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Literature / Portnoy's Complaint

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"Portnoy's Complaint: A disorder in which strongly felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature..."

Portnoy's Complaint (1969) is an American novel by Philip Roth. The novel tells the humorous monologue of Alex Portnoy, a sex-obsessed Jewish youth who confesses his often bizarre sexual encounters to his psychotherapist. As he grows older, he becomes a close adviser to the Mayor of New York City and struggles to square his desire to help society with his outsized sexual appetites, a conflict which eventually reaches a breaking point. Though it was originally banned in several countries due to its explicit content, it is now often ranked among the greatest novels of the 20th century, and is one of Roth's most popular books, along with American Pastoral.

It was adapted into a film in 1972, written and directed by Ernest Lehman and starring Richard Benjamin and Karen Black.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Attempted Rape: Near the end, Alex goes to Israel, where he meets a woman named Naomi. When she refuses his advances, he tries to force himself on her, but fails because he can't get an erection.
  • Author Avatar: Roth and Alex Portnoy share a hometown and an ethnic/religious background, so this trope is inescapable. In a later Roth novel, Zuckerman Unbound, Nathan Zuckerman (who is a blatant Author Avatar for Roth) has success with a ribald comedic novel Carnovsky, and gets annoyed when people think that the main character is based on him.
  • Cargo Ship: Alex/chicken liver and Alex/cored apple. No, really.
  • Cathartic Scream: A rare example of this trope at the very end of a work. After spending the entire novel monologuing, Alex asks his psychoanalyst's permission to let out a scream of frustration over his perpetual guilt. "Because that's maybe what I need most of all, to howl. A pure howl, without any more words between me and it!" There follows a scream running several lines of type. Then comes the novel's final "Punch Line":
    So [said the doctor]. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?
  • Country Matters: One sexually explicit chapter (hell, they all are) is titled "Cunt Crazy."
  • The Film of the Book: There was a 1972 film adaptation starring Richard Benjamin and Karen Black, which was almost universally panned.
  • Gentile Jew-Chaser: Discussed. Alex tells how in his teenage years, he thought that he had to pretend to be Christian to attract Christian girls. Later, he realized that there's no need for it, because there are plenty of Christian women who are attracted to Jewish men just like him. He cites Elizabeth Taylor as an example, stating that her Jewish husband Mike Todd was "a cheap facsimile of my Uncle Hymie upstairs".
    Who in his right mind would ever have believed that Elizabeth Taylor had the hots for Uncle Hymie? Who knew that the secret to a shikse's heart (and box) was not to pretend to be some hook-nosed variety of goy, as boring and vacuous as her own brother, but to be what one's uncle was, to be what one's father was, to be whatever one was oneself...
  • Hormone-Addled Teenager: As a teenager, Alex was obsessed with sex and girls, but much to his frustration, he never really grew out of it.
    Day and night, at work and on the street-thirty-three years old and still he is roaming the streets with his eyes popping. A wonder he hasn't been ground to mush by a taxicab, given how he makes his way across the major arteries of Manhattan during the lunch hour. Thirty-three, and still ogling and daydreaming about every girl who crosses her legs opposite him in the subway!
  • Jewish Mother: Combined with Freudian Excuse and probably Oedipus Complex. Alex attributes his sexual disappointments to his overbearing mother.
  • Jews Love to Argue: Alex claims that he only realized that the English language can be used for other things than arguing when he first spent Thanksgiving away from his folks, with his Christian girlfriend's family.
  • Jewish Smartass: Alex is not shy about dispensing sarcasm (especially in the company of the Monkey).
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: At the end of the book, Alex travels to Israel, when he realizes that he's become impotent. He thinks this is punishment because he left the Monkey behind when she threatened to commit suicide if he doesn't marry her.
  • Masturbation Means Sexual Frustration: An entire chapter, "Whacking Off," is dedicated to Alex's experiences with masturbation. In his teenage years, he masturbated at every opportunity, and lived in fear of being caught.
  • Mattress-Tag Gag: Near the end, Alex claims that he's always cruelly punished by the universe for minor transgressions, and imagines that if he removed a mattress tag, he'd get the electric chair.
    "This is the police speaking. You're surrounded, Portnoy. You better come on out and pay your debt to society." "Up society's ass, Copper!" "Three to come out with those hands of yours up in the air. Mad Dog, or else we come in after you, guns blazing. One." "Blaze, you bastard cop, what do I give a shit? I tore the tag off my mattress—" "Two." "— But at least while I lived, I lived big!"
  • Nice Jewish Boy: Alex is torn between his conflicting desires; he wants to live a hedonistic life, but he also wants to become the nice Jewish boy his parents expect him to be.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: The Monkey, most notably.
  • Self-Abuse: In his teenage years, when he's masturbating every day, Alex discovers a little dot on his penis (which is just a harmless freckle), and thinks that he got cancer from all the masturbation. But he's still unable to stop.
  • Sex Is Evil, and I Am Horny: Alex is obsessed with sex, and feels guilty about it. This is the titular "Portnoy's complaint", as defined in the beginning.
    "A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature [...] as a consequence of the patient's "morality," however, neither fantasy nor act issues in genuine sexual gratification, but rather in overriding feelings of shame, and the dread of retribution...
  • Shiksa Goddess: Alex's girlfriends — The Monkey, The Pumpkin and The Pilgrim — are this to him. (Especially The Pilgrim; he gives her that nickname because she's from a prestigious WASP family, and that's his main reason for dating her.)
  • Sizable Semitic Nose: Alex thinks that he'd never be able to pass for a Gentile because of his big nose.
  • The Shrink: Alex is narrating this entire book to his psychotherapist.
  • Tampon Run: Alex is still upset with his mother for sending him to buy tampons once when he was 11.
  • Three-Way Sex: Alex has a threesome with the Monkey and an Italian prostitute in Rome, but he finds it more strenuous than sexy.
    I can best describe the state I subsequently entered as one of unrelieved busy-ness. Boy, was I busy! I mean there was just so much to do. You go here and I'll go there- okay, now you go here and I'll go there- all right, now she goes down that way, while I head up this way, and you sort of half turn around on this...
  • Trapped at the Dinner Table: Alexander Portnoy, on the analyst's couch, recalls how his mother Sophie wouldn't take no for an answer when it came to finishing his dinner. Once she even pulled a knife on him in order to make him comply.

Alternative Title(s): Portnoys Complaint