Roth Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Rabbis and Jewish community leaders denounced novelist Philip Roth for being an anti-Semitic Jew when his sexually explicit novel exploited Jewish stereotypes with ruthless humor.

Summary of Event

When Philip Roth published Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969, he set off a furious controversy among literary scholars and journalists and sent a shock wave through the American Jewish community. The novel, which consists of a ranting, first-person monologue delivered by an obsessive patient to his psychoanalyst, is sexually explicit and depicts certain stock Jewish character types in lurid colors. Roth’s defenders and admirers believed he had accomplished an artistic breakthrough, but to his detractors, he seemed no better than a pornographer and a betrayer of his people. Like John Updike’s Couples (1968), however, Portnoy’s Complaint quickly proved to be a critical and commercial success. Portnoy’s Complaint (Roth)[Portnoys Complaint] Jews;in literature[literature] [kw]Roth Publishes Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) [kw]Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth Publishes (1969)[Portnoys Complaint, Roth Publishes] Portnoy’s Complaint (Roth)[Portnoys Complaint] Jews;in literature[literature] [g]North America;1969: Roth Publishes Portnoy’s Complaint[10140] [g]United States;1969: Roth Publishes Portnoy’s Complaint[10140] [c]Literature;1969: Roth Publishes Portnoy’s Complaint[10140] Roth, Philip Howe, Irving Podhoretz, Norman Updike, John

Roth was born in 1933, the son of an insurance salesman, and grew up in Newark, New Jersey. He attended college first at Rutgers University and later at Bucknell University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1951 at the age of eighteen. He studied for a doctorate at the University of Chicago in the mid-1950’s, but he was already writing fiction. He had his first major success with Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories Goodbye, Columbus, and Five Short Stories (Roth) (1959), which won the National Book Award National Book Award and several other prizes. He taught creative writing in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, at Princeton University, and at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1960’s, and he produced two more novels, Letting Go Letting Go (Roth) (1962) and When She Was Good When She Was Good (Roth) (1967), along with numerous short stories.

Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), much zanier and more hectic than its predecessors, marked a stylistic change that, coming from an established writer, drew widespread attention and immediate controversy. The book grew out of four fragmentary works Roth had begun in the preceding years, one of which, a play entitled The Nice Jewish Boy, had had a public performance with Dustin Hoffman in the principal role. Roth had reworked many aspects of the text and felt pleased with the finished result. Based in part on incidents from his own life, the novel was more than a bildungsroman; Roth was too artful to rely on his own experiences alone, and he contrived numerous scenes to squeeze the maximum dramatic impact from his characters.

Alexander Portnoy, the book’s narrator, is on the couch of his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel, pouring out his soul. Portnoy speaks like a stand-up comedian, often making himself the butt of his own jokes. He presents himself by turns as pitiable, comic, and disgusting, but he is always very knowing and able to anticipate the criticisms that might be leveled against him. His is the only point of view given in the entire book, and Roth lets the reader see all the bizarre skewing of realities that Portnoy’s obsessions have created.

As Alex tells it, most of his life has been dedicated to yearning for, and trying to have sex with, shiksas, or Christian girls. Overpoweringly alluring, through most of his adolescence they were also hopelessly beyond his reach. Spying on them, following them, masturbating to visions of them, Portnoy found such girls a complete obsessive fantasy, fragments of which he was able to live out in later years, but always with unsatisfactory results. When he has real Christian girlfriends, he feels too guilty to enjoy them, and the disapproving presence of his mother, Sophie Portnoy, looms in his imagination.

Alex knows, and he shows, that he has been unfair to many of his girlfriends. Admiring their good qualities, he still cannot stop himself from despising them, imagining insults from their families, and feeling smugly superior to them in a way that completely contradicts his outward life as a defender and uplifter of the underprivileged. He gives each one a deprecating nickname such as “The Monkey,” “The Pumpkin,” and “The Pilgrim.” When, as a young adult, he goes to Israel, he meets a tough Jewish Marxist woman. She renders him impotent, but he gets a petty revenge by thinking of her as “The Jewish Pumpkin.” Israel upsets him; accustomed to being one of the Jewish minority in America, in Israel Portnoy finds that even the bus drivers are Jews, and he is deprived of the chance to blame everyday misfortunes on the goyim.

