Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Newark. New Jersey city in which Portnoy grows up. At the time he is born, his family lives in Jersey City in a building inhabited entirely by Jews but surrounded by non-Jews whom Portnoy’s parents view as anti-Semitic. Just before World War II, at the urging of Portnoy’s uncle, the family moves into what they consider the much safer environment of Newark, in the almost entirely Jewish Weequahic neighborhood, where Roth himself grew up. There, Portnoy, like Roth, attends the almost entirely Jewish Weequahic High School and eventually feels suffocated by his family, especially his mother, as well as by the Jewishness of the milieu in which he lives.
*Manhattan. New York City borough, across the Hudson River from Newark, to which Portnoy moves after finishing college. New York’s mayor appoints him assistant commissioner for the city’s Commission on Human Opportunity. To Portnoy, Manhattan represents an opportunity to escape from his Newark past, to escape his family, and to live his own life. Part of the escape from Jewish Newark involves a series of affairs he has with non-Jewish women, beginning in college and culminating in an affair with a woman he calls the Monkey, whom he meets as she enters a taxicab in front of his Manhattan apartment. In his sexual escapades with her, he seeks a complete escape from the Jewishness of his childhood that he associates with the Weequahic neighborhood....
(The entire section is 620 words.)
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Portnoy's Complaint combines fact and fiction to expose occurrences of everyday life in great detail. A brilliant exploitation of the new freedom in language as the voice of the 1960s, the novel is a lively, articulate, often hilariously funny American bildungsroman; a confessional and self-explanatory monologue; an obscene book but not pornographic; a satirical farce but not ironic; an intelligent mixture of black comedy and pathos; a harsh view of middle-class experience combined with a rebellion toward freedom expressed sexually by a young man.
(The entire section is 84 words.)
Ideas for Group Discussions
Although conflict and repression underscore Roth's principal theses in Portnoy's Complaint, a critical debate may arise as to the theme and plot of the novel standing in the way of bringing to light its fascinating characters. Thus, one may argue that it matters not whether Sophie Portnoy or her son Alex deserve to be linked to such undesirable epithets as "pornography," "masturbation," "castration," or "pornography," they emerge as essentially real human beings — at times very funny, and at times exceedingly tragic. Although Roth creates them as Jews to represent Jews, they also represent human beings — human strengths and human weaknesses. Thus, Alexander Portnoy's infatuation with girls (even gentile girls), his intense desire for freedom and independence, and his conflicts with Sophie cannot be restricted to Jewish boys or American boys, or to Jewish-American boys. Alexander Portnoy reflects human conditions, and thus Roth's novel transcends ethnic and religious restrictions.
1. Upon what elements or instruments of fiction does Roth rely both to shock and to attract his reader? Does he ever go so far (consciously or unconsciously) to alienate that reader?
2. Does Sophie Portnoy have anything to do with Alexander's infatuation with gentile girls? Does Alex, himself, ever explain his reasons? What price does Alex pay for his mother's domination?
3. What are the essential differences between Alex...
(The entire section is 340 words.)
The main character of Portnoy's Complaint follows the footsteps of Joyce's Dedalus. In this novel of consciousness and subconsciousness, however, the Rothian hero does not grow up as an artist. Portnoy tries to mature but basically remains a complaining Jewish hero. Roth follows the path of Bellow, Malamud and others who write of American-Jewish moralists and traditionalists. However, Roth dares to demythologize the belief in tradition and faith. Portnoy is alienated by the pressures of pleasing his family and maintaining sexual relationships. The ineffectuality of liberalism disillusions and further alienates him.
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The Rothian characters are basically of the same ethnic background so they relate to each other easily. For instance Neil Klugman of Goodbye, Columbus (1959), is caught between conflicting life styles as is Alexander Portnoy. Klugman demonstrates psychological insight as well as comic revelation, as does his girlfriend Brenda Patimkin. As the archetypical Jewish-American-Princess, Brenda characterizes the nouveau riche of the American suburbs. Like Roth's other characters, these two are strongly attached to their Jewish roots and have to learn how to cope with their past.
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Portnoy's Complaint was made into a motion picture in 1972. The film was produced by Ernest Lehman, directed by Philip Lathrop, released in Technicolor and Panavision by Warner Brothers. It starred Richard Benjamin, Karen Black, Lee Black, Jack Somack, Jill Clayburgh, and Jeannie Berlin. It was a disappointing adaptation of the novel.
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Bibliography (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
Cohen, Sarah Blacher. “Philip Roth’s Would-Be Patriarchs and Their Shikses and Shrews.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 1 (Spring, 1975): 16-23. Reprinted in Critical Essays on Philip Roth, edited by Sanford Pinsker. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. About the women in several of Roth’s novels, including Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth’s “petulant” young men typically blame their “Yiddishe mommes” for their problems and powerlessness.
Grebstein, Sheldon. “The Comic Anatomy of Portnoy’s Complaint.” In Comic Relief: Humor in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Sarah Blacher Cohen. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978. An excellent essay on Roth’s “stand-up” humor, as developed from professional comedians such as Henny Youngman and others.
Guttmann, Allen. The Jewish Writer in America: Assimilation and the Crisis of Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Contains an essay, “Philip Roth and the Rabbis,” that shows Roth’s sensitivity to the problems of assimilation in America.
Halio, Jay L. Philip Roth Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. The chapter “The Comedy of Excess” treats various aspects of Roth’s comic mastery in Portnoy’s Complaint. It also comments on the underlying humanity of Mary Jane Reed, the Monkey, as Portnoy, who fails to recognize her humanity, derisively nicknames her....
(The entire section is 218 words.)