Philip Roth Essay - Critical Essays

Philip Roth American Literature Analysis

Often called a psychological realist by literary critics, Roth uses a variety of techniques in his fiction that make it difficult to classify his work under only one category. His early stories and novels, including Goodbye, Columbus, Letting Go, and When She Was Good (1967), were heavily influenced by the great nineteenth century psychological realists such as Henry James and Gustave Flaubert and by later ones such as Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson. Portnoy’s Complaint, however, while drawing for its themes and structure upon therapeutic psychoanalysis, represents a breakthrough to new forms of fiction. Since then, Roth has written satire, such as Our Gang (Starring Tricky and His Friends) (1971), fantasy (The Great American Novel), Bildungsroman(the Zuckerman Bound trilogy, 1985), and other types of fiction that demonstrate his versatility and originality as a writer.

Roth has also been called a social critic, and he has definitely earned the title. Taking on the conservative Jewish establishment in both his fiction and nonfiction, he exposes the foibles, coarseness, hypocrisies, and materialism of middle-class Jewish families, as in his portrayal of the Patimkin clan in Goodbye, Columbus. At the same time, he shows the intensity, closeness, and warmth that are also part of their lives. Attacked for his story “Epstein,” in which a decent, hardworking Jewish businessman gets caught in the trammels of an adulterous relationship, Roth has defended himself against rabbis and others who feel he has defamed the Jewish people. He presents his views in essays such as “Writing About Jews” (1963) and “Imagining Jews” (1974), collected in Reading Myself and Others (1975), where he argues on the behalf of the writer’s freedom and the autonomy of the imagination against those who insist on greater discretion and diplomacy.

Where formerly he brilliantly portrayed middle-class Jewish life as it was in the neighborhoods where he grew up, Roth subsequently moved on to other aspects of Jewish life, as in his vivid descriptions of kibbutz life and the controversy over West Bank settlements in Israel in The Counterlife (1986) and the problems of anti-Semitism he encountered while living in England in Deception (1990).

Above all, Roth is an amusing and witty writer, with a good ear for the cadences and inflections of actual speech and a stand-up comedian’s sense of timing. His humor has been attributed to influences such as comedians Lenny Bruce and Henny Youngman, but Roth also acknowledges the influence of the “sit-down” comedy of Franz Kafka, about whom he writes in “’I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting’: Or, Looking at Kafka” (collected in Reading Myself and Others). He modeled his novella The Breast (1972; revised, 1980) partly on Kafka’s story “Metamorphosis.” The humor and tall tales that grew out of the great American Southwest inform The Great American Novel, which also indulges in send-ups of famed American writers Ernest Hemingway, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and others.

In Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth has said, he tried to bring obscenity to the level of a subject. He may or may not have succeeded, but it is true that in that novel, as in his later works, he has taken full advantage of the current freedom to explore sexual involvements in an open and direct way. Yet, for all his apparent licentiousness, as in his stunning takeoff on Irving Howe as the pornography king, Milton Appel, in The Anatomy Lesson (1983), Roth remains what he always was, a serious writer with a strong moral strain that remains under even the wildest humor or most grotesque fantasy.

For all of his extravagant sexual exploits, Portnoy is a pathetic creature, a man desperately trying to become whole with the help of a psychiatrist. For all of his craziness in getting involved with Maureen Ketterer, Peter Tarnopol is someone who goes through countless agonies trying to determine the noblest courses of action he should take. The jokes are there in Roth’s novels, but it would be a mistake to read them for their humor alone. Like the best of the humorists who have preceded him, Roth writes with a more serious agenda underlying the comedic elements in his fiction.

Goodbye, Columbus

First published: 1959

Type of work: Novella

A young Newark man falls in love with a Radcliffe student from a nouveau riche Jewish family in suburban New Jersey and discovers how spoiled she is.

In Goodbye, Columbus, Neil Klugman meets and falls in love with Brenda Patimkin, the spoiled, attractive daughter of a middle-class Jewish family. The family has recently moved from Newark to the suburbs in Short Hills, New Jersey, where they have a large, comfortable home, typical of the nouveau riche class to which they belong. For Neil, however, Brenda and Short Hills represent an enticing version of a pastoral ideal. When he met her for the first time at a country club swimming pool, she was for him “like a sailor’s dream of a Polynesian maiden, albeit one with prescription sun glasses and the last name of Patimkin.” She has an older brother, Ron, a basketball star just graduating from Ohio State University, whose favorite record, “Goodbye, Columbus,” gives the story its title. She also has a kid sister, Julie, a younger version of Brenda, equally as smart and equally as spoiled.

