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.
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.
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...
(The entire section is 880 words.)