Places: Portnoy’s Complaint

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1969

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Bildungsroman

Time of work: Mid-twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Newark

*Newark. Portnoy’s ComplaintNew Jersey city in which Portnoy grows up. At the time he is born, his family lives in Jersey City in a building inhabited entirely by Jews but surrounded by non-Jews whom Portnoy’s parents view as anti-Semitic. Just before World War II, at the urging of Portnoy’s uncle, the family moves into what they consider the much safer environment of Newark, in the almost entirely Jewish Weequahic neighborhood, where Roth himself grew up. There, Portnoy, like Roth, attends the almost entirely Jewish Weequahic High School and eventually feels suffocated by his family, especially his mother, as well as by the Jewishness of the milieu in which he lives.

*Manhattan

*Manhattan. New York City borough, across the Hudson River from Newark, to which Portnoy moves after finishing college. New York’s mayor appoints him assistant commissioner for the city’s Commission on Human Opportunity. To Portnoy, Manhattan represents an opportunity to escape from his Newark past, to escape his family, and to live his own life. Part of the escape from Jewish Newark involves a series of affairs he has with non-Jewish women, beginning in college and culminating in an affair with a woman he calls the Monkey, whom he meets as she enters a taxicab in front of his Manhattan apartment. In his sexual escapades with her, he seeks a complete escape from the Jewishness of his childhood that he associates with the Weequahic neighborhood. Nevertheless, the area in and around Manhattan proves to be for Portnoy much too close, physically, to Newark. His parents visit him too easily and too often, and he visits them.

*Europe

*Europe. Portnoy goes to Europe to escape from his middle-class Jewish background, as well as from his parents. When he and the Monkey depart for Europe, he refuses to tell his parents his itinerary. In Rome, he and the Monkey join an Italian prostitute in a sexual threesome. Thus, Europe, Portnoy thinks, finally provides him with an escape from Newark. After the escapades in Rome, however, the Monkey becomes upset, so irritating Portnoy that he deserts her in Greece. He eventually discovers that not even Europe provides him with the freedom from convention and responsibility that he hoped it would.

*Israel

*Israel. Jewish-ruled Middle Eastern country to which Portnoy goes after deserting the Monkey. As his airplane lands in Israel’s capital, Tel Aviv, he is overcome by the memory of Sunday mornings in Newark, when neighborhood men got together to play softball. In a sense, in coming to Israel, he is, he feels, coming home again.

Ironically, the last chapter in the book–the one that treats Portnoy’s adventures in Israel–is titled “In Exile.” Through his memories of Newark and his experiences in Israel, Portnoy discovers that unlike the Jews who consider themselves at home in the Land of Israel, no longer living in exile, he still feels that he is in exile, at home no place. Although through memory he may be able to return temporarily to the Newark of his youth, he can find no solace there. To him, Israel, also, is like a dream, a place like his childhood Weequahic neighborhood inhabited almost entirely by Jews. For a moment, Portnoy hopes that Israel will provide him with relief from his feelings of alienation, that it will enable him to return to his Newark childhood to which he thinks he belonged and in which he found at least a kind of happiness. Instead, he finds himself unable to function sexually in Israel although he tries desperately to do so. Thus, he discovers that for him, geographical location provides no solace. Even in Israel, he is still in exile, alienated from his childhood and himself.

BibliographyCohen, Sarah Blacher. “Philip Roth’s Would-Be Patriarchs and Their Shikses and Shrews.” Studies in American Jewish Literature 1 (Spring, 1975): 16-23. Reprinted in Critical Essays on Philip Roth, edited by Sanford Pinsker. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. About the women in several of Roth’s novels, including Portnoy’s Complaint. Roth’s “petulant” young men typically blame their “Yiddishe mommes” for their problems and powerlessness.Grebstein, Sheldon. “The Comic Anatomy of Portnoy’s Complaint.” In Comic Relief: Humor in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Sarah Blacher Cohen. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978. An excellent essay on Roth’s “stand-up” humor, as developed from professional comedians such as Henny Youngman and others.Guttmann, Allen. The Jewish Writer in America: Assimilation and the Crisis of Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Contains an essay, “Philip Roth and the Rabbis,” that shows Roth’s sensitivity to the problems of assimilation in America.Halio, Jay L. Philip Roth Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1992. The chapter “The Comedy of Excess” treats various aspects of Roth’s comic mastery in Portnoy’s Complaint. It also comments on the underlying humanity of Mary Jane Reed, the Monkey, as Portnoy, who fails to recognize her humanity, derisively nicknames her.Spacks, Patricia Meyer. “About Portnoy.” The Yale Review 58 (Summer, 1969): 623-635. Mainly about Roth’s linguistic virtuosity in Portnoy’s Complaint.
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