Last Updated November 10, 2023.
Portnoy's Complaint is a highly controversial dark comedy set in the transformative 1960s. Written by Philip Roth in 1969, the novel reflects changing views on sexuality, Jewish identity, and personal freedom through its protagonist, Alexander Portnoy, who seeks to discover his own identity and purpose amid these evolving social tides. The novel takes its title from an epigraph that precedes the stream-of-consciousness narrative; the epigraph explains that Portnoy’s Complaint is “a disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.”
The novel takes the form of an extended internal monologue, detailing the life and conflicts of Portnoy, a young Jewish man in his early thirties seeking therapy to address his intense sexual desires—and his immense self-hatred for his taboo tastes. The narrative unravels unconventionally, unfolding through an ongoing session with Portnoy’s therapist, Dr. Otto Spielvogel.
Portnoy recounts his childhood and adolescence in Newark, emphasizing the influence of his family. He describes his mother, Sophie, as a controlling and dominant household figure who often scolds him. His father, Jack, is an honest and diligent salesman who suffers from constipation. His older sister, Hannah, who is described as "overweight," may not be the brightest, but she is hardworking and pushes herself to the limit. The family dynamics are intriguing and humorous.
Portnoy then reflects on his early experiences, noting that so many were filled with humiliation and frustration, He openly discusses his growing obsession with sex, delving into his sexual experiences with different girls using frank, explicit language.
The first girl he discusses is Rita Bubbles Girardi, an Italian girl known for her promiscuity, with whom he shares his first sexual encounter. Then, there is Kay Campbell, known as "The Pumpkin," his college girlfriend from Iowa, whom he likes but eventually loses interest in. Sarah Abbott Maulsby, referred to as “The Pilgrim,” comes from a wealthy New England family, and Portnoy believes they hold anti-Semitic views.
He also encounters Lina, an Italian Catholic prostitute in her twenties, and Mary Jane Reed, an experienced model from West Virginia who fulfills his sexual fantasies and truly loves him for who he is, who he calls “The Monkey.” However, he cannot commit to a serious relationship with her because of their different backgrounds—she is not Jewish, and he is not ready for commitment. After they take a trip to Europe, he decides to break up with her.
Ultimately, Portnoy goes on a pilgrimage to Israel to discover himself and his identity. It is in Israel that he meets Naomi, a tall woman he nicknames “The Jewish Pumpkin” and “The Heroine.” Despite his strong desire, he finds himself unable to be sexual with her, which represents his struggle to merge his identity with his desires. Upon realizing his impotence, he schedules therapy sessions with Dr. Spielvogel.
Portnoy's deep-seated hatred towards his Jewish identity, his parents' overbearing influence, and his feeling of not quite fitting into the free American society he envisions become apparent. The storytelling is scattered, with some stories appearing in pieces, their resolutions arriving only much later. This mirrors Portnoy's confused thoughts, offering a thorough view of his life, which is indelibly marked by intense desires, regret, anger, and fear—and only occasional moments of happiness. The novel concludes as Portnoy screams, signifying his struggle to accept himself, in response to Dr. Spielvogel's question about finally starting the therapy.
Philip Roth’s third novel, Portnoy’s Complaint , takes the form of an outrageous, comic rant by Alexander Portnoy to his psychoanalyst, whose help Portnoy seeks because he feels that his life...
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has come to be a “Jewish joke.” Portnoy’s impassioned, self-absorbed monologues explore his childhood and his erotic relationships. He wishes to locate the source of his pain, composed of guilt, shame, desire, and emotional paralysis, and to free himself from his past. The best-selling novel shocked readers with its obscenity, graphic sexual descriptions, and exaggerations of Jewish stereotypes.
Portnoy’s early memories include his mother’s intense overprotectiveness and warnings against pleasure, his father’s emasculation by the gentile firm for which he works, and his own efforts to loosen the chains that bind him by breaking taboos, especially by frequent, ill-timed sexual escapades. His furious attempts at “self-loving” can be seen as symbolic expressions of self-loathing, intricately related to his position as a Jew in America. The satiric presentation of Portnoy as a figure of excess who wants to put the “id back in Yid” and the “oy back in goy,” provided Roth with a way to inquire into the complacency and neuroses of assimilated Jews in gentile America.
In the postwar years, the Holocaust—the “saga of the suffering Jews”—defined Jewish American identity and encouraged Jews to assimilate inconspicuously. Portnoy’s ambivalence toward this Jewish response is represented in his adolescence and adulthood by his relationships with a series of gentile women. Portnoy desires simultaneously to flaunt and to reject himself as a Jew. In each case, he uses women to transgress religious and sexual taboos, imagining that his wild and occasionally abusive relationships with them will allow him to “discover America. Conquer America.” Yet each of these relationships results for him in intense guilt. His acknowledgement that his self-hatred makes him unable to love causes him to flail against his guilt with further transgressions, ending in more guilt, trapping him in a vicious circle.