By contrast, Neil’s more humble family consists of parents, permanently absent in Arizona because of their asthma, and his Aunt Gladys, with whom he lives and who cooks his meals as well as her husband’s, her daughter’s, and her own—all different and all served at different times. Aunt Gladys is modeled on the stereotyped Jewish mama and has a funny accent, but she also demonstrates the most common sense and genuine humanity of any of the characters in the novella.

As their affair progresses, Neil and Brenda spend more and more time together at her family’s home in Short Hills, where at the end of the summer Neil is invited to spend a week of his vacation. They have sex clandestinely in her room every night. The family is suddenly plunged into a frenzy of activity when Ron announces his engagement to Harriet, his Ohio State sweetheart, and they decide to get married over Labor Day weekend. In all the turmoil that ensues, Brenda gets Neil an extension on his visit as well as an invitation to Ron’s wedding.

Neil is not sure whether he feels more love or lust for Brenda, and he debates with himself whether to ask her to marry him. Fearing rejection, he proposes instead that she get a diaphragm. At first, she demurs, but Neil argues that their lovemaking will be not only safer but also more enjoyable, at least for him. Still she demurs, and it becomes a contest of wills, like many of the other games played in the story. Finally, under Neil’s insistence, Brenda capitulates, and they go to New York together for her to be fitted with the device. While she is in the doctor’s office, Neil enters St. Patrick’s cathedral and questions himself and his feelings. He recognizes his carnality, his acquisitiveness, and his foolishness in coveting all that Brenda is and represents: “Gold dinnerware, sporting-goods trees, nectarines, garbage disposal, bumpless noses”—and the list goes on.

Ron’s wedding is a typical Jewish celebration, with too much food and champagne. The occasion provides Roth with further opportunities for satire, as Neil meets the rest of the family and Ron’s college friends. He gets considerable free advice from Leo Patimkin, one of Brenda’s uncles, who tells Neil that he has a good thing going with Brenda and he should not louse things up. Actually, in demanding that she get the diaphragm to please him, he already has begun to louse things up.

The sad end of the story comes when Brenda asks Neil to come to Boston for the Jewish holidays in the fall. Although he is not an observant Jew and has difficulty getting time off from his work at the Newark Public Library, Neil goes to the hotel that Brenda has booked for them. When he arrives, however, Brenda is deeply distressed. She has foolishly left her diaphragm at home, where her mother has found it and thereby discovered the affair. Her parents each write separate letters to her, telling her in their different ways of their shame and unhappiness. When Neil learns all this, he is shocked at Brenda’s carelessness but then realizes that leaving the device where it could be found may have been the result of an unconscious desire on her part to end the affair. As she has invited Neil to Boston ostensibly to continue their lovemaking and insists that he make every effort to get there, she obviously has some ambivalence (or perhaps Roth does) toward Neil. He finds it impossible now to go on with her, and he takes the train back to Newark, where he arrives just in time to begin work on the Jewish New Year.

Neil Klugman, whose surname translated from Yiddish means “clever man,” is typical of Roth’s early heroes. Sophisticated, bright, and educated, he is nevertheless a schlemiel, a loser, someone who bungles golden opportunities that come his way. He is the prototype for Gabe Wallach in Letting Go, another loser, whose divided self prevents him from having satisfying and permanent relationships with others. Both have the knack, as Neil puts it, of turning winning into losing, so that the name “Klugman” comes to have an ironic implication. Nevertheless, Roth is hardly an advocate for the values represented by the Patimkin family, who are the principal and most obvious targets for his ridicule.

“Defender of the Faith”

First published: 1959 (collected in Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories, 1959)

Type of work: Short story

Sergeant Nathan Marx, a World War II combat veteran, struggles with his conscience over the favors demanded from him by a new Jewish recruit.

