Portnoy?s Complaint By Philip Roth Essay, Research Paper
Portnoy?s Complaint was Philip Roth?s third novel. It was a story about a young man?s search for freedom using forbidden sex as his way of escape. This book was found by many readers to be offensive and pornographic because of its protagonist?s use of obscene language and sex scenes. The story records the intimate confessions of Alexander Portnoy to his psychiatrist. Portnoy goes through his adolescent obsession with masturbation and his relationship with his over possessive mother, Sophie. Portnoy?s ?complaint? refers to the damage done to him by the culture that has shaped him; although he is successful, his achievements are marred by a nagging sense of guilt. He finds himself on Dr. Speilvogel?s couch trying to determine how and why he has become a sexual and moral obsessive in the hopes of being cured, or at least a little less obsessed with various bodily liquids and all orifices. Instead, Portnoy?s narrative of his past becomes the case history that serves as the evidential basis of a medical diagnosis. Speilvogel discovers Portnoy?s Complaint, and by doing so, he has thereby authoritatively reduced Portnoy?s experiences into a category of neurosis. Speilvogel simply rewrites Portnoy?s wild, comic rantings into a ?disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of perverse nature. Portnoy?s approach to experience is often ironic and has the effect of a stand-up comedian?s patter. Jewish family and its values are held up to ridicule, and particular criticism has been leveled to Roth?s presentation of the Jewish mother.
Roth?s novel, Portnoy?s Complaint, is the story of Alex Portnoy, a Jewish male with an oppressive, ?castrating? mother. As a boy, young Alex Portnoy nearly suffocates
from parental expectations that he be the smartest, neatest, and best-behaved little boy in his school. His melodramatic mother, aspiring to impress gentile America with her perfect offspring, over-supervises him and turns minor infractions into operatic disappointments. At times, for frustrating her, he is locked out of his home. Portnoy, in his adolescence, rebels against her mostly by indulging in acts of which she does not approve. Obscenity and masturbation become the primary ways in which Portnoy asserts his freedom.
As he grows older, these forms of rebellion persist. Often his transgressions turn to guilt: ?Why must the least deviation from respectable convention cause me such inner hell?? When I know better than the taboos!? (Roth, 124). Most of the times, however, he seems to find it is surprisingly easy to transgress; the only obstacle to freedom is his hesitation. After being treated to his first lobster dinner by his sister?s boyfriend, Portnoy is tempted to masturbate on the darkened bus back to New Jersey with a gentile girl sitting beside him. The adult Portnoy, on second thoughts, speculates that being encouraged to violate the Jewish dietary code also prompted him to take a sexual risk: ? The taboo so easily and simply broken, confidence may have been given to the whole slimy suicidal Dionysian side of my nature; the lesson may have been learned that to break the law, all you have to do is- just go ahead and break it!? Stop trembling and quaking and finding it unimaginable and beyond you: all you have to do is do it!? (Roth, 79).
Not wanting to feel ?obedient and helpless? (Roth, 73) also impels Portnoy to challenge the mainstream culture. And here as well, his rebellion manifests itself
sexually and revolves around his exclusive interest in Christian girls. If sex is exciting for Portnoy when it is secretive and ?bad?- the antithesis of the moral goodness imbued in Alex by his parents- sex with a ?shikse?, is twice as arousing. It violates not only the Jewish community?s expectations that he marry a Jew, but it also imposes his dirty will on the clean blond daughters of the gentile middle class; it asserts his arrival in the mainstream and his full entitlement as a male American. ?I don?t seem to stick my dick up these girls, as much as I stick it up their backgrounds- as though through fucking I will discover America. Conquer America- maybe that?s more like it? (Roth, 235).
His speech is littered with obscenity and sexist language, and his relationships with women are self-serving. Women are merely objects through whom he might vent his anger and, as Irving Buchanan contends, ?his sexuality is?masturbatory sexuality employed to degrade, to revenge and to heap contempt on?women? (103). Portnoy?s impulse to degrade women is inextricably linked to his use of language. His obscenity reveals his sexual immaturity, and diminishes both the sex act it describes and the women he encounters. Indeed Portnoy?s reliance on ?foul? language is meant to suggest a linguistic inadequacy that parallels his sexual inadequacy. As Robert Forray observes, the frustration born from Portnoy?s ?five-hundred word New Jersey vocabulary? is linked inextricably to the lack of sexual fulfillment that degenerates ultimately into impotence (276).
