to find the right place to be. He lives in Newark, New Jersey, a big, crowded city with lots of poverty. Brenda and her family live in Short Hills, New Jersey, an opulent suburb with lots of wide-open space. On his way up to meet Brenda that first night, Neil tells us:
I was driving past long lawns which seemed to be twirling water on themselves, and past houses where no one sat on stoops. (1.67)
That line sets up the basic conflict between the city and the suburbs, but we don't yet know how Neil feels about his city or about the suburbs. As his descriptions of the Patimkins's paradise grow more elaborate, his tone seems a subtle combination of mocking and awe, as in this moment from his description of his first dinner at the Patimkins:
Outside, through the wide picture window, I could see the back lawn with its twin oak trees. I say oaks, though fancifully, one might call them sporting-goods trees. Beneath 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. (2.73)
The sporting-goods trees are a potent and funny vision of America among many presented in the novella. It is most vividly contrasted against the Third Ward, the neighborhood where we find Patimkin Sinks, which is "in the heart of the Negro section of Newark" (6.218). There is something ironic about the fact that the heart of the Patimkin wealth is in the heart of a poor neighborhood. All of Mr. Patimkin's employees are black and probably from the Third Ward. Some readers might see this as exploitation. Others might see this as Mr. Patimkin providing valuable jobs to men he seems to treat with respect.
Neil tells us that the Third Ward used to be "the Jewish Section" (6.218). He admits to half-expecting to see "the colored kid from the library on the streets here" (6.219). Throughout this story we see Neil reaching for connections between the black community and the Jewish community. This theme will reappear with much intensity in Roth's The Human Stain (2000), the story of a black man passing as a white Jewish man, who is accused of racism by his black student.
The library, where Neil works, is another important aspect of the setting. It is there that Neil defends the rights of a young black boy against the racism of his fellow employees. This action helps to build sympathy for Neil's character, and it also touches on many of the novella's themes. None of this would happen without the library. Neil's place of work is also significant because, as we discuss at length in "What's Up With the Ending?," Neil comes to view the library as a place where he can find fulfilling and meaningful work.
"The heart is half a prophet."—Yiddish Proverb
The epigraph isn't specific to the novella Goodbye, Columbus but shared with the other stories in the collection. It prepares us for the intensely emotional tone and themes of love that infuse all the stories. For Goodbye, Columbus specifically, it comments on Neil's constant self-reflection and self-analysis. Even though he is often blind to Brenda's needs, his does look inward to try to find out how he feels about her. He looks to his heart to prophesize or disclose the truth of what he wants and what he should do with his life.
But, his heart is only half a prophet. Feelings are discovered, and feelings change as life goes by. The heart doesn't know everything in advance. We can also think of Neil's heart as torn in half during his relationship with Brenda. He loves her, but feels as if being with her makes him disloyal to and separated from Newark—where his heart is.
Neil is also conflicted about his work as a librarian. His flirtation with a job at Patimkin Sinks is another way his heart can be seen as torn in half during much of the story. We might also ask the question: if the heart is half a prophet, what is it on the other half? Hunger? The cosmos? Cookie Monster?
Goodbye, Columbus is heavy on foreshadowing, which is a lot like prophecy. The novella also has many prophetic-sounding statements, as well as some allusions to prophecy. Perhaps the first allusion to prophecy is connected to Ron. When Neil first sees him at the Green Lane Country Club pool, he thinks he's "like a crew-cut Proteus rising from the sea" (2.55). In Homer's The Odyssey, Proteus is a sea god who:
Will foretell the future to those who can seize him, but when caught he rapidly assumes all possible varying forms to avoid prophesying. When held fast despite his struggles, he will assume his usual form of an old man and tell the future. (source)
Now, it's quite possible that Roth was evoking Proteus to let us know that Ron is really big and almost divinely perfect, in terms of looks and stamina. Other than playing the "Columbus record" (5.51), which could be considered prophetic (see "What's Up With the Title?"), there is nothing to indicate that Ron is a shape-shifting prophet. But when Neil sees Ron at his first day of work at Patimkin Sinks, he sees what his own life might be like if he stays with Brenda. So, Ron could be considered a kind of inadvertent prophet, or a symbolic prophet. Unlike Proteus, Ron seems to be unaware of his role. Hey, ignorance is bliss.
The most obvious early example of prophecy is when the boy says to Neil:
The heart section. Ain't you got no heart section? (3.10)
This could be seen as a prophecy of Neil's search for his own personal heart section, the place his heart belongs. This question of where his heart belongs is crucial to Neil and drives the entire story. As with Ron, the boy doesn't seem aware of this role as prophet, or how important he is to Neil.
