Portnoy's Complaint Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Often grouped with two other accomplished Jewish American writers, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth is actually as different from each of them as they are from each other. Their intellectual outlooks as well as their sense of humor are by no means similar; and if Bellow’s favorite milieu is Chicago and Malamud’s is New York, Roth’s is Newark, New Jersey, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, where, like Alexander Portnoy, he grew up. Because of this association, many critics mistakenly have taken Portnoy’s experiences to be Roth’s—an event he fictionalizes in a later novel called Zuckerman Unbound (1981). The reader is warned, therefore, not to confuse fiction with biography, which Roth supplies in The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography (1988).

The major conflict that Portnoy endures and that Roth suggests characterizes many young Jewish American men of his generation is described in the preliminary matter to the novel, where “Portnoy’s Complaint” is given a dictionary definition. The conflict involves “strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses” that are constantly at war with “extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.” Try as he may, Portnoy cannot shake off his Jewish ethical heritage for a life of unrestrained libidinous satisfaction. In Freudian terms, he is the victim of an unrelenting battle between the reality principle and the pleasure principle, the alter ego and the id, in which his poor ego emerges invariably battered and bewildered. Though much of the novel is humorous, for Portnoy what is happening to him is a very serious matter. As he cries out to Dr. Spielvogel, he is living in the middle of...

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