After the Allies are victorious in the battle against the Axis in Europe, Sergeant Nathan Marx, in “Defender of the Faith,” is rotated back to the States, to Camp Crowder, Missouri. A veteran and a war hero with medals to prove it, Sergeant Marx is modest enough—and totally unprepared for confrontations with Private Sheldon Grossbart from the Bronx, whom he is assigned to train along with other recruits for the continuing war against Japan. Quickly recognizing in Marx a “landsman”—that is, a fellow Jew from New York—Grossbart begins to play on the sergeant’s hidden sympathies. Although he is far from an observant Jew himself, Marx cannot bring himself to reject totally the pleas for special favors that Grossbart repeatedly brings to him, such as being excused from a “G.I. Party” (that is, a barracks cleaning) on Friday nights (the start of the Jewish Sabbath). Marx is uncomfortable about this, but Grossbart is persuasive, not only on his own behalf, but also on behalf of Fishbein and Halpern, two other Jewish men in the company.

One success leads to another, as Grossbart wheedles favor after favor from Marx. He apparently goes too far when he complains about the nonkosher food and writes a letter to his congressman over his father’s signature. When the commanding officer of his company finds out, he questions Grossbart in front of Marx, holding the sergeant up to him as a model. At this point, Grossbart backs off, and another letter arrives, again purportedly from Grossbart’s father to his congressman, praising Sergeant Marx for helping his son over the hurdles he has to face in the Army. In a note attached to the letter, passed down through the chain of Army command to Marx, the congressman also praises the sergeant as “a credit to the U.S. Army and the Jewish people.” After that, Grossbart seems to disappear from his life for a while, and Marx is relieved.

The reprieve, however, is short-lived. Grossbart turns up one day in Marx’s office with two matters on his mind. The first concerns their eventual assignment; Marx surmises, rightly, that it will probably be in the Pacific region. Grossbart hopes it might be New York so he could be near his immigrant parents. The other matter concerns a pass for Passover dinner with relatives in St. Louis. Marx reminds him that passes are not possible during basic training, but Grossbart perseveres, using a variety of ploys and tactics, until he gets passes for himself and his two friends as well. When they return from St. Louis, they bring Marx a gift—Chinese egg rolls, not Passover fare.

Marx is disgusted, and his fury mounts; he calls Grossbart a liar, a schemer, and a crook. When he discovers soon afterward that Grossbart has manipulated another Jewish noncommissioned officer in order to get himself sent to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, instead of the Pacific with the rest of the company, Marx decides to use Grossbart’s tactics against him. He asks a friend in Classification and Assignment to alter the orders, sending another man to Fort Monmouth in place of Grossbart. He invents a story about Grossbart’s longing to fight against the enemy because his brother was killed and he would feel like a coward staying stateside. Marx explains that Grossbart is Jewish and that he would like to do him this favor.

A final confrontation ends the story, as Grossbart accuses Marx of anti-Semitism, of really wanting to see him dead. At first, Marx ignores him, but a bitter, fruitless argument ensues. Both of them know, however, that Grossbart will be all right, and so will Fishbein and Halpern, as long as Grossbart can continue to find ways to use them for his own advantage. Weeping, Grossbart eventually accepts his fate, as Marx accepts his, rejecting the strong impulse to turn and ask Grossbart’s pardon for his vindictiveness.

The story shows Roth’s ability early in his career to develop vivid and convincing characters and use themes not designed to be popular with Jewish audiences. Other stories in the collection Goodbye, Columbus, such as “The Conversion of the Jews” and “Eli the Fanatic,” develop similar themes and characters with the kind of irony that Roth uses here. In those stories, Roth shows realistically what makes people behave in the ways they do—self-interest may be an irresistible motive, as it is in Grossbart’s case. The motives are not always admirable and, as Marx demonstrates, not always simple. When conflict occurs, resolution is seldom easy, and it always comes at a cost.

Portnoy’s Complaint

First published: 1969

Type of work: Novel

A man seeks help from his psychiatrist for the anxieties and other difficulties he attributes to the conflict between his Jewish upbringing and his strong sexual urges.

Portnoy’s Complaint is not only the title of this novel, it is also the illness defined in an epigraph that precedes the book: “A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.” Alexander Portnoy, after whom the disease is named, is a young Jewish professional, the Assistant Commissioner for Human Opportunity in New York City. After a recent trip to Israel in which he discovers, to his dismay, that he has become impotent, he seeks the help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Otto Spielvogel. The novel, in fact, is in the form of a long monologue, or a series of psychiatric sessions, in which Portnoy describes his past life, beginning with his earliest years, growing up in Newark as the son of Sophie and Jack Portnoy, to his present life as an important official in the New York bureaucracy. The monologue is punctuated by much dialogue, as he recalls conversations, quarrels, and arguments with his family and a number of lovers, culminating in his disastrous sexual experience in Israel.