The tight plotting and consistent layering of key symbols give Goodbye, Columbus a feeling of formal unity, or completeness. To break things up and keep it from being boring, Roth provides lots of stylistic variety. Readers might feel effortlessly moved toward the conclusion, riding on the high emotional content infused in most sentences. Each chapter features several episodes, usually separated by a line of white space. For example, there are three key episodes in Chapter 3:
The lines of white space between the episodes make it really easy to find specific episodes and note the story's organization—a plus if you are writing a paper.
Within the episodes we find (as noted) a variety of styles. Many are dialogue-heavy, with limited non-dialogue narration, like when Brenda and Neil fight (Chapter 8) or when they are at the country club together on the second day of their acquaintance (Chapter 2). There are always nice, chunky paragraphs of narration, too, letting us see inside of Neil's head and giving us the sense that he's telling us the story, rather than writing it or thinking it.
In the second episode of Chapter 2, Neil boils down his first dinner with the Patimkins to bare bones conversation. We get a couple of pages that look like this:
CARLOTTA (over my shoulder like an unsummoned spirit): Would you like more?
MR. P: He eats like a bird.
JULIE: Certain birds eat a lot.
BRENDA: Which ones?
MRS. P: Let's not talk about animals at the dinner table. Brenda, why do you encourage her? (2.99-2.104)
This is fun to read and it gives us important information about the relationships between the characters. We see a pattern of Brenda trying to engage with her sister, and her mother chastising and criticizing her. She does have understandable reasons for being irritated with Brenda, but we don't see them in this moment.
In the final chapter, the novella makes use of the epistolary form. Epistolary is a fancy way of saying that there are letters reproduced on the page. In this case, we are looking over Neil's shoulder as he's reading the letters from Brenda's parents. Here's a snippet from Ben Patimkin's letter:
Some People never turn out the way you hope and pray but I am willing to let Buy Gones, Buy Gones. […] Have a nice Holiday and in Temple I will say a Prayer for you as I do every year. On Monday I want you to go into Boston and buy a coat. (8.133)
While Roth is obviously poking fun at Mr. Patimkin for his bad grammar, we're probably meant to glean that Mr. Patimkin probably got where he is without the benefit of much education. The letter also shows us how Mr. Patimkin feels about Brenda and Neil. Neil, we think, is the "Some People." The forgiveness seems meant for Brenda only. He makes it clear in other parts of the letter that Neil is persona non grata in his eyes. Mr. Patimkin's insistence on the new coat can be seen as his continuing to spoil Brenda rotten. Of course, you could look at it as him trying to comfort her in what he probably suspects is a difficult break-up, because nothing soothes a broken heart like a brand new coat.
Goodbye, Columbus also makes considerable use of foreshadowing, somewhat subtly in terms of the library-happy ending (see "What's Up With the Ending?"). A more obvious example is this moment, which foreshadows Neil and Brenda's break-up and suggests that he hurts her on purpose, at least some of the time:
I did not want to voice a word that would lift the cover and reveal that hideous emotion I always felt for her, and is the underside of love. It will not always stay the underside—but I am skipping ahead. (2.158)
Neil never says what "the underside of love" is—is it hate, or could it be something else? He describes it as hideous, so it can't possibly be good. Notice that in this moment Neil draws attention to the fact that he is telling the story of what happened to him from some point in the future. From this point in the future he recognizes that he "always" felt this mysterious, "hideous" emotion toward her. "Hideous" seems like a pretty intense word to use here… maybe Neil's just being a little dramatic. Or maybe he's secretly evil.
This aspect of the style also increases the suspense, while building formal unity. Many of the elements of Roth's style as seen here in his first major work will be repeated in the books to come. For a humorous take on Roth's Style, read "Psst: You know how Roth does it?" in the New York Times.
The sporting-goods trees work fabulously and comically as symbols, imagery, and allegory. That's right, Roth killed three birds with one stone with this one. As a symbol they work to convey the Patimkins's upward mobility and seeming fulfillment of one very popular and potent version of the American dream. They also present vivid imagery, helping us visualize the lush, green, and oh-so-sporty opulence of Short Hills. As we discuss at length in "What's Up With the Title?," Neil's journey to the suburbs is meant as a rough allegory for the journeys of explorer-conquers like Christopher Columbus to the "new world."
