Portnoy's Complaint Additional Summary

Philip Roth


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Alexander Portnoy has a very difficult childhood and young adulthood growing up in a lower-middle-class Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey. Part of his problem is his emotionally overcharged home environment; another part is the conflict between his desire to be a dutiful son and his wish to enjoy life to the utmost as a fully assimilated American. As a result he becomes highly neurotic and seeks therapy from a psychiatrist, Dr. Spielvogel, to whom he recounts his experiences.

Portnoy’s mother, Sophie, is an overbearing woman (a stereotypical “Jewish momma”) who torments Alex with demands he hardly knows how to fulfill. His poor, constipated father, Jack, is no help at all in containing Sophie’s dictatorial control of the household. Neither is Alex’s sister, Hannah, who plays only a shadowy role in Alex’s descriptions of the family. For example, throughout his boyhood and into later life, Portnoy could never understand what it was that he did as a little boy that made his mother lock him outside their apartment door. What crime had he committed? Try as he would to please her, at least once a month he finds himself locked outside, vainly hammering on the door and pleading to be allowed back inside.

As he enters puberty, Portnoy’s sex drive goes into high gear. Some of the most hilarious occasions he recalls for his psychiatrist involve masturbation and an early, futile attempt to have sex with a local teenager, Bubbles Girardi, that ends with his ejaculation into his own eye. He then has the fantasy of becoming blind and returning home with a seeing-eye dog, which his mother would not permit in the house. In this episode Portnoy shows how the melodrama he repeatedly experiences at home influences his rich fantasy life as well. Whether it is polio season or Alex indulging himself by eating french fries with his friend, Melvin Weiner, anything and everything becomes an occasion for hysteria and melodrama in the Portnoy household.

Although fantasy is a large part of his life, Portnoy’s “adventures” are real enough. As a college student, he takes up with Kay Campbell, whom he nicknames the Pumpkin because of her complexion and physique but who is otherwise an “exemplary” person. She represents for Portnoy the liberal, high-minded, worthy Protestant female he thinks he will someday marry. When...

(The entire section is 960 words.)