Study Guide

Goodbye, Columbus Writing Style

By Philip Roth

Writing Style

Episodic, Emotional, Talkative, Playful, Varied, Unified

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:

  1. Neil meets the boy, shows him the Gauguin book, and protects him from being disturbed by John McKee, who wants to kick him out because he's black.
  2. Neil has to babysit for Julie and decides to try to beat her at ping-pong, leaving her furious and crying.
  3. He and Brenda "[make] love" (3.124) for the first time.

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?
ME: No.
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?

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.