Summary (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
Portnoy’s Complaint, a long monologue narrated by a young Jewish man while in analysis, is prefaced by a definition of “Portnoy’s Complaint” as a disorder in which “strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.” The book focuses on Portnoy’s parents, his endless adolescent experimentation with masturbation, his youthful sexual encounters with girls, his varied sexual experiences with a model named Monkey, and his pilgrimage to Israel—all of which are punctuated by frequently obscene outcries against the guilt he feels for his sexual obsessions. Roth, who has defended himself and the book many times, claims it is full of dirty words because Portnoy wants to be free: “I wanted to raise obscenity to the level of a subject.”
The book became a cause célèbre in 1969, commented on by social critics and stand-up comedians alike. Most objections to it came from Jewish groups and rabbis who called it “anti-Semitic” and “self-hating” and protested against libraries that put it on their shelves. It was seized in Australia in 1970 and 1971 by Melbourne officials, who filed obscenity charges against it and the bookseller who sold it.
(The entire section is 198 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Portnoy's Complaint Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Philip Roth’s third novel, Portnoy’s Complaint, takes the form of an outrageous, comic rant by Alexander Portnoy to his psychoanalyst, whose help Portnoy seeks because he feels that his life has come to be a “Jewish joke.” Portnoy’s impassioned, self-absorbed monologues explore his childhood and his erotic relationships. He wishes to locate the source of his pain, composed of guilt, shame, desire, and emotional paralysis, and to free himself from his past. The best-selling novel shocked readers with its obscenity, graphic sexual descriptions, and exaggerations of Jewish stereotypes.
Portnoy’s early memories include his mother’s intense overprotectiveness and warnings against pleasure, his father’s emasculation by the gentile firm for which he works, and his own efforts to loosen the chains that bind him by breaking taboos, especially by frequent, ill-timed sexual escapades. His furious attempts at “self-loving” can be seen as symbolic expressions of self-loathing, intricately related to his position as a Jew in America. The satiric presentation of Portnoy as a figure of excess who wants to put the “id back in Yid” and the “oy back in goy,” provided Roth with a way to inquire into the complacency and neuroses of assimilated Jews in gentile America.
In the postwar years, the Holocaust—the “saga of the suffering Jews”—defined Jewish American identity and encouraged Jews to assimilate...
(The entire section is 390 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 880 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Alexander Portnoy has a very difficult childhood and young adulthood growing up in a lower-middle-class Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey. Part of his problem is his emotionally overcharged home environment; another part is the conflict between his desire to be a dutiful son and his wish to enjoy life to the utmost as a fully assimilated American. As a result he becomes highly neurotic and seeks therapy from a psychiatrist, Dr. Spielvogel, to whom he recounts his experiences.
Portnoy’s mother, Sophie, is an overbearing woman (a stereotypical “Jewish momma”) who torments Alex with demands he hardly knows how to fulfill. His poor, constipated father, Jack, is no help at all in containing Sophie’s dictatorial control of the household. Neither is Alex’s sister, Hannah, who plays only a shadowy role in Alex’s descriptions of the family. For example, throughout his boyhood and into later life, Portnoy could never understand what it was that he did as a little boy that made his mother lock him outside their apartment door. What crime had he committed? Try as he would to please her, at least once a month he finds himself locked outside, vainly hammering on the door and pleading to be allowed back inside.
As he enters puberty, Portnoy’s sex drive goes into high gear. Some of the most hilarious occasions he recalls for his psychiatrist involve masturbation and an early, futile attempt to have sex with a local teenager, Bubbles Girardi,...
(The entire section is 960 words.)