Study Guide

Goodbye, Columbus Plot Analysis

By Philip Roth

Plot Analysis

Initial Situation 

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.

Conflict

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

Complication

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. 

Climax

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.

Suspense

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.

Denouement

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.

Conclusion 

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?"