Nature and Society in The Dharma Bums and Goodbye, Columbus

Nature and Society in The Dharma Bums and Goodbye, Columbus

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Nature and Society in The Dharma Bums and Goodbye, Columbus

    From its beginning, the literature of the 1960s valued man having a close relationship with nature. Jack Kerouac shows us the ideal form of this relationship in the story of Han Shan, the Chinese poet. At first, these concerns appear to have little relevance to Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth. However, by mentioning Gauguin, Roth gives us a view of man's ideal relationship to nature very similar to the one seen in the story of Han Shan. The stories of Han Shan and Gauguin offer an interesting commentary Neil and Brenda's relationship, as well as insight into its collapse.


From the beginning, 60s literature advocated that man have a close relationship with nature. This is easily seen in Kerouac's The Dharma Bums. In this book, he repeatedly invokes the names of older writers concerned with living a life in harmony with nature. By mentioning such writers as Muir, Thoreau, and Whitman, Kerouac makes a statement about man and nature. The behavior of the characters in the book is in keeping with this environmentalist message. The high points of the book are characterized by a nearness to nature. A good example of this is when Ray and Japhy climb the Matterhorn. The fact that Kerouac peoples his book with characters inspired by people important to the Sixties, such as Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsburg, helps tie these environmental concerns to the decade as a whole.


The most direct example of what Kerouac feels is the ideal relation between man and nature is the story of Han Shan. We are told that Shan is Japhy's hero because he "was a man of solitude who could take off by himself and live purely and true to himself"(Kerouac, The Dharma Bums, 22). By escaping society and living close to nature, he was able to live his life the way the was supposed to. If he had remained in a society in conflict with nature, he would have been twisted and distorted, unable to obtain his true shape. Both Ray and Japhy see reflections of Han Shan in each other.


At first glance, there seems to be little in common between these environmental concerns and Goodbye, Columbus.

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It seems that this story is firmly rooted in middle-class New Jersey society, and remains in this urban and suburban setting. However, Philip Roth gives us one indication that his concerns expand beyond this narrow world. This clue is the affinity the little boy feels for the paintings of Gauguin. In many ways, Gauguin is a similar figure to Han Shan. He dropped out of nineteenth-century European society in order to paint, in much the same way Han Shan left Chinese society to pursue his poetry. Gauguin eventually made is way to Tahiti. Here he entered into a society that was in tune with nature. He was able to live a life free from the distorting influence of the society he left behind. This harmony is reflected in his paintings, which is what draws the little boy to them. He is attracted to the gentle, silent nature of the paintings. The fact that Neil feels such affinity for the little boy and his paintings shows the attraction a life in harmony with nature holds for him. Once we look at the story from this direction, the reasons behind his relationship with Brenda become clear, as do the reasons behind their breakup.


Their relationship is built around nature. He meets her at the pool, and in describing their summer, Neil says "we went swimming, we went for walks, we went for rides, up through the mountains"(Roth, Goodbye, Columbus, 38). They also spent a great deal of time eating fresh fruit on the lawn behind Brenda's house. Their other important pastime was making love to each other. Each of these activities is closely tied to nature. Everything that is good about their relationship is also natural. In the beginning of their relationship, Neil says that they "dared not... talk too much of it, or it would flatten and fizzle away"(13). Like the paintings of Gauguin, the beauty of their relationship came from silence. Their happiness came from the fact that their relationship allowed them to more truly be who they really were. They took a few steps down the path that Gauguin and Han Shan had followed, and they were the better for it.


The destruction of their relationship was caused by the fact that they didn't remove themselves from the distorting influence of society. They started down Han Shan's path, but they didn't follow it to its end. The fruit they ate came from the refrigerator in Brenda's house, trying it to her parent's money. Even their lovemaking came to involve a diaphragm, firmly locking this natural act into the society they lived in. It is this material representation of their physical intimacy that eventually leads to their downfall. Their society permeated every level of their relationship. If they had stepped away from it, like Han Shan or Gauguin, then their relationship would have been able to work. As it was, though, their relationship was doomed to be broken. Because they felt trapped by society, both of them wanted to find a way to rebel against society. Both of them found they could use the other as a means of rebellion. Because he was poor, Neil could use Brenda because of her money, and Brenda Neil because he lacked the status her family held. Though they were close to each other emotionally, society had decided they were opposites, and in doing so it eventually turned them against each other. When Brenda's mother finds the diaphragm, ending their relationship, it is only the culmination of the pressures society had applied to their relationship from the very beginning.


Works Cited

Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. Penguin Books, New York, 1958.

Roth, Philip. Goodbye, Columbus. Bantam Books, New York, 1959.
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