Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

Jake’s “thing” is really three things. Initially, and most literally, it is his penis, the object of much therapeutic attention. Later, Jake’s thing is his misogynistic attitude. Ultimately, however, Jake’s thing is his cultural critique which lashes out at trendy ideology and its social repercussions.

As appalling as his misogyny...

(The entire section contains 462 words.)

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Jake’s “thing” is really three things. Initially, and most literally, it is his penis, the object of much therapeutic attention. Later, Jake’s thing is his misogynistic attitude. Ultimately, however, Jake’s thing is his cultural critique which lashes out at trendy ideology and its social repercussions.

As appalling as his misogyny may seem, Jake does not start out actively disliking women. When the reader first meets him, he still feels affection for his wife despite his lack of sexual interest. A series of bad experiences with women and the humiliations of his sexual therapy, however, combine to demoralize Jake. The misogynistic attitude he acquires derives not from a well-considered philosophy but from an embattled ego.

Without sexual desire, Jake lacks what Brenda calls the “ballast” needed to keep him steady in the world. So long as his sexuality had given him a sense of social belonging, he remained unaware of his isolation from the cultural mainstream. Sexual therapy, however, forces him to look critically not only at himself but also at the world around him, and he does not like what he sees. More to the point, Jake does not like what he hears. The language used in modern culture tends to alienate people from one another rather than help them to communicate, a phenomenon which he did not notice in the days when he was still able to communicate sexually. Now that he is no longer physically attracted to Eve, for example, he recognizes that her elegant chatter is really a form of egotistical abuse.

From different perspectives, Jake and Rosenberg share a concern with language. Jake agrees with Rosenberg’s tenet that “words embody attitudes of mind,” but he despises the psychologist’s jargon and the attitudes it embodies. To Jake, such words as “Workshop” and “facilitator” bespeak a dehumanizing of culture, while to Rosenberg, they convey a moral neutrality which makes them more therapeutically efficient than traditional terms such as “organizer” or “leader.” Too sophisticated to believe in the possibility of such linguistic neutrality, Jake realizes that the conflict between him and Rosenberg is essentially a conflict between the values of humanism and scientism.

In more intimate relations, Jake sees the dehumanizing of culture manifested in the depersonalizing of sex. He is emotionally repelled by the clinical anatomical detail of contemporary pornography and by the equally cold mathematical motions of the prescribed “sensate focusing” sessions he performs with Brenda. In the novel’s ultimate irony, Jake realizes that his social relations (notably his relations with women) merely exacerbate his feeling of alienation; his own sanity requires that he quit therapy and abandon sex forever. After all his tribulations, it is hardly surprising that when his physician finally offers a pharmaceutical cure for his moribund libido, Jake declines.

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