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Alexander Portnoy, the narcissistic, sex-obsessed protagonist of Philip Roth’s 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint is a classic example of Sigmund Freud’s Oedipal Complex in action. The Oedipus Complex, as theorized by Freud, refers to a young boy’s unconscious sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex and the wish to exclude the parent of the same sex. In the case of Portnoy’s Complaint, Alexander’s Oedipal Complex manifests itself early on and is further complicated by his parents’ gender subversion—his father is timid, docile, and submissive while his mother is brash, controlling, and domineering. This unusual situation inevitably contributes to and exacerbates Alexander’s abnormal sexual development.
In keeping with the criteria of the Oedipal Complex, Alexander often expresses intense sexual desire toward his mother. He recalls in great detail sitting and watching her get dressed as she praises him and allows him to feel her body. The scene is rife with sexual tension: “I am absolutely punchy with delight, and meanwhile follow in their tight, slow, agonizingly delicious journey up her legs the transparent stockings that give her flesh a hue of stirring dimensions” (45). He continues, “On my fingertips, even though she has washed each one of those little piggies with a warm wet cloth, I smell my lunch, my tuna fish salad. Ah, it might be . . . I’m sniffing. Maybe it is!” (45). Alexander then fantasizes about what his father would do if he found Alexander and his mother engaging in intercourse: “If there in the living room their grown-up little boy were to tumble all at once onto the rug with his mommy, what would Daddy do? Pour a bucket of boiling water on the rage-maddened couple?” (46). Alexander’s derisive tone betrays a contempt for his father, possibly borne out of the misguided notion that Alexander, a child, can conceivably satisfy his mother’s sexual appetite in ways that his emasculated father cannot.
However, Alexander’s own sensitivity regarding his “fingertip” of a penis, which he claims “might hang from the wrist of some little girl’s dolly like a teeny pink purse” is heightened by his mother’s condescending and emasculating attitude—she lightly refers to young Alexander’s penis as his “‘little thing’” (50). Moreover, Alexander experiences a sensation akin to castration anxiety when his mother holds a bread knife to his throat in an attempt to make him eat his dinner. This incident traumatizes Alexander: “Doctor, why, why oh why oh why oh why does a mother pull a knife on her own son?” (16). Alexander perceives his mother’s threat as a kind of betrayal. He laments, “how can [my mother] rise with me on the crest of my genius during those dusky beautiful hours after school, and then at night, because I will not eat some string beans and a baked potato, point a bread knife at my heart? And why doesn’t my father stop her?” (17).
Initially, Alexander is receptive to his father but begins to resent his lack of machismo as the narrative progresses. For example, Alexander recalls his father, an insurance salesman, complaining about an African American family leaving their children out in the rain: “Please, what kind of man is it, who can think to leave children out in the rain without even a decent umbrella for protection!” (10). Immediately afterward, Alexander recalls when he defeats and figuratively kills his father in a game of baseball, after which Alexander mockingly states, “Some umbrella” (11). In this instance, Alexander perceives that his victory over his father indicates the latter’s impotence, which is further complicated by Alexander’s admiration of his father’s penis, which he likens to “fire hoses coiled along the corridors at school” (50). The disparity between the size and power of Jake’s genitalia and his passive nature confounds the young Alexander, whose Jewish background has acculturated him with the belief that the husband should be the dominant force in the family. Over the course of his childhood, Alexander develops a paranoia of his father, “for as time went on, the enemy was more and more his own beloved son” (40). In true Oedipal fashion, this paranoia leads Alexander to fantasize about killing his father: “What terrified me most about my father was not the violence I expected him momentarily to unleash upon me, but the violence I wished […] to commit upon his ignorant, barbaric carcass” (41).
This reversal of traditional gender roles—the emasculated father and domineering mother, who wields her phallic authority in the shape of the bread knife she holds to her son’s throat—causes great distress to the young Alexander. He mourns what he perceives to be the dysfunction of his family, ”[I]f my father had only been my mother! and my mother my father!” (41). Alexander’s unhealthy obsession with his mother and complicated relationship with his father arrests his sexual development and will have a profound and destructive impact on the development of his sexuality.
Roth, Philip. Portnoy’s Complaint. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.
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