Portnoy’s Complaint – Philip Roth

Written By Ciaran Dermott

“It’s a family joke that when I was a tiny child I turned from the window out of which I was watching a snowstorm, and hopefully asked, “Momma, do we believe in winter?”

In typical Roth fashion, Portnoy’s Complaint blends the sexual, the comic and the Jewish together in a hilariously dark romp through the psychology of the modern male. Whilst lacking the devastating impact of some his later works, this early canon entry of Roth’s instead has a lighter, more mischievous tone which allows it to question many of the rules in our society without taking itself too seriously.

“She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.”

Following the adolescent sexual exploits of Alexander Portnoy, teenage Jewish stereotype growing up in New York and serial masturbator, through the medium of a conversation he is having with his shrink as a grown man. Mr Portnoy is a troubled man, and the main focus of his novel long ‘complaint’ to his psychotherapist is that old Semitic trope; the presence of his domineering mother throughout his life. Our protagonist struggles to achieve freedom as he endlessly and humorously rants about the role that his mother plays in his sexual development, through her endless nagging, her constant interruptions of his ‘private time’ in the bathroom and early intimacies between them that play in Alex’s mind like a bad Freudian nightmare. The novel itself is an exploration of Freudian psychology, and the impact that an upbringing, and importantly the repression of a traditional Jewish household, can have upon the sexual development of an individual. In Alex’s case, it results in complete delinquency as the reader will find out during this 300 page reminisce of a life of aggressive sexual exploration.

Sex is not the only theme of concern here, although the fact that Roth could talk about it all day is clear, as many of Alex’s hang-ups on relationships and happiness also stem from an overbearing anxiety over being Jewish. This is perhaps where Roth comes closest to dropping his schoolboy tone and making some serious social critique on the nature of racial and economic prejudice. Alex’s father is a hardworking insurance salesman, completely subservient to his wife and constipated due to stress. Finding himself living a constant Jewish stereotypical existence, Alex looks for meaning in the arms of atheism and non-Jewish women, referred to by his family as ‘shikse’. As well as providing a close insight into Jewish culture, Alex’s rebellion against the bigotry of his overbearing parents also expresses a more universal struggle, that of the individual to create their own identity and ideology, whether that be sexually, religiously or otherwise.

 “So. Now you know the worst thing I have ever done. I fucked my own family’s dinner.”

To say that Alex’s therapist has their work cut out is an understatement. He has more neuroses and perversions than any kid, Jewish or otherwise, should ever have. But as unsavoury as his experiences often are, they certainly make for good entertainment, and Portnoy’s Complaint is a more than acceptable excuse to jump back inside the mind of literature’s dirtiest writer.


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