Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Alexander Portnoy, a Jewish man from Newark, New Jersey, who has “made good” as a bright college student and has become assistant commissioner for human opportunities in New York City. Throughout his life, however, he has been afflicted by a domineering mother, an intolerable sense of guilt, and an urgent sex drive. Intelligent and witty, he struggles to become free but succeeds mostly in engaging his family, his lovers, and himself in situations characterized by mutual vilification and sadomasochism that exacerbate rather than ameliorate his condition. He relates all of his adventures to his psychiatrist, Dr. Spielvogel, who provides the vehicle for the wild and often hilarious stories that disguise the real anguish he feels while living “in the middle of a Jewish joke,” as he calls his life.
Sophie Portnoy, Alexander’s mother. She cannot begin to understand her son, whom she nearly smothers with care, concern, and relentless nudging. The archetypal Jewish mother, she is the source of Alex’s Oedipal complex, which he eventually recognizes but seems unable to deal with effectively. Both nurturer and devourer, she simultaneously threatens and encourages her son throughout his childhood, and she looms persistently in his life thereafter.
Jack (Jake) Portnoy
Jack (Jake) Portnoy, Alexander’s father, an insurance salesman. He is hardworking,...
(The entire section is 822 words.)
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Alexander Portnoy, the main character, is a self-tortured young man full of complaints and obsessed with sex. He tries to be mother's good boy and a successful student; he attains a job of prestige as the Assistant Commissioner of Human Opportunity for the City of New York. Because of his hilarious confessions and his fear of exposure, he is depicted as an "unloved and unloving" person. After numerous sexual encounters with non-Jewish girls (with names such as The Pumpkin and The Pilgrim), he finds satisfying sex and love only with an intellectually unsophisticated, almost illiterate mistress, named The Monkey, a girl from the coal fields of West Virginia. However, Portnoy realizes that, because of her limitations, even she is not a solution to his problem. In the end, this almost idyllic love encounter leaves him unsatisfied. A visit to Israel does not bring satisfaction to his expectation and he realizes that simplicity is not the solution to his tormented life. Alexander's life is ruled by Sophie, his Oedipal mother. Her compulsive neatness and cleanliness control her son, the kitchen, food, the bathroom. and sex. Jack, his father, is an insurance salesman and a lifelong liberal who lives in constant fear of his WASP employer.
(The entire section is 204 words.)