Friends Book Discussion

'"Portnoy's Complaint' by Philip Roth

Image of Portnoy's Complaint book coverPlease join us for a discussion of Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth on Wednesday, Feb. 13 at 6:30 p.m. in the small meeting room on the second floor.

The talk is next in the series on the topic of mothers and sons in Western literature, sponsored by the West End Library Friends.  The presenter will be Ori Z. Soltes, resident scholar in theology and fine arts at Georgetown University.  Refreshments will be served.

Ten Questions (some of them multiple questions) for thought and discussion:

  1. Are Alex and Sophie Portnoy more Oedipus and Jocasta or more Orestes and Clytemnestra — or how is Roth’s pair a combination of both Greek pairs?
  2. The mother-son dynamic is played out in Oedipus Rex, The Libation Bearers and Hamlet within the confines of the uppermost echelons of the characters’ respective societies. D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers brings thing down to the lower (and middle) classes and so does Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.  How does that socio-economic change change the dynamic, if at all?
  3. Lawrence’s pair is maximally affected by socio-economics and only minimally by religion. How, by contrast, is Roth’s pair maximally affected by religion? How do the two pairs differ in the precise manner in which religion is an issue?
  4. The assertion of their own identity is clearly an important issue for Lawrence’s "sons" and Roth’s.  How is each affected by the time and place in which each is born and grows up: Early 20th-century England versus mid-20th-century America? How is this specifically informed by the matter of religion, ethnicity and socio-economics?
  5. How is the mother’s (Sophie’s) role in Portnoy’s Complaint a factor in the specific shaping of Alex’s religious/ethnic identity, in general and in the American context? How does this compare with the role of his father (Jack) in that formation?
  6. What is the importance of baseball in Portnoy’s Complaint as a metaphor for Alex’s identity, identity ambitions, hopes and dreams, as these all develop specifically in mid-20th-century America and specifically in his family — particularly its mother/son — dynamic?
  7. What role does the concept of laws, regulations, restrictions and prohibitions play in all of this and how is his mother — and, in comparison, how is his father — a factor in shaping the concept for and affecting the ambitions, hopes and dreams, the life of, Alex Portnoy?
  8. How might this narrative have been different if the author, writing at the same time (the mid-1960s; or earlier or later, for that matter), and his protagonists had been Italian American? Hispanic American? African American? In other words, what is specific/particular to Roth’s and Alex’s Jewish American experience and what might be no different in other minority contexts — as opposed to a majority, (i.e., White Anglo-Saxon Protestant American), context?
  9. Style is not often a factor we spend a great deal of time on in this series, but there is certainly something emphatically puerile about Roth’s style in this work. Given his other writings, (he is not always so puerile in his ideation), one might be inclined to see this as deliberate. Can we construe this as part of his point? Can Alex (whose voice speaks the entire novel as a monologue to his therapist) ever grow up? Many of Roth’s characters are very clearly his alter egos. Dare we ask how much Alex is an alter ego?
  10. What does it mean for Alex to grow up? What is his specific “mother” issues and how do they accord with Freud’s use of the word “complex” (as in “Oedipus Complex,” for example).  Particularly within the context of a comparison to D.H. Lawrence’s young hero, how is Alex Portnoy’s ability to have real relationships with women affected by his relationship with his mother? (Considering both this double question and the previous one, how does specifically sexual thinking and terminology factor into all of this?)

Please join us!