For all his shortcomings, Portnoy is an engaging figure in some respects. His narrative is amusing and the other characters in the novel seem extremely bland by comparison. As the book progresses, however, a more sinister dimension to Portnoy is
revealed. For instance, his attempt near the end to force himself on the young Jewish woman, Naomi, is extreme and unsettling. As several critics have noted, his narrative complaint becomes progressively less witty, and increasingly hysterical and spiteful. Portnoy?s both social and verbal inadequacy is shown most powerfully at the close of the book with him, unreformed and impotent, shouting ?Up societies ass? (Roth, 274). Finally, he abandons coherent language altogether, terminating his narrative with a howl. Despite his superficial attractions, then, we are meant to see Portnoy, and his obscenity and sexual aggression, as distasteful and self-defeating. Portnoy, as Marya Mannes suggests, is an ?antihero? (39); he is offered as an indictment of the self-obsessed male whose immaturity precludes meaningful relationships with women. Ultimately, Portnoy is posited as the moral and emotional inferior to the females he meets. A dependency on obscenity is a compensation for the fact that Portnoy?s relationships are empty and meaningless. Sex has become an obscenity because it is divorced from any kind of valid emotional life. Roth shows how ?foul? language becomes a kind of rhetoric compensation that struggles to fill the void at the heart of their character?s lives. These stories are about the way people use language to conceal or deny the truth about themselves. Roth creates stories that are critical of their male protagonists and that offer implicit indictments of their language. They demonstrate, in other words, how men can be ?unmanned?- rendered socially dysfunctional males- by their own sexist speech.
Gender politics is a crucial issue in contemporary American Jewish literature. One of the things that separate writers like Philip Roth from earlier American Jewish writers is the growing pressure to renegotiate relations between the sexes. A historical
opposition between feminism and Judaism presents Roth with problems insofar as he wants to be both Jewish and a contemporary American. Roth?s bad boy reputation with feminists is legendary. He wishes that feminist critics would discover that he dramatizes men?s frailties rather than arguing for their superiority. He intends to show that men are ? clay with aspirations? (Jones, Paterson, and Nance, 7). Gender is clearly one of the issues about which Roth has found the best literary technique to put him on the side of liberation. When one looks at Roth?s entire career, one discovers what looks like an increasing intention to open up the works to the voices of women; he is trying to use not just themes but also forms compatible with feminism. Roth uses anti-feminism to launch an attack on Judaism.
Finally, there is the transgressive quality of Portnoy?s expressing his inner life in a long ?complaint? or psychoanalytic confession, which inadvertently (or deliberately) wounds an offends readers who, like the author?s parents, also over-supervise their children. Roth?s selection of the first-person confessional monologue as the narrative form and viewpoint dramatizes his intention to unburden his psyche, despite the pain he?ll cause to his family and the delight he?ll provide to others- like himself- who are liberated, freewheeling, and at odds with their religious and ethnic backgrounds. The monologue also persistently generates an awareness of the performative transgressions on the author?s part, violating the limits of decorum for serious literature. Roth repeatedly amazes, delights, and shocks. At the peak of his masturbatory mischief, Portnoy tells us he has made use of a piece of liver before his mother prepared it. (?So. Now you know the worst thing I have ever done. I fucked my own families dinner? (Roth, 134).) In
Portnoy?s stream of associations about his rabbi and his bar mitzvah, Roth goes from ridiculing the pretentious enunciation of rabbis, Jewish racism, and prejudice against ?goyim? to turning directly on his own people: ?Weep?; he says, ?for your own pathetic selves? sucking and sucking on the sour grape of a religion! Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew Jew! It is coming out of my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jews! Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass- I happen also to be a human being!? (Roth, 76). The factor that seems to determine whether he gives offense, especially to other Jews, is whether the reader can sympathize with satire or criticism of his or her own tribe, or whether the reader is automatically offended. As the last quoted passage implies, nothing is sacred to Roth.
Bulletin 40- Philip Roth. http://www.emanuelnyc.org/bulletin/archive/39.html.
Buchan, Irving. ?Portnoy?s Complaint, or the Rooster?s Kvetch.? Studies in the
Twentieth Century (June 1970):97-107.
Dilday, Kenya. ? My Friend Portnoy.? The Nation, 18 December 1995, v261, n21, 802.
Forrey, Robert. Critical Essays on Philip Roth. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982.
Jones; Paterson, Judith; Nance, Guinevera A. Modern Literature Series. New York:
Mannes, Marya. ?A Dissent from Marya Mannes.? Saturday Review 22 February 1969,
Podhoretz, Norman. ?The Adventures of Philip Roth.? Commentary. October1998.
Roth, Philip. Portnoy?s Complaint. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
In my paper, I will be writing about why Portnoy acts the way he does. I will show examples and use quotes from the novel as well as other researched sources. I will show how Portnoy acts when he is a child like how he goes behind his mother?s back and purposely does things that she would never approve of. Or when he is in adolescence and after a lobster dinner jerks off on a bus back to New Jersey. I will explain the reason why he chooses to be with the Christian girls. Also, when he is an adult and becomes impotent. Then I will explain what Portnoy?s complaint actually is and of course which is brought about by his entire life. Lastly, I will describe the way that Roth perceives men and how he attempts to unman them as to not make the women inferior. The unmanning deals largely with the fact that Portnoy uses an excess of foul language. So basically, I will be explaining in full detail what Portnoy?s complaint is and how it came about focusing on specific periods of his life.