Published when Philip Roth was thirty-eight years old, the same age as Kepesh, The Breast was Roth’s sixth major work and buttressed his reputation as a gifted comic writer who often deals with sexual themes. The Breast is more than merely a puerile joke, however; it deals comically with serious issues such as psychological wholeness, the integration of the flesh and spirit, and the limits of human desire.
Roth’s peculiar tale about the transformation of a man into a female breast does have literary precedents, of which both Roth and his character Kepesh are aware. In classical literature, Ovid’s The Metamorphoses (c. 8 c.e.) retells hundreds of stories in which humans and gods become trees, flowers, rivers, and rain; the modern The Metamorphosis (1915), by Franz Kafka, one of Roth’s favorite writers, tells the story of a man turned into a cockroach. Another influence, and one mentioned by Kepesh, is Gogol’s story “The Nose” (1836), in which a nose becomes a high-ranking bureaucrat.
What separates Roth’s story from his influences is his narrative technique. Unlike Ovid, Kafka, and Gogol, Roth chooses a first-person narrator for his novella, creating a question in the reader’s mind about the reliability of the narrator. Has the transformation actually taken place, or, as Kepesh himself wonders, has it simply occurred in his mind? The first-person narrator allows Roth to create comic moments through the incongruity of placing a man’s sexually obsessed brain inside a female breast, while also addressing psychological issues concerning repression, wish fulfillment, and the influence of literary works. Although the reader can never be sure about the transformation from man to breast, the novella loses some force if it is determined that the transformation has taken place only in the character’s mind. Roth walks a thin line, allowing the reader to question the reality of the change but never letting his story slip out of the realm of the fantastic.