Unsuitable for adults.
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 Every man, cannot escape his past. He struggles to discover who he is, as a Jew and as a human being.