The novel ends with Portnoy’s primal scream, expressing his recognition that he cannot spring himself “from the settling of scores! the pursuit of dreams! from this hopeless, senseless loyalty to the long ago!” Portnoy, Roth’s Jewish American Everyman, cannot escape his past. He struggles to discover who he is, as a Jew and as a human being.
Portnoy’s Complaint is not only the title of this novel, it is also the illness defined in an epigraph that precedes the book: “A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.” Alexander Portnoy, after whom the disease is named, is a young Jewish professional, the Assistant Commissioner for Human Opportunity in New York City. After a recent trip to Israel in which he discovers, to his dismay, that he has become impotent, he seeks the help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Otto Spielvogel. The novel, in fact, is in the form of a long monologue, or a series of psychiatric sessions, in which Portnoy describes his past life, beginning with his earliest years, growing up in Newark as the son of Sophie and Jack Portnoy, to his present life as an important official in the New York bureaucracy. The monologue is punctuated by much dialogue, as he recalls conversations, quarrels, and arguments with his family and a number of lovers, culminating in his disastrous sexual experience in Israel.
The dominant figure in his early life is his mother, whose behavior as a stereotyped Jewish mother is the subject of much satire and humor. Little Alex is astonished at her omnipotence and her apparent omnipresence. A good little boy, he is nevertheless punished at times for faults he cannot understand how—or if—he committed. His rebellions are futile, and his perplexity is immense. His mother’s threats puzzle him, as does his poor, constipated father’s reluctance to stop her. As Alex enters puberty, he finds solace in masturbation, which, like everything else in this novel, becomes excessive. In a whimsical allusion to the amoral protagonist of Dostoevski’s Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886), Portnoy calls himself at one point the Raskolnikov of “whacking off.”
Ashamed of his parents and, to some extent, of his Jewishness, Portnoy yearns for a more typical American family life. From an early age he tries to woo Gentile girls, disguising himself when he can as a non-Jew. His nose is his greatest impediment, he believes; hence, he imagines excuses and explanations for it and for his name (saying that it is from the French, porte-noir). A hilarious episode occurs when he joins two of his friends to visit the notorious Bubbles Girardi, known to have sex with boys, and he wins the chance to be the only one on that occasion whom she will see. Like so much else in his life, however, the event turns into disaster. At first he cannot even get an erection, and later he climaxes too quickly and ejaculates directly into his own eye. Thinking he has gone blind, he fantasizes returning home with a seeing-eye dog, much to the horror of his parents—especially his mother, who becomes upset because she has just cleaned the house and her son has brought home a dog.
Other sexual escapades include the romance with his college sweetheart, Kay Campbell, nicknamed “The Pumpkin,” who invites him to spend Thanksgiving in Iowa with her and her family. He is amazed at his reception and the civility he witnesses; it is so different from the outlandish melodramas that daily characterize his family life. The romance cools when, half-jokingly, Alex suggests her conversion to Judaism after they are married, and Kay responds indifferently. Another Gentile lover several years later is “The Pilgrim,” Sarah Abbott Maulsby, the daughter of a New England family. Alex realizes that his desire for her is fueled as much by his determination to wreak vengeance against her family, typical of those anti-Semites who discriminate against his hardworking father, as by any other appeal she may have for him.
Portnoy apparently finds everything his hedonistic heart desires in Mary Jane Reed, “The Monkey,” a sexually adept sometime model, who is trying to overcome her hillbilly childhood. Mary Jane does everything that Portnoy wants, but unfortunately in the process falls in love with him—unfortunately because he is far from ready to accept marriage with anyone, least of all her. Another shiksa (non-Jewish woman), she has too checkered a career, although for a brief moment while they impersonate a married couple on a weekend holiday in Connecticut, he almost believes that it might be possible. Portnoy’s sexual adventures end in Israel where, after abandoning Mary Jane in Greece, he meets his match in Naomi, a six-foot-tall Israeli woman whom he tries to seduce and even rape, only to discover that he is unable to get an erection.
Throughout the novel, Portnoy’s “extreme sexual longings” conflict with his “ethical and altruistic impulses,” invariably to comic effect. For example, he wants to educate The Monkey and tries hard to do so, with ludicrous results. He complains to his psychiatrist that he is the Jewish son in a Jewish joke and wants to find a way out of it, because to him it is not funny; it “hoits.” His expression is funny, however, partly through its excessive diction, his inherited tendency to melodrama, and the ridiculous plight that he himself describes. He concludes his monologue with what amounts to a long primal scream, after which Dr. Spielvogel delivers his famous punch line: “So. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?”