The sporting-goods trees help make this allegory visible. Those discovered and conquered new worlds were often paradises full of lush natural beauty. The Patimkin trees are a sporty consumers' comic parallel to that. For those of you with an eye for Biblical allusion, the tree of knowledge probably leaps to your mind. If Neil partakes of the tree of the sporting life, he might fall away from his "real" purpose in life—working in the library.
But sports aren't really the problem between Neil and Brenda. Instead, sports might well be a big part of what attracts them to each other in the first place. They both like to play physical and psychological games of all sorts. Neil even compares making love with Brenda to a game. Check this out:
How can I describe loving, Brenda? It was so sweet, as though I'd finally scored that twenty-first point. (3.125)
This is what Neil thinks after the first time he and Brenda have sex. He's making a comparison between sex with Brenda and winning a ping-pong game against her little sister, Julie. Now that's not weird or anything…
Above all, the sporting motifs are symbolic of the playful intent of this book. Though there are plenty of important themes in the book, it never loses its sense of humor and play. Roth himself has said that while Goodbye, Columbus "has a kind of sad or melancholy edge to it, [it is] a comic book, and the situation [is] funny, very often" (source).
The first fridge we see is Aunt Gladys's. Neil tells us that "whichever [fruit] I preferred, there was always an abundance of the other jamming her refrigerator like stolen diamonds" (1.45).
Gladys is a person who worries a lot about not letting anything go to waste. She's obsessed that the food in her fridge be used before it spoils. Neil says he hopes Gladys "dies with an empty refrigerator, otherwise she'll ruin eternity for everyone else, what with her Velveeta turning green, and her navel oranges growing fuzzy jackets down below" (1.45). Aunt Gladys's fridge represents attention to conservation of resources, but also a kind of opulence. Instead of needing to fill her fridge, Aunt Gladys needs to empty it.
Neil relates all this sarcastically, and even slightly disdainfully, which might explain his willingness to glut himself on the abundance of fruit in the Patimkins's fridge. Their fridge is beyond Aunt Gladys's perpetual filling and emptying, and seems to simply grow delicious fruit (that never spoils) all on its own—like magic. Their fridge works with the sporting-goods trees as a symbol of a version of the American dream. It also highlights the luxurious lifestyle in Short Hills. The fridge helps to complete the analogy that Neil is a conqueror-explorer invading the paradisiacal suburbs, conquering daughters, and, as Julie puts it, "stealing fruit" (3.45). At the end of the story, which fridge might Neil prefer? And which other "cherries" might he steal (Wink, wink)?
The glasses show up in the first line of Neil's story:
The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses. (1.1)
This first line is telling us that Neil holds vision in his hands—this is his story, and it will be from his point of view. More specifically, Brenda's vision, her point of view, is in his hands. Since he's telling this story in the past tense, that makes him an ex-boyfriend, which makes him biased when it comes to certain issues.
As we discuss in "Narrator Point of View" and under the theme "Women's Issues," Roth exploits Neil's bias to highlight Brenda's point of view. The fact that the glasses are hers seems like an alert to the reader to try to see from her point of view even when Neil can't.
Her glasses are also a symbol of Neil's insecurity, and the resulting need to control Brenda—to make sure she doesn't get away from him. Brenda is quite aware of this, as we learn in the final blow-up. She exploits it most when she designs the sexy and (at least for Neil) dangerous game of hide and seek to make him say he loves her. When Neil waits for her in the pool during the game he thinks:
I wish that I had carried her glasses away with me, so she would have to wait for me to lead her back home. (4.80)
He wants Brenda to depend on him, to need him so she'll keep him around. Yeah, that doesn't sound too healthy. Anyhow, all of this is super ironic because Brenda is doing the same thing to Neil—trying to make him need her. In fact, she seems to be grooming him to be, well, her groom. Readers recognize what's going on, but Neil is far from sure. That's why he ultimately asks her to buy a diaphragm instead of asking her to marry him. He tells us:
I wasn't prepared for any answer but "Hallelujah!" Any other kind of yes wouldn't have satisfied me, and kind of no […] would have been my end. So I imagine that's why I proposed the surrogate […]. (6.35)
The "surrogate" he's talking about is the diaphragm. Notice the little shift to present tense. Neil says "I imagine." This shows us that he's looking back on and analyzing his past behavior, trying to figure out why he acted the way he did. Now he can share the irony with the readers and milk the situation for all the comedy it's worth.
The first explicit mention of the heart that we found is when the boy comes into the library asking Neil to direct him to the art section. Neil thinks he says the "heart section" and we get the feeling that there are matters of the heart in Goodbye, Columbus beyond the love affair between Brenda and Neil.