Sophie Portnoy, his mother, is the bane of Alex’s life, first in childhood but no less when he is an adult, a law-school graduate and a political aide to New York mayor John Lindsay. She is the stereotypical Jewish mother, smothering Alex with love but stifling him with constant surveillance, nagging, and criticism; always making him feel guilty and indecent; and completely overpowering Alex’s father, who is a shadowy, constipated insurance salesman. In one of many humiliating scenes, Alex recounts the time when, as a growing boy, he wanted to buy a jockstrap in an athletic equipment shop. Far from indulging him in this symbolic aspiration to maturity, his mother mocks loudly that his penis is far too small. The agonizing memory of this and other humiliating episodes from his childhood and adolescence will not leave him; he circles back to miserable incidents again and again.

The book ends with a heading in block capitals, “PUNCH LINE,” which is followed by the doctor’s telling Alex that the analysis can now begin. The reader realizes that the book’s 274 exhausting and hilarious pages have been only the preliminaries from Portnoy; luckily, readers do not have to overhear the item-by-item analysis itself.


Portnoy’s Complaint was heralded as a product of the “swinging 1960’s” in which the media had developed a new frankness about discussing sexuality, in which the “sexual revolution” was in full swing, and in which much of “counterculture” regarded monogamous marriage as a repressive institution rather than as the logical goal for every mature adult.

Philip Roth.

(Nancy Crampton)

There was nothing new about sex in literature. From their development in the eighteenth century, novels had always, overtly or covertly, discussed sex, sometimes in a very straightforward way. The novels of Honoré de Balzac, for example, were saturated with eroticism. In English novels, eroticism was usually elliptical rather than direct, until D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and James Joyce began writing straightforward descriptions of sex in the early twentieth century. Such writing was met with censorship through the middle decades of the century, but court cases largely put an end to such censorship in the early 1960’s. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) was the cause célèbre, and removal of American censorship of that book in 1960 opened the door for many more candid depictions of sex in the following years.

In 1968, John Updike’s Couples Couples (Updike) charted new ground for a major novelist’s treatment of sex. The book’s central character has an explicitly described sexual affair with his neighbor’s pregnant wife, which continues after she has given birth and includes a scene in which he drinks her breast milk. Couples was a literary and commercial success. Although Roth, in interviews, always denied that he was writing for the new sex-receptive market, he was surely aware of being able to get away with Portnoy’s Complaint’s most daring passages in a way he could not have done a few years previously.

The American Jewish community was, by the mid-1960’s, a wealthy and influential part of society. Having achieved rapid upward social mobility in the decades since their mass migration from Germany and Eastern Europe, American Jews filled prominent positions in academic, business, and political life. Proud of their accomplishments, their artistic creativity, and the large number of eminent citizens drawn from their ranks, they still exhibited some of the defensiveness common to ethnic immigrant groups. They were fiercely protective of Israel, the Jewish state that had been fighting for its life since 1948; it was American Jews’ money, donated in extravagant amounts, that helped secure Israel against its encircling Arab enemies. A powerful Jewish lobby in Washington ensured that presidents and members of Congress all kept their eyes fixed on Israel as an object of special solicitude for American foreign policy.

American Jews had prospered in (among other places) the entertainment industry and had long been willing to make jokes at their own expense. By and large, however, American Jews did not take kindly to others making such jokes. The extremely daring way in which Roth touched on, and exploited, the most sensitive areas in American Jewish life caused some Jews to see him as a betrayer. Many rabbis who had earlier been disturbed by Goodbye, Columbus warned their congregations not to read the new book and said that Roth was a Jew who was damaging the good name of Jews in America. Some critics said even that he was an anti-Semite.

