Friday, September 13, 2013

Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth


Portnoy's Complaint by was written in 1969 and was the book that put Philip Roth on the map. The tale is told from the point of view of Alexander Portnoy in a stream of consciousness style of monologue directed at an unheard psychoanalyst. Portnoy is intelligent, self aware and highly literate. He is also neurotic, insecure, a narcissist, a sex-crazed womanizer and is very vulgar, especially in regards to bodily functions and masturbation. The novel alternates in time between the Portnoy’s childhood and adult adventures.

This is a brilliant character study. It hilariously plumbs the psychology and social interactions of Portnoy, who is alternately likable and unlikeable to the point of being reprehensible. The constant commentary is very often extremely crude and unfiltered. Portnoy views and describes sexuality as well as other biological functions in extremely uncouth terms.  In my opinion the sexuality is ribald and usually not erotic. Many readers will be offended while others may be simply disgusted.  Though I loved this book and found it often hilarious, and consider myself relatively thick skinned, the over the top diatribe was even a bit much for me at times. In addition, Portnoy can be a very unpleasant character. In real life, his self-absorption would be tediously annoying, and he treats women as sex objects, to name just a couple of his character flaws. On the other hand, I find his portrayal to be realistic. I have known people who speak and seem to think a lot like Portnoy.

Some have taken Roth to task about this work, as the characters often express sexist, racist and otherwise anti–social views. I find this angle of criticism unfounded. It seems relatively obvious that this work is not advocating these views. Though Portnoy has his virtues and at times is extremely insightful, when he behaves badly, the reader clearly does not laugh with him, but rather laughs at him.

There is a lot here. This novel is a fantastic and complex character study. There are so many avenues one can ponder. One of many things that this novel succeeds in being is an exploration, and perhaps a parody, of Freudianism. Roth often approaches this from a humorous angle.


The ideas of Sigmund Freud are brimming all over the narrative. Portnoy’s actions and thoughts are a torrent of Freudian concepts relating to guilt, the Id, ego and super-ego, castration anxiety, neurotic guilt, infantile sexual abuse, symbolism in dreams, etc. At certain points in the narrative, the protagonist even reads and obsesses over Freud. On one level, this work can be viewed as the fictional representation of how these influences play out in the real life of a person. 

For instance, Portnoy recalls a strong erotic attraction to his mother that is pure Freud.


“While I crayon a picture for her, she showers— and now in the sunshine of her bedroom, she is dressing to take me downtown. She sits on the edge of the bed in her padded bra and her girdle, rolling on her stockings and chattering away. Who is Mommy’s good little boy? Who is the best little boy a mommy ever had? Who does Mommy love more than anything in the whole wide world? I am absolutely punchy with delight, and meanwhile follow in their tight, slow, agonizingly delicious journey up her legs the transparent stockings that give her flesh a hue of stirring dimensions. I sidle close enough to smell the bath powder on her throat— also to appreciate better the elastic intricacies of the dangling straps to which the stockings will presently be hooked.”


In similar Freudian fashion, he describes his murderous rage at his father. 


“I would have only to leap across the dinner dishes, my fingers aimed at his windpipe, for him instantaneously to sink  down beneath the table with his tongue hanging out.”


Lest we be too quick to label this novel as the uncritical acceptance of these ideas, there seems to be something else going on here. The references to the theories of Freud can be found on almost every page. They involve all kinds of over the top and ludicrous thoughts and situations. Less of a serious depiction of these concepts, at times this book is closer to parody.

At one point, the protagonist himself wonders if all these connections, explanations and childhood associations are worth so much time and angst and even if they are real or not,


“Whew! Have I got grievances! Do I harbor hatreds I didn’t even know were there! Is it the process, Doctor, or is it what we call “the material”? All I do is complain, the repugnance seems bottomless, and I’m beginning to wonder if maybe enough isn’t enough. I hear myself indulging in the kind of ritualized bellyaching that is just what gives psychoanalytic patients such a bad name with the general public. Could I really have detested this childhood and resented these poor parents of mine to the same degree then as I seem to now, looking backward upon what I was from the vantage point of what I am— and am not? Is this truth I’m delivering up…..”

So is this story a satiric exploration of Freudian ideology from the point of view of a neurotic character? Or, instead, is it a savage critique of the theories and the impact that these ideas have had upon society? I think that it may be a little bit of both. The ideas of Freud have had an enormous impact upon our culture and are important to understand. When applied to a character as Roth does here, they create a fascinating case study.  At the same time they have been employed in all kinds of, what seems to me, ridiculous interpretations of human behavior. Thus, I believe one can analyze these ideas while, in some ways, also mock them. It seems that this is exactly what Roth is doing in this work.


This is a very funny and lively character study. There is a lot more here then the musings about the Freudian thought system. Many of Roth’s favorite themes appear here including his ubiquitous examinations of human identity. As usual, I have only scratched the surface. This book is not, however, for the faint of heart. As mentioned above, it is exceedingly raunchy. In addition, those looking for a completely likeable main character will not be happy with the narcissistic, womanizing Alexander Portnoy. However, those who can deal with these raw elements may find this is a thoughtful, engaging and hilarious novel.


For those with further interest in Roth:

My commentary on I Married a Communist is here.

My Commentary on The Human Stain is here.


My Commentary on Exit Ghost is here.


28 comments:

....Petty Witter said...

Having first heard of this book on a post about banned books I hope you don't mind my including a link to your post on a post I'm doing on Tuesday the 17th.