The play on words of "art" and "heart" might suggest that a person's art is what is in a person's heart. For Neil, this seems to mean the library and books, while for Brenda it might be sports or whatever it is she's studying in school (if Neil knows or cares what her major is, he doesn't say). For Mrs. Patimkin, perhaps it's her practice of Judaism and doing good works. For Ron, it could be his perfect basketball game, and for Mr. Patimkin, it might be business.
And that brings us to another important "heart" in the story, Patimkin Kitchen and Bathroom Sinks. As we discuss in "Setting," Patimkin Sinks is located "in the heart" (6.218) of a very poor area of Newark now mostly inhabited by poor black people, but previously by poor Jewish immigrants. Patimkin Sinks is also the "heart" of the Patimkins's wealth and, therefore, their suburban life. Without Patimkin Sinks, none of that would exist. Neil sees that although Brenda left Newark long ago, she is intimately connected to it. Perhaps the fact that she denies this connection is a big part of what ultimately pushes Neil away from her.
Neil Klugman is the first person narrator of Goodbye, Columbus. He's a twenty-three-year-old man with a degree in philosophy and a job at the Newark library. This is the story of his summer-to-fall romance with Brenda Patimkin and of the journey to self-discovery that the romance causes him.
His narrative style is conspiratorial and confidential. At times, Neil can come off as angsty and judgmental—maybe he's in the final stretches of puberty—but the reader is drawn into his inner life by his humor, wisdom, and even his insecurity. Neil presents some of his least sympathetic actions, like his behavior toward Brenda regarding the diaphragm, in a very harsh light. This opens the door for us to see things from Brenda's point of view as well, so much so that "Women's Issues" is a major theme in the story.
Stage Identification: Brenda's dive into the pool of the other world.
Explanation/Discussion: Goodbye, Columbus is very deliberately a voyage and return plot. As we discuss in "What's Up With the Title?," city-boy Neil Klugman's voyage to suburbia is a wry allegory for the voyages of Christopher Columbus and other explorer-conquers. When we meet him he's just getting his toes wet in suburbia, literally. It's his annual visit to Green Lane Country Club with cousin Doris. His fall begins when Brenda Patimkin asks him to hold her glasses and dives into the pool. Swoon.
Stage Identification: The fruity fridge and the sporting-goods trees.
Explanation/Discussion: Booker says that in this stage the hero (that would be Neil) finds the "new world […] exhilarating because it is so puzzling and unfamiliar. But, it is never a place where they can feel at home." Sounds exactly like Neil. His fascination with this strange, new world is symbolized by the abundance of fruit (like in a tropical paradise) and the abundance of sporting goods (part of the American dream). But, his heart seems to remain in the crowded streets of Newark, to which he feels a bit disloyal the whole time he's at the Patimkins. The period where Brenda has Neil eating grapefruit for breakfast and then jogging is included in this stage.
Stage Identification: The diaphragm and the insecurity.
Explanation/Discussion: Booker says that in this stage the "the mood of adventure changes to one of frustration, difficulty, and oppression. A shadow begins to intrude, which becomes increasingly alarming." Harriet's arrival for the wedding signals Neil to the nearness of Brenda's return to college in Boston. His fear that Brenda doesn't see him as an equal and that he'll lose her for good when she leaves is one shadow. The diaphragm he pressures her into buying is another, as we shall see.
Stage Identification: The fight in the hotel room.
Explanation/Discussion: In this stage "the shadow becomes so dominating as to present a threat to the hero's survival." Neil's shadows are the diaphragm and the insecurity he feels over his economic and social class as compared with Brenda's. Her Boston hotel room is an extension of the "new world" Neil's been emerged in. Physically, Neil has already returned to Newark. But, his mind and heart are with Brenda, and she's still in the new world. When Brenda's mother discovers the diaphragm Brenda left behind in a drawer, he becomes public enemy number one with both parents. Perhaps all is not lost—until he accuses Brenda of orchestrating the whole matter to have an excuse to get rid of him.
Stage Identification: Self-reflection and the Jewish New Year.
Explanation/Discussion: After leaving Brenda's hotel room, Neil looks at his reflection in the library window and is unable to see past his own surface, though he yearns to deeply. He was on the verge, possibly, of getting out of books and into Patimkin Sinks. His looking into a library window could be seen as a moment of return to the literary world, as we discuss in the "What's Up With the Ending?" section. Booker asks if the hero has learned anything from his travels. Neil seems to have learned that his heart is in the library, among the books.