The dominant figure in his early life is his mother, whose behavior as a stereotyped Jewish mother is the subject of much satire and humor. Little Alex is astonished at her omnipotence and her apparent omnipresence. A good little boy, he is nevertheless punished at times for faults he cannot understand how—or if—he committed. His rebellions are futile, and his perplexity is immense. His mother’s threats puzzle him, as does his poor, constipated father’s reluctance to stop her. As Alex enters puberty, he finds solace in masturbation, which, like everything else in this novel, becomes excessive. In a whimsical allusion to the amoral protagonist of Dostoevski’s Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886), Portnoy calls himself at one point the Raskolnikov of “whacking off.”

Ashamed of his parents and, to some extent, of his Jewishness, Portnoy yearns for a more typical American family life. From an early age he tries to woo Gentile girls, disguising himself when he can as a non-Jew. His nose is his greatest impediment, he believes; hence, he imagines excuses and explanations for it and for his name (saying that it is from the French, porte-noir). A hilarious episode occurs when he joins two of his friends to visit the notorious Bubbles Girardi, known to have sex with boys, and he wins the chance to be the only one on that occasion whom she will see. Like so much else in his life, however, the event turns into disaster. At first he cannot even get an erection, and later he climaxes too quickly and ejaculates directly into his own eye. Thinking he has gone blind, he fantasizes returning home with a seeing-eye dog, much to the horror of his parents—especially his mother, who becomes upset because she has just cleaned the house and her son has brought home a dog.

Other sexual escapades include the romance with his college sweetheart, Kay Campbell, nicknamed “The Pumpkin,” who invites him to spend Thanksgiving in Iowa with her and her family. He is amazed at his reception and the civility he witnesses; it is so different from the outlandish melodramas that daily characterize his family life. The romance cools when, half-jokingly, Alex suggests her conversion to Judaism after they are married, and Kay responds indifferently. Another Gentile lover several years later is “The Pilgrim,” Sarah Abbott Maulsby, the daughter of a New England family. Alex realizes that his desire for her is fueled as much by his determination to wreak vengeance against her family, typical of those anti-Semites who discriminate against his hardworking father, as by any other appeal she may have for him.

Portnoy apparently finds everything his hedonistic heart desires in Mary Jane Reed, “The Monkey,” a sexually adept sometime model, who is trying to overcome her hillbilly childhood. Mary Jane does everything that Portnoy wants, but unfortunately in the process falls in love with him—unfortunately because he is far from ready to accept marriage with anyone, least of all her. Another shiksa (non-Jewish woman), she has too checkered a career, although for a brief moment while they impersonate a married couple on a weekend holiday in Connecticut, he almost believes that it might be possible. Portnoy’s sexual adventures end in Israel where, after abandoning Mary Jane in Greece, he meets his match in Naomi, a six-foot-tall Israeli woman whom he tries to seduce and even rape, only to discover that he is unable to get an erection.

Throughout the novel, Portnoy’s “extreme sexual longings” conflict with his “ethical and altruistic impulses,” invariably to comic effect. For example, he wants to educate The Monkey and tries hard to do so, with ludicrous results. He complains to his psychiatrist that he is the Jewish son in a Jewish joke and wants to find a way out of it, because to him it is not funny; it “hoits.” His expression is funny, however, partly through its excessive diction, his inherited tendency to melodrama, and the ridiculous plight that he himself describes. He concludes his monologue with what amounts to a long primal scream, after which Dr. Spielvogel delivers his famous punch line: “So. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”

My Life as a Man

First published: 1974

Type of work: Novel

Peter Tarnopol struggles to write a novel about his traumatic marriage, introducing fictitious character Nathan Zuckerman as his alter ego.

In My Life as a Man, Roth invents a fictitious character, Peter Tarnopol, whose life closely parallels his own, just as the life of Tarnopol’s fictitious character, Nathan Zuckerman, closely parallels his. The result is what Roth calls a “useful fiction.” Such...

(The entire section is 8517 words.)