Portnoy's Complaint

by Philip Roth

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 198

Portnoy’s Complaint, a long monologue narrated by a young Jewish man while in analysis, is prefaced by a definition of “Portnoy’s Complaint” as a disorder in which “strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature.” The book focuses on Portnoy’s parents, his endless adolescent experimentation with masturbation, his youthful sexual encounters with girls, his varied sexual experiences with a model named Monkey, and his pilgrimage to Israel—all of which are punctuated by frequently obscene outcries against the guilt he feels for his sexual obsessions. Roth, who has defended himself and the book many times, claims it is full of dirty words because Portnoy wants to be free: “I wanted to raise obscenity to the level of a subject.”

The book became a cause célèbre in 1969, commented on by social critics and stand-up comedians alike. Most objections to it came from Jewish groups and rabbis who called it “anti-Semitic” and “self-hating” and protested against libraries that put it on their shelves. It was seized in Australia in 1970 and 1971 by Melbourne officials, who filed obscenity charges against it and the bookseller who sold it.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 390

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 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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 880

Portnoy’s Complaint is not only the title of this novel, it is...

(This entire section contains 880 words.)

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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?”