‘She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.’
This is the most telling first line of Philip Roth’s, 1969 novel, Portnoy’s Complaint; a novel about the contradictions of both Jewish and American culture. This novel is a continuous monologue, depicting the thoughts and actions of Alex Portnoy, a young, American-Jew whose perhaps only desire is to have sex and rid himself of his Jewish ties. However, the over-bearing figure of his mother shadows his every move and Alex finds himself battling to integrate into the American society.
Though seemingly wrought with an obsession for self-gratification; this novel, I’d suggest, is about the frustrations of the third-generation jewish people of America. It is the rebellion against a religion, reluctant or perhaps mistrustful of society. Alex most certainty demonstrates his frustration through his sexual desires. His infamous violation of a piece of liver which he uses on the way to a bar mitzvah is not only humorous but portrays the suppression Alex feels so early on in his youth.
‘You go to Harold Hot Dog and Chazerai palace after school and you eat French fries with Melvin Weiner. Don’t you? Don’t lie to me either.’ – Alex’s mother demands, unrelenting through the bathroom door, whilst Alex furiously tends to himself on the other side. This is not just a crude way to demonstrate humor, it instead represents the motif of food which mirrors Alex’s development of identity and maturity. Alex tries to balance between the frustrations and resentment he feels towards his parents when he is young and the adult relationships he attempts to have whilst still living in the shadow of his mother. It is this shadow that hinders him from finding any relationship other than sexual; even his long-term girlfriend, ‘The Monkey’ he only manages to stay with because she matches his libido.
Though some readers may find his thoughts and impulses a little revolting- its okay, he is venting to a psychiatrist! By the end he is so fraught with guilt after sharing his actions; the actions and behaviors of a human being that he explodes in an angry, non-punctuated rant and he self-condemns himself, finding no justification for his pleasures and desires. It seems the shadow of his mother is too over-bearing; the traditions of his religion too claustrophobic; he’ll never be able to escape.