Portnoy's Complaint is a tour de force novel of the 1960s containing flashbacks to the 1930s. Portnoy, the main protagonist, is plagued by masturbation problems and by a possessive Jewish mother. He rejects conventional morality but is overwhelmed with a guilt complex, from which he cannot free himself. He is guided by social and psychological forces beyond his control; he tries to assert himself boldly but at the same time is held back by his own defense mechanism. He is tormented because he cannot justify his role in society. Portnoy's actions expose the stratum of the stereotyped American-Jewish middle-class suburbia where obscenity represents a violation of what his Jewish past stands for: strict social laws and a high respect for moral behavior.
The novel frankly exposes the unsatisfactory sexual life of a constantly masturbating immature adolescence and the neurotic experience of a ménage a trois by a guilt-ridden young man for whom sex is not a pleasure but a self-torturing necessity. This desperate young protagonist rebels in a rage against his Jewish heritage. The novel is hilarious saga exposing a mother-son confrontation as well as the tension between public and private life. Portnoy's persistent self-examination of consciousness and unconsciousness lead nowhere. His story is an endless confession to Dr. Spielvogel, a New York psychiatrist, who is able only at the end of the novel to give a glimmer of hope to Portnoy.
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