Study Guide

Goodbye, Columbus What's Up With the Ending?

By Philip Roth

What's Up With the Ending?

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?