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Portnoy's Complaint

Portnoy's Complaint
First edition cover
Author Philip Roth
Cover artist Paul Bacon[1]
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Random House
Publication date
January 12, 1969
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 274
OCLC 218657
Preceded by When She Was Good
Followed by Our Gang

Portnoy's Complaint (1969) is the American novel that turned its author Philip Roth into a major celebrity, sparking a storm of controversy over its explicit and candid treatment of sexuality, including detailed depictions of masturbation using various props including a piece of liver.[2] The novel tells the humorous monologue of "a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor," who confesses to his psychoanalyst in "intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language."[3][4] Many of its characteristics (comedic prose; themes of sexual desire and sexual frustration; a self-conscious literariness) went on to become Roth trademarks.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Portnoy's Complaint 52nd on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. Time included this novel in its "TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005."[5]


  • Structure and themes 1
  • Writing 2
  • Responses, reviews and attacks 3
  • Censorship 4
  • Allusions to the title 5
  • Adaptations 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9
  • External links 10

Structure and themes

Structurally, Portnoy's Complaint is a continuous monologue as narrated by its speaker, Alexander Portnoy, to his psychoanalyst, Dr. Spielvogel; Roth later explained that the artistic choice to frame the story as a psychoanalytic session was motivated by "the permissive conventions of the patient-analyst situation," which would "permit me to bring into my fiction the sort of intimate, shameful detail, and coarse, abusive language that [...] in another fictional environment would have struck me as pornographic, exhibitionistic, and nothing but obscene."[3][4]

Portnoy is "a lust-ridden, mother addicted young Jewish bachelor,"[3] and the narration weaves through time describing scenes from each stage of his life; every recollection in some way touches upon his central dilemma: his inability to enjoy the fruits of his sexual adventures even as his extreme libidinal urges force him to seek release in ever more creative (and, in his mind, degrading and shameful) acts of eroticism; also, much of his dilemma is that "his sense of himself, his past, and his ridiculous destiny is so fixed".[3] Roth is not subtle about defining this as the main theme of his book. On the first page of the novel, one finds this clinical definition of "Portnoy's Complaint", as if taken from a manual on sexual dysfunction:

" 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..."

The title also alludes to the common literary form of complaint, such as The Lover's Complaint, which typically presents the speaker's comments on being a spurned lover.

Other topics touched on in the book include the assimilation experiences of American Jews, their relationship to the Jews of Israel, and the pleasures and perils the narrator sees as inherent in being the son of a Jewish family.

Portnoy's Complaint is also emblematic of the times during which it was published. Most obviously, the book's sexual frankness was both a product of and a reflection on the sexual revolution that was in full swing during the late 1960s. And the book's narrative style, a huge departure from the stately, semi-Jamesian prose of Roth's earlier novels, has often been likened to the stand-up performances of 1960s comedian Lenny Bruce.

The novel is notable for its explicit and candid treatment of sexuality, including detailed depictions of masturbation using various props including a piece of liver[2] which Portnoy's mother later serves for dinner.[6]


Roth had begun work on Portnoy's Complaint in 1967, before publication of his novel When She Was Good that year. The piece had its genesis in a satirical monologue Roth had written to accompany a slide show proposed for inclusion in the risqué revue Partisan Review. Progress on the novel was slow because Roth was suffering from writer's block relating to his ex-wife, Margaret Martinson, and the unpleasant notion that any royalties generated by the novel would have to be split equally with her. In May 1968 Martinson was killed in a car crash in Central Park. Roth's writer's block lifted and following Martinson's funeral he traveled to the Yaddo literary retreat to complete the manuscript.[7]

Responses, reviews and attacks

The publication of the novel caused a major controversy in American public discourse. The two aspects that evoked such outrage were its explicit and candid treatment about sexuality and obscenities, including detailed depiction of masturbation, which was revolutionary in the late 1960s; and the irreverent portrait of Jewish identity.[4] It sparked an uproar in the Jewish community, even among New York intellectuals such as Irving Howe and Diana Trilling.[4]


In 1969 the book was declared a "prohibited import" in Australia, though the Australian publisher, Penguin Books, resisted and had copies printed up in secret and stored in fleets of moving trucks. Several attempts to prosecute Penguin and any bookseller carrying the book failed.[8]

Many libraries in the United States banned the book because of its detailed discussion of masturbation and its explicit language.[4]

Allusions to the title

The popularity of the novel has caused the title to become a sort of shorthand for any form of sexual malaise or activity. In his autobiography, Dick Cavett wrote that on one occasion when a male guest was unable to appear on his talk show, Cavett jokingly told the studio audience the guest could not attend because he was "suffering from Portnoy's Complaint", a comment which the network censors decided to cut from the broadcast tape. Gore Vidal once quipped to Claire Bloom, Roth's second wife: "You have already had Portnoy's complaint [her previous husband]. Do not involve yourself with Portnoy."

On the September 8, 2010, episode of The Daily Show, as part of an extended segment on the amount of violence in major religious texts, Jon Stewart and John Oliver have a debate wherein Stewart claims the book as the main text of Judaism, in response to Oliver's demand of disavowal regarding the violence depicted in portions of Hebrew sacred texts.

In her metafictional novel Culture Shock (Duckworth 1988), Valerie Grosvenor Myer wrote of a satirically presented married couple among her characters: "Let us consider my Jean and Jack ... I weighted the scales by presenting them in the rôle of parents ... fictional parents are usually set up as Aunt Sallies to be knocked down ... Mrs Bennet, Mrs Nickleby, Mrs Portnoy; Old Capulet, Mr Dorrit, Dr Sloper."

The Mad Men character, Don Draper, is briefly shown reading the novel in the season seven episode of the series titled, "The Monolith."

On the TV series Californication, in the episode titled "Coke Dick and the First Kick", a female writer for Rolling Stone magazine calls one of Hank Moody's early novels "the retarded man's Portnoys Complaint", which he admits made him want to "muff punch her" with his typewriter.


The novel was adapted into a movie starring Richard Benjamin and Karen Black in 1972.


  1. ^ Modern first editions - a set on Flickr
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^ a b c d Saxton (1974)
  4. ^ a b c d e Brauner (2005), pp.43-7
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ Hofler, pp. 48-56
  8. ^ Don Chipp: larrikin, censor, and party founder. Aug 29, 2006. Retrieved 7 March 2015


Hofler, Robert (2014). Sexplosion: From Andy Warhol to A Clockwork Orange - How a Generation of Pop Rebels Broke All the Taboos. New York: itbooks, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 978-0-06-208834-5.

Further reading

  • Brauner, David (1969) Getting in Your Retaliation First: Narrative Strategies in Portnoy's Complaint in Royal, Derek Parker (2005) Philip Roth: new perspectives on an American author, chapter 3
  • Saxton, Martha (1974) Philip Roth Talks about His Own Work Literary Guild June 1974, n.2. Also published in Philip Roth, George John Searles (1992) Conversations with Philip Roth p. 78

External links

  • Portnoy's Complaint #52 on the Modern Library's 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
  • Portnoy's Complaint at the Internet Movie Database
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