Suko said...

Wonderful commentary, Brian! I'm glad you enjoyed this book. I've never read anything by Philip Roth. Perhaps I should start with this "brilliant character study".

Guy Savage said...

Emma (book Around the corner) liked this one. I tried it but couldn't get into it. I think it just felt too dated.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Petty - I do not mind at all! I look forward to your post.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - Thanks for your kind words!

This is a good place to start if you do not mind the vulgarity.

Otherwise, I found all the Zuckerman books more then worthwhile. These are not as explicit. I would recommend taking those in order. The first four are The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Anatomy Lesson and The Prague Orgy. These four are collected in one Volume which is called Zuckerman Bound: A Trilogy and Epilogue. There are additional books after these four.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - i almost mentioned what seemed like some dated aspects to this work. However, I felt that some of the datedness here counter balanced by what seemed like universal themes.

Brian Joseph said...

PS Guy - I will go and take a look at Emma's post.

Sharon Henning said...

As usual your analysis is well done and acute.

I wonder about authors like Roth. Are they truly exploring certain ideas or they simply being provocative because that's what puts your work out there in the public face.

Kind of like Miley Cyrus.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - As always, thanks for your kind words.

While I am sure that one of Roth's motivations here was to be provocative, I think that it would be unfair to class him with those whose main goal is garner negative and superficial attention as Miley Cyrus is currently doing.

He really explores serious ideas. I believe that he is not advocating the outrages behavior that he portrays. He could have toned down this book. However, there really are some men out there a lot like Portnoy and I think that in order to accurately represent such a person, he really needed to go this far.

With all those redeeming factors, I can forgive some outrageous attention getting.

bookaroundthecorner said...

I really liked this book. (I'm a Roth fan anyway)
I thought it was funny, witty even if Portnoy is annoying sometimes. He's sick but funny in a Woody Allen kind of way.
Sure it is crude. I read it in English, it was very educational.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - Roth often reminds me of Woody Allen or vice a versa.

Ha - I imagine the American slang in this work would be informative!

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

Interesting review but not sure this would be my cup of tea. I thought "The Slap" had quite vulgar language right up there with Junot Diaz's "The Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao" - have you read any of them?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - I have not read those works but Junot Díaz
looks to be very good.

This novel is not for all tastes.

I think that in regards to vulgarity, the language is l would be less problematical then the description the description of bodily functions.

James said...

Your commentary on Roth's famous novel is wonderful. I am almost persuaded to add it to my reading list. While I enjoyed American Pastoral, mostly, I am not yet a true fan of Philip Roth. I thought I would imbibe Zuckerman Bound before I read any other of Roth's various novels.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much James.

I actually think that American Pastoral was one of his best. I highly recommend Zuckerman bound as it is a great set of books.

Harvee said...

That it's an exploration of Freud's theories applied to a character certainly makes this a very interesting novel!

Naida said...

Not my cup of tea, but Portnoy sounds like the type of character that would annoy me. The bit about his father is almost comical.
Fantastic post as usual.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - Though I think many author's apply Freud's thinking in the crafting of their characters, this one is more overt then any that I have encountered.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Thanks for the good word.


That's one of the fantastic things about good literature, people who would be unbearable or dangerous in real life become marvelous subjects to explore.

Ryan said...

There are so very few writers who are capable of dredging the depths of the human condition like Philip Roth. He writes what good writers are afraid to write. I haven't read this one but I've read quite a bit and I'm always astounded at his abilities.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - I too really love Roth's work. Here he really does gig deep into the human heart, at least a certain kind of human heart.

Violet said...

As always, it's lovely to read about your engagement with the text, and I very much enjoyed your analysis. I tried to read this years ago, but didn't get very far. Maybe I'd have better luck with it now that I know a bit more about life, but then again, maybe not. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - Thanks so much for your kind words.

In a way this book is about a fairly offensive guy so it is not surprising that it is not for everyone. As I assume you have run into more varieties of this type of person over time, it is posable that you may get more out of it.

vb said...

amazing selection of book Brian, though I have never read any work by him so far, I think after reading all commentary I think I would start with I married a communist..This book I find it interestingly sharp and annoying with its loud thoughts on sexuality..

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - I should mention, that while I liked "I Married a Communist" many feel it is one of Roth's weakest novels. ROn the other hand while it is one of the Zuckerman books it can be read as a stand alone. I would also mention that American Pastoral, written around the same time, was, in my opinion a much stronger work.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - I should mention, that while I liked "I Married a Communist" many feel it is one of Roth's weakest novels. ROn the other hand while it is one of the Zuckerman books it can be read as a stand alone. I would also mention that American Pastoral, written around the same time, was, in my opinion a much stronger work.

Caroline said...

Have you read Michel Houellebeq? This made me think of his novel Elementary Particles. Houellebeq treats sexuality very openly and at times it's a bit disgusting. the biggest difference however is that his books are a bit depressing.
I've got Sabbath's Theater here and reading your commentary made me think of that. I haven't read it yet but some reviews made it sound similar. I guess that just proves that he has his favourite themes.
It's always tempting to assume an author professes his onw views.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I have not read Michel Houellebeq but he looks interesting!

I also have not read Sabbath's Theater but all the other Roth works that I have read, while containing a certain amount of sexuality were no where near this explicit.

I am sure that there is some of Roth in Portnoy. Like many things in life I am sure that this book represents a combination of influences.