Toward the end of the story, Neil and Brenda agree to spend the weekend of the Jewish holidays together. Specifically, it is during the Jewish High Holy Day of Rosh Hashanah, which is the Jewish New Year and usually occurs in mid to late September. As the end of summer had indicated the end of their relationship, the story’ s end on the dawn of the Jewish New Year indicates a sense of rebirth and a fresh, new beginning for Neil.
Movie: Ma and Pa Kettle in the City
Neil mentions that he and Brenda sneak into the drive-in movies to see the last fifteen minutes of whatever show is playing that night. They agree that their favorite last fifteen minutes of a movie is Ma and Pa Kettle in the City. This refers to a series of movies released between 1949 and 1955, featuring Ma and Pa Kettle, “hillbillies” from Washington state, in various encounters with more urban, sophisticated elements of American culture. The series is similar in theme to the later TV series, The Beverly Hillbillies, which is about members of a poor, rural family who move to Beverly Hills, California, after discovering oil on their land. The earlier series included Ma and Pa Kettle (1949), Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town (\ 950), Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1951), Ma and Pa Kettle Back on the Farm (1 951), Ma and Pa Kettle on Vacation (1953), Ma and Pa Kettle at Home (1954), and Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (1955). The mention of this series in the story is significant in that it emphasizes the theme of encounter between two socioeconomic classes, such as the one between Neil and Brenda.
When Neil first asks Brenda to get a diaphragm, her response is negative. After he suggests she go to “Margaret Sanger, in New York” to get fitted for one, Brenda asks if this is something he’s done before. Neil responds, ‘”I read Mary McCarthy.'” When, toward the end of the story, they check into a hotel room together, and Neil asks if she’s done this before, she responds, “T read Mary McCarthy.'” Mary McCarthy (1912-1989) was a novelist, critic, and editor, known, as stated in Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, for ”bitingly satiric commentaries on marriage, sexual expression, the impotence of intellectuals, and the role of women in contemporary urban America.” At the time of this story’s publication in 1959, McCarthy had published three novels: The Company She Keeps (1942), The Oasis (1949), and The Groves of the Academe (1952). Her first autobiography, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, was published in 1957.
At his job in the library, Neil encounters a little boy who comes in every day to look at a large book of paintings by Paul Gauguin. Gauguin (1848- 1903) was a French artist known for his colorful paintings of native women in Tahiti, an island in the Pacific Ocean where he lived from 1891 to 1893 and from 1895 to 1901. Gauguin was influential in the art world for breaking with the impressionist movement and becoming a master of the symbolist movement in artistic style. His most famous painting, one of his masterpieces, is entitled Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Gauguin valued what he saw as “primitive” life among the native Tahitians above the bourgeois materialism of Western culture. His paintings in the story represent an escapist fantasy in a “resort”- like foreign paradise for the little boy, just as Brenda’s upper-middle-class world represents an escapist fantasy for Neil, as remote and unreachable as Tahiti is for the little boy.
When Neil first asks Brenda that she get fitted for a diaphragm, he suggests she go to ”Margaret Sanger, in New York.” Margaret Sanger (1879- 1966) is known as a pioneer in making birth control readily available to women in the United States and elsewhere. It was Sanger, a nurse, who first coined the term “birth control.” She opened the first birth control clinic in the United States in Brooklyn in 1916, for which she was arrested in 1917. Sanger influenced legal changes that allowed physicians to give women advice about birth control and succeeded in altering the Comstock Act of 1873, according to which pamphlets on birth control and contraceptive devises were considered obscene materials and therefore illegal to distribute. Sanger founded the American Birth Control League in 1921, which became the Birth Control Federation of America, renamed the Planned Parenthood Organization of America in 1942.
During a conversation with Mrs. Patimkin, in which she attempts to determine his Jewish affiliations, Neil asks if she is familiar with the work of Martin Buber, which she is clearly not. Martin Buber (1878-1965) was one of the most renowned, as well as controversial, modern Jewish philosophers. He was born in Vienna but eventually settled in Palestine, where he was influential in teaching and in establishing educational institutions. Buber was raised in a family of assimilated, secular Jews, but in adulthood he became interested in Judaism. The fundamental concept of Buber’s modern Jewish philosophy is the I-Thou relationship, as explained in his most famous work, /and Thou (1923). Buber was less concerned with maintaining the observant practices of Judaism than with the relationship between the individual and God, nature, and other men.
The characters in Roth’s story occasionally include Yiddish words in their dialogue. The Yiddish language, associated with Ashkenazie Jews, originated in the tenth century from Hebrew and Aramaic roots but later developed through the influence of Germanic and Slavic languages, although it is written in the Hebrew alphabet. Before World War II there were over ten million Yiddish-speaking people in the world, but some half of them perished in the Holocaust. Many Yiddish words are still used by English-speaking Jews; others have made their way into the mainstream of the English language.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Philip Roth, Published by Gale Group, 2001.