Another strand of intra-Jewish criticism came from Norman Podhoretz, editor of the influential magazine Commentary. Commentary (periodical) Formerly a political liberal and a sympathetic admirer of Roth, Podhoretz had become an outspoken neoconservative at the end of the 1960’s. He wrote in 1972 that Roth’s work was getting steadily worse and that Roth had only one point to make: “that Americans are disgusting people.” Podhoretz, eager to revive American patriotism from its low ebb in the Vietnam era, deplored what he saw as Roth’s pandering to anti-American sentiment and what he took to be Roth’s air of unearned moral superiority.

To Irving Howe, one of the most distinguished critics in America, Roth seemed to have run out of ideas early in his career and no longer belonged in the company of Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, the novelists with whom he had most often been compared. Howe’s judgment of Portnoy’s Complaint was harsh: He said that Roth had nothing to offer but “a thin-lipped animus against Jewish woes, Jewish mothers, Jewish sentiments, Jewish aggrandizements.” Howe admitted that Roth’s complaining “could sometimes be very funny, as in his assemblage of skits called Portnoy’s Complaint, but too often it dropped into a mere wail for release from the claims of Jewish distinctiveness and burdens.” To call the carefully constructed novel a series of skits was itself, of course, to damn it with faint praise.

Roth did not want to be thought of as a Jewish novelist but rather as a novelist whose background simply happened to be Jewish. In When She Was Good, the novel that preceded Portnoy’s Complaint, he took as his subject a midwestern Christian family, of the sort among whom he had been living in Iowa, and made no reference to Judaism. He was often at pains to emphasize that he was more than a local or ethnic writer and that he belonged in the mainstream of American literature. Critics who agreed with this claim pointed out that Alexander Portnoy could be compared to such characters in American fiction as Huckleberry Finn, Captain Ahab, and Holden Caulfield, all isolated males seeking satisfactions the real world would never be able to offer.

The film version of Portnoy’s Complaint was a flop. It could not match the obsessive quality of the book and still had to tread warily in treating the masturbation and orgy scenes if it were to gain commercial release; the brazen zestiness of the novel was completely missing. Although Roth continued to treat sexuality with total frankness in My Life as a Man (1974) and The Professor of Desire (1977), none of his later works was explosive in quite the same way. Sex in literature proliferated so rapidly that it quickly lost both its novelty value and its ability to shock, making Portnoy a less distinctive character in the 1970’s and 1980’s than he had been earlier. Portnoy’s Complaint (Roth)[Portnoys Complaint] Jews;in literature[literature]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baumgartner, Murray, and Barbara Gottfried. Understanding Philip Roth. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. A more up-to-date account of Roth’s work than Rodgers’s and refreshingly jargon-free. Heavy on text explanation, light on biographical details.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Harold, ed. Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. Compilation of essays on Portnoy’s Complaint by leading literary and cultural scholars, paying careful attention to the psychoanalytic and Jewish elements of the text. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howe, Irving. “Philip Roth Reconsidered.” Commentary 54 (December, 1972): 69-77. The most persuasive analysis of what is wrong with Roth, full of harsh judgments but free of cheap shots. Especially useful as a source of second thoughts for readers who find Roth breathtakingly good.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Milbauer, Asher Z., and Donald G. Watson, eds. Reading Philip Roth. New York: Macmillan, 1988. A collection of essays by critics of Roth, emphasizing his connections to other Jewish writers, his debts to Franz Kafka, and his use of themes in popular culture, asceticism, and psychoanalysis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Posnock, Ross. Philip Roth’s Rude Truth: The Art of Immaturity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006. Looks at Roth’s work as revealing truths that the social propriety expected of adults typically obscures. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rodgers, Bernard F., Jr. Philip Roth. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A sensible introductory summary of Roth’s life and works, explaining the author’s intentions and methods while evaluating his place in literary history. Rodgers is also author of a large bibliography on Roth.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roth, Philip. Reading Myself and Others. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975. A collection of Roth’s essays, interviews, and occasional pieces for newspapers. Witty, politically engaged, and knowing, they give an excellent general impression of Roth as a thinker and working writer.

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Categories: History