Study Guide

Goodbye, Columbus Setting

By Philip Roth


Newark, New Jersey; Short Hills, New Jersey; Boston, Massachusetts—Approximately 1958 or 1959, Summer to Fall

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 N**** 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.