Portnoy’s Complaint Summary

Philip Roth

Portnoy’s Complaint

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Portnoy’s Complaint Summary

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Major American novelist Philip Roth published Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969 to great critical acclaim and widespread public controversy—it was banned in Australia and several lawsuits were brought against the publisher, Penguin. The novel is the first person rantings of a young, sex-obsessed, Jewish bachelor. Its structure and humor established Roth as a major literary talent.

Overarching themes include the potentially oppressive nature of religion (Judaism, especially), thwarted family dynamics, and the negotiation between personal pleasure and social obligation.

Alexander Portnoy is a deeply neurotic young man. He blames his overbearing and authoritarian mother, Sophie, for his sexual digressions, misgivings, and obsessions. His father, Jack, was a soft-spoken, perpetually constipated man who did nothing to stop Sophie’s tyrannical run of the house.

Alexander tells his story in a style best described as frantic, erudite, and stream of conscious. The plot relies on Alexander realizing how one memory connects to another one across time, and recognizing the significance of certain actions (moments of “insight,” in psychoanalysis).

He tells his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel, that he is so conflicted about sex because none of his natural impulses were, in anyway, allowed to have an outlet while growing up. He is seeing the therapist because he wants to have a normal family. He knows he cannot do this while his libido is wild and effectively running his life. He hates his big nose, a sign of his Jewish ancestry, and though he would love to ride himself of his big ego, is unable to do so.

He tells the doctor several anecdotes about his early psychosexual development in the 1930s. He (like the author) grew up in Newark, New Jersey. Everyday in the lower-middle class home, Alexander felt as if he were walking on eggshells around his unpredictable mother.

Alexander does not know the reason behind many of his mother’s punishments. For instance, he recalls being locked out of the house on a cold day but can think of no reason that justified the punishment. At least once a month, his mother would arbitrarily lock him outside the apartment, where he would bang on the door for hours, begging to be let back inside.

Alexander’s adolescent stories are riddled with manic, sexual activity. During puberty, Alexander fails to have intercourse with the daughter of a local hoodlum, Bubbles Girari; he ends up ejaculating in his own eye. He day dreams of going blind then coming home with a seeing eye dog. Though the animal would be there to help him, his mother would never allow it.

He tells Dr. Spielvogel that everything in his household was a possible site for overreaction, from poor grades, slouching, or eating fried food with his friend Martin Weiner.

Other adolescent stories include him masturbating with an uncooked liver, participating in small orgies, and being caught (on multiple occasions) masturbating. He has a disappointing three way at a young age that not only increases his addiction to sex, but also his anxiety toward it.

Sex, for Alexander, is less of a pleasure than an imperative. He simply can think of nothing else until he gets the sexual energy out of his body. Sex for Alexander is a plague.

These stories are, in part, a reaction to the strict moral laws of Judaism and high-achieving Judaic culture. They explore the tension between private and public life, mother-son relationships, and the strictures of growing up in a Jewish household. He wants to be a good son, but he also wants to be a fully-fledged American; the two impulses seem to be irreconcilable. He lusts after shikses (non-Jewish women) because they are forbidden in his culture.

In college, he meets, and frequently has sex with, Kay Campbell. He nicknames her “Pumpkin” because of her pale-red complexion and her stocky, Protestant genes; she is the type of woman he would like to marry one day. Marrying her would help him assimilate into America. But their relationship flounders, as does his next relationship with a Sarah, who is very similar to Kay.

Alexander is very much into kinky sex, yet everytime he does something anormal, he immediately feels guilty about it. He constantly fears that his rabid sex life will be exposed and cost him his job. He is a very successful public servant in New York City—“The Assistant Commissioner of Human Opportunity” is his official title. On the surface, he is a model politician. But out of the office, he hires prostitutes. Though no one else thinks it, Alexander feels that he has no critical role in life.

None of his adult relationships with women are successful. His insecurity over his own Jewishness and his resentment of his parents childrearing practices make him isolated, fearful, and alone in the US, a society that, on the surface, should grant him all of the freedom he is willing to work for.

He talks about his failure with “the monkey,” a woman he nicknames for her ability to assume any kind of sexual position. He is also unable to sustain a relationship with Naomi, a Jewish, New York liberal who aligns perfectly with his own values and history. He cannot even have sex with her because she reminds him so much of his heritage. It is yet another sign that Alexander cannot accept his past.

Portnoy is fully compliant with psychoanalytic theories and free associates throughout the novel, but his implicit and explicit confessions provide him no solace or mental clarity. Toward the end of the novel, his psychiatrist asks if he would like to begin.