The story ends with Neil arriving back in Newark as the sun rises on Rosh Hashana, the first day of the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashana is the first day of The Ten Days of Repentance, a period of intense self-reflection and a time to repent for harms done toward others, the self, and God, and ask forgiveness for such harms from the harmed individuals. Neil chooses to spend this holiday doing what he's probably come to view as good and important work—taking care of the library.
Stage Identification: Brenda and Neil meet.
Explanation/Discussion: These star-crossed lovers meet at a suburban county club. Brenda's a member; Neil's a guest of his War and Peace-reading cousin, Doris. When Brenda and Neil first come together at the bottom of the pool, anything seems possible.
Stage Identification: Brenda's nose job.
Explanation/Discussion: Brenda's nose job is the first bit of conflict in the budding romance. Neil isn't cool with it at all. He talks about the bone removed from Brenda's nose as a "diamond […] dropped down the toilet in some toilet in a Fifth Avenue Hospital" (171). Why is this such a big deal to Neil?
Well, the story is set post-World War II. The Holocaust was a very recent memory for many Jewish people. Neil might think that by altering her nose, a physical testament to her Jewish heritage, she is bowing to people who discriminate against Jews and hurting herself in the process. Sadly, he hurts her too by not accepting her current physical state and passing judgment on Brenda and her family. The issue of nose jobs was a big deal in the Jewish community of 1950s America. Read all about it here.
Stage Identification: The whole city versus the suburbs thing…
Explanation/Discussion: Like Jack and Rose, Jasmine and Aladdin, or Bingley and Jane, Brenda and Neil's relationship is complicated by their social and economic differences. They spend all their time on her turf. Neil often feels that he doesn't fit in and that Brenda considers him her inferior. There is some evidence of this, but since we see everything from Neil's super-angsty perspective, it's hard to say how much. It is clear that Neil considers Brenda and the Patimkins his inferiors, morally-speaking, because they get nose jobs, are rich, and have a black maid. To further complicate matters, Neil is afraid of losing his identity in his desire to please Brenda.
Stage Identification: The first fight.
Explanation/Discussion: It's just days before Ron and Harriet's big Labor Day wedding. Brenda and her mother are continually at odds. Neil's freaked out because Brenda will be leaving for college in Boston the day after the wedding. It's an emotional powder keg that explodes when Neil asks Brenda to buy a diaphragm. Oh no he didn't. Since this is a summer-to-fall romance, it's not surprising that the climax consists of fighting instead of making love.
Stage Identification: Will Brenda and Neil stay together?
Explanation/Discussion: When Brenda goes back to school, Neil feels really empty and lonely without her. They haven't gotten into a long-distance relationship groove. Plus, he's still not sure if they can get past their differences. When Neil goes to Boston to meet Brenda in a hotel room, we know that soon all will be revealed—because there's only about a dozen pages left.
Stage Identification: The second fight.
Explanation/Discussion: Denouement is a French word that means "the unraveling of the plot." Indeed, it all comes apart in the hotel room where Brenda and Neil meet up in Boston. What are they fighting about? Same as last time—the diaphragm. When they both use the word "love" in the past tense, there isn't much left to say, and Neil leaves. So much for keeping the spark alive.
Stage Identification: Neil embraces his life in a world of books.
Explanation/Discussion: We are pretty sure that when Neil looks at his reflection in the window of the Lamont Library and sees "a broken wall of books, imperfectly shelved" (8.254) he realizes that library life might just be more important to him than he thought. For more on that, and a discussion of the significance of Rosh Hashana to the ending, check out "What's Up With the Ending?"
We can divide the acts in terms of the basic stages of Neil and Brenda's relationship. Act I lasts from Brenda and Neil's first meeting at the country club pool to the end of Neil's first week in the Patimkin house. Though there are some rough spots, their relationship is basically idyllic up to this point. The act ends on Neil's dream of sailing away from an island paradise with the little boy from the library.
The second act begins the day Harriet flies in from Milwaukee for her wedding to Ron. It consists of Neil asking Brenda to buy the diaphragm and all the resulting drama. It includes the wedding reception scene. Brenda and Neil's love affair has turned rather dark as Neil's insecurities take over and Brenda's attempts to reassure him are never enough. The act ends with an unceremonious description of Brenda's departure for school.
This act begins with Neil's return to work, and includes his loneliness and emptiness at being Brenda-less. Their relationship is already over, though neither of them has quite realized it. This act includes more diaphragm drama and the official break-up. Neil realizes that (perhaps) that the world of books might be a source of satisfaction in his life. In the end, he goes back to Newark to work at the library.