Love, Sex and Relationships
The story centers around the development of Neil’s relationship with Brenda, from their first meeting to their final breakup. The first person narration portrays the relationship from Neil’s perspective, highlighting the class differences between the two of them. A significant element of their relationship is their sexual encounters, first in her family TV room, and later, while he is staying at her house, in her bedroom at night. Neil describes his first sexual encounter with Brenda in terms of “winning,” using the metaphor of the competitive game to describe the experience of making love to her; due to their class differences, having Brenda as a girlfriend represents a symbolic socioeconomic rise for him. Their first quarrel revolves around his suggestion that she get a diaphragm, her initial negative response to the idea, and eventual conciliation. For Neil, the issue of the diaphragm represents a gesture of commitment on Brenda’s part. It also becomes a nexus of the power dynamics between the two of them: Neil, in part, wants her to take his suggestion because he feels that she has all the power in the relationship; he wants her to do what he says for once, rather than their usual dynamic, in which he does everything she tells him to do. The diaphragm becomes a key element of their relationship after her parents find it and are dismayed at the discovery. As a result, Brenda chooses loyalty to her family over her commitment to Neil.
Family dynamics are a central focus of this story. Neil’s working class family is portrayed in stark contrast to Brenda’s wealthy family. Much of the narration is taken up with Neil’s perceptions of Brenda’s family members, her household, and their family dynamics. His own family situation, living with his aunt and uncle, since his parents have moved to Arizona, serves as a backdrop for the foreignness of Brenda’s household. Neil gains further insight into Brenda’s father’s perceptions of his work and family when he sees Mr. Patimkin at his place of business. Brenda’s brother Ron’s wedding to Harriet Ehrlich is described in terms of a characterization of the relatives and Neil’s interactions with some of them. Throughout these interactions and observations, Neil attempts both to compensate for his “lower” class standing and to envision himself becoming a member of the Patimkin family.
The central dynamic of Neil’s relationship with Brenda is based on their differences in socioeconomic class. Although they are both Jewish, the fact that Brenda’s family is wealthy and Neil’s is not means that they come from completely different worlds. Brenda’s family started out in Newark, New Jersey, where Neil currently resides, thus indicating the Patimkins’ rise in class as they moved out of Newark. Neil’s insecurity in the presence of Brenda’s family is primarily due to his painful awareness of his “lower” class standing. This class division is central to the power dynamic in his relationship with Brenda, as she seems to determine almost everything they do together. Neil’s interactions with Brenda’s uncle Leo, at the wedding, further expand upon the class dynamic between them; Leo blatantly congratulates Neil on his luck in the prospect of marrying “up” into the financial abundance of the Patimkin family. Ultimately, the class divisions between Neil and Brenda contribute to tearing them apart, but it is left unclear if it is primarily Neil’s insecurities about their differences which negatively affect their relationship, or if Brenda genuinely looks down on him.
This is a story of self-examination and self-discovery for Neil. In his involvement with Brenda, Neil attempts to fit into her upper-middle-class Jewish family, remaining continually aware that it is not an easy or a comfortable fit. At the end of the story, after he and Brenda have in effect broken up, Neil experiences a symbolic epiphany in his sense of self and personal identity. This renewed sense of self, in the wake of his breakup with Brenda, is further symbolized by the dawning of the Jewish New Year, which implies a new beginning for Neil.
The title of the story refers to Brenda’s brother Ron’s yearbook record album, which ends with the song lyrics, “Goodbye, Columbus.” The lyric literally refers to the nostalgia of the graduating college senior who must say “goodbye” to his college years spent at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. But this “truckload of nostalgia” symbolically represents the sense of nostalgia Neil feels for his relationship with Brenda, which lasted only half a summer. Like the years spent in college, Neil, as narrator of the story, knows that his time spent with Brenda can never be recaptured. As Neil tells the story of their relationship in retrospect, it is infused with this sense of nostalgia for a bittersweet youthful experience.
Neil ultimately comes to identify with the little boy who comes to the library every day to look at the book of Gauguin paintings of Tahiti. The boy’s preoccupation with these images of a foreign land functions as a form of fantasy, in which the locations in the paintings seem to him a sort of paradise, compared to his own life. The world of wealth and abundance in which Brenda lives functions for Neil as a similar fantasy life. He comes to realize that his own foray into her world is similar to engaging in a fantasy life through looking at pictures in a book. It seems to be a paradise of abundance that he can never realistically inhabit. The fact that the book is finally taken off the shelf and borrowed by another library patron symbolizes Neil’s realization that Brenda could never really be “his,” but only a temporary excursion into a fantasy world.
Competition and Games
Brenda’s family is completely preoccupied with sports, athletics, games, and competition. Neil carries these themes throughout the narrative as metaphors for his relationship with Brenda and his interactions with her family. Neil continually feels that he is being challenged to compete with Brenda and her family, which symbolizes his feelings of inadequacy in the face of their upper-middle-class lifestyle.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Philip Roth, Published by Gale Group, 2001.