"Portnoy's Complaint" by Philip Roth

An analysis

Term Paper 2007 9 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of Content

1. Summary

2. Characterizations of the Major Characters
2.1. Alexander Portnoy
2.2. Sophie Portnoy
2.3. Jack Portnoy

3. The Function of the Beginning of Portnoy’s Complaint

4. Portnoy’s Complaint – A Jewish-American Novel

5. Appendix

6. Bibliography
6.1. Primary Literature
6.2. Secondary Literature

1. Summary

In the novel Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, first published in 1969, the narrator Alexander Portnoy who comes from a strict Jewish home tells his psychologist Dr. Spielvogel about his life. During this recollection he always comes back to his sex fantasies, his childhood at home and his relationship to his mother, the role of Judaism in his life, his frustrations and obsessions, like the extensive masturbation during his adolescence:

Then came adolescence – half my waking life spent locked behind the bathroom door, firing my wad down the toilet bowl, or into the soiled clothes in the laundry hamper, or splat, up against the medicine-chest mirror, before which I stood in my dropped drawers so I could see how it looked coming out.[1]

After that Portnoy has sexual intercourse with various non-Jewish women and he ends his story in Israel where he becomes impotent and “… realizes that simplicity is not the solution to his tormented life”[2].

2. Characterizations of the Major Characters

2.1. Alexander Portnoy

Alexander Portnoy is the 33-year-old main character was an successful and now is the “Assistant Commissioner for The City of New York Commission on Human Opportunity”[3] which shows that he works hard to impress his mother Sophie. On the one hand Alexander is the “… repressed ‘Nice Jewish Boy’ …”[4] who tries to live up to his mother’s expectations but on the other hand he is depicted as the “… aggressive ‘Jewboy’ …”[5] who constantly has sexual adventures with non-Jewish women, called shikses. He ends up with Mary Jane Reed, who he calls The Monkey and who first seems to satisfy him. But eventually he realizes that she is nothing like him:

How unnatural can a relationship be! This woman is ineducable and beyond reclamation. By contrast to hers, my childhood took place in Brahmin Boston. What kind of business can the two of us have together? Monkey business! No business![6]

Alexander “… rejects conventional morality …”[7] and depicts himself as “an Atheist …”[8] and “… a fourteen-year-old Communist …”[9] which relates to his lack of morality and respect, especially regarding his Jewish heritage, because “this desperate young protagonist rebels in a rage against his Jewish heritage.”[10]

Even his trip to Israel does not help him with his problems and leads to an over-all alienation of the character: ”And in Israel! Where other Jews find refuge, sanctuary and peace, Portnoy perishes! Where other Jews flourish, I now expire.”[11]

2.2. Sophie Portnoy

Sophie Portnoy is the mother of Alexander. She has the desire to be perfect: “It was my mother who could accomplish anything, who herself had to admit that it might even be that she was actually too good”[12]. Roth portrays her as the Jewish mother stereotype, which is shown in various ways, for example in her “… domineering personality and a neurotic over-involvement with [her] children …”[13]. When she says “He doesn’t even have to open a book – ‘A’ in everything. Albert Einstein the Second!”[14] the overprotection of her children is underlined and this also makes clear her attitude towards the achievements she demands of others. Sophie is a demanding character not only regarding academic achievements but also morally she demands a lot of her children: “See, I am too good too, Mother, I too am moral to the bursting point – just like you!”[15] Alexander is not able to live up to her expectations, which is shown by the fact that she locks her son out of the apartment, when he was bad. Alexander finds the typical attitude of a Jewish mother to dominate her children’s life – an attitude which apparently never ends – strenuous: “Good Christ, a Jewish man with parents alive is a fifteen-year-old boy, and will remain a fifteen-year-old boy until they die !”[16]


[1] Roth, P. 1967, p.17-18

[2] http://www.bookrags.com/shortguide-portnoys-complaint/characters.html

[3] Roth, P. 1967, p.107

[4] http://www.myjewishlearning.com/culture/literature/Overview_Jewish_American_Literature/Into _The_Literary_Mainstream/Literature_PhilRoth_Norton.htm

[5] http://www.myjewishlearning.com/culture/literature/Overview_Jewish_American_Literature/Into _The_Literary_Mainstream/Literature_PhilRoth_Norton.htm

[6] Roth, P. 1967, p.206

[7] http://www.bookrags.com/shortguide-portnoys-complaint/socialconcernsthemes.html

[8] Roth, P. 1967, p.72

[9] Roth, P. 1967, p.74

[10] http://www.bookrags.com/shortguide-portnoys-complaint/socialconcernsthemes.html

[11] Roth, P. 1967, p.271

[12] Roth, P. 1967, p.11

[13] http://www.myjewishlearning.com/daily_life/relationships/TO_Parent_Child/Jewish_Mothers .htm

[14] Roth, P. 1967, p.4

[15] Roth, P. 1967, p.124

[16] Roth, P. 1967, p.111


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portnoy complaint philip roth




Title: "Portnoy's Complaint" by Philip Roth