Jinde přidáno

4. 8. – Hlod 62

21. 4. (!) – Hlod 61

11. 4. – Hlod 60

24. 3. – Hlod 59

14. 3. – Hlod 58

Premiéry v hledáčku

Kingsman: Zlatý kruh

v kinech od 21. 9.

Seriálové tipy
Kontakt & FB

David Koranda

Jumpstar @ seznam.cz




Written under the supervision of PhDr. Hana Ulmanová, PhD, M.A., and submitted on 22 June 2012, this essay was part of my total coursework at the Department of Anglophone Literatures and Cultures at Charles University’s Faculty of Arts. The essay is published with the kind permission of the faculty.

The Mother in Portnoy’s Complaint

Stereotypes, as omnipresent as they have always seemed to be, serve a very distinct purpose in our lives. Referring generally to “a set of categorical beliefs or propositions about members of real or putative groups” (Ehrlich, 171) they may provide much sought-for rationalizations for discriminatory behavior. On a more day-to-day basis, we may propose that stereotyping as such is often used in order to speed up our thought processes (Singer). In simple terms, by ascribing individuals with certain characteristics, be they veritable or fictitious, we make ourselves believe that we know what to expect of them which, in turn, helps us deal with them and makes our lives much easier. Though stereotypes, the ubiquitous combinations of ignorance and prejudice, are nowadays largely used for purposes of entertainment, their history is frequently not all that pleasant.

The Jewish community, always an alien minority practically wherever its members have gone in the past, it seems, has not managed to escape the reach of stereotypes. If we wanted to search for any definitive reason for that, our efforts would most probably turn futile in the end. However, we may at least theorize as to what was the cause of the heavy Jewish stereotyping. Looking aside the historical religious animosity between the minority of Jews and the majority of Christians, we may find the key to the problem in the majority society using stereotypes as a certain defense mechanism, as a means of coping with the sense of Jewish Otherness.

From the plethora of stock figures which have been developed throughout the history and have been recurring in literature, drama, and lately also in film, the Jewish mother seems to have had an extra appeal – and the American kind thereof, then, appears to be particularly dominant. As no two mothers are exactly the same, it would be wrong of us to assume that the Jewish mothers would for some reason form any sort of homogenous group, of course. We have to realize, though, that when dealing with stereotypes, hoping for any correlation between them and the sensible reality is necessarily a case of mere wishful thinking.

When dealing with the stereotype of the Jewish mother, Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint seems to be an ideal choice of a primary source to be analyzed. After all, his character of Sophie Portnoy is “the most memorable and fully elaborated caricature of the Jewish mother” (Ravitz, 6), and as such can be said to have set the standard against which all subsequent representations of this type of character have been measured. It is true that Sophie Portnoy is a caricature and a stereotype but it is questionable whether she is merely that. This essay is to discuss the roots of the stereotype of the Jewish mother, to analyze its representation and operation in Portnoy’s Complaint, and finally to also raise the question of the possibility of reading the character of Sophie Portnoy in much more tragic light than the one in which she is probably read most of the time.

Photo by Israel_photo_gallery, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

Let us first clearly state what is meant by this stereotype. The term itself implies a wife who in every possible way puts her son in front of her husband; a woman who is extremely cautious about the food she puts on the family table; and also a mother who is unbearably overprotective, manipulative, controlling and overbearing, a mother who smothers her child with her love and the sense of guilt she inflicts upon him in order to make him love her back (Adler, 69). In spite of the myth of the Jewish mother being highly complex and multifaceted, ranging from affectionate to hostile, the stereotype is almost exclusively understood as a negative one. Even if the mother is represented as protecting her children or demanding their loyalty, she is perceived as being excessive, as overstepping her boundaries; even if she merely voices her opinions, her expressions of maternal worry are understood as threatening, passive-aggressive, or secretly striving to impose her will onto others (Ravitz, 4). Perhaps being generally perceived as a comical character, the stereotypical Jewish mother is a fearsome and uncontrollable force of nature.

Sophie Portnoy indeed set the trend in depicting Jewish mothers in this manner. Described as “the patron saint of self-sacrifice” (Roth, 15) and a “packager of guilt” (39), she is not shy to use tears in order to get what she wants from her family. Emotional blackmailing is, however, not her only weapon – she is also on numerous occasions described by her son in terms very nearly approaching emotional torture. In one of the episodes, after refusing to obey her rules, Alex is told by his mother that she doesn’t love him anymore, “not a little boy who behaves like you do” (14); and yet in another she successfully makes him cry by telling him about his father’s upcoming cancer tests, which she does once again only to make him more cooperative with her. In addition to all of this, she appears to Alex from his early age to be frightfully omnipresent. During his school years, he not only “believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise” (1), but he was also terrified by the possibility of her being a witch and thus able to “[make] herself emerge, limb by limb, out of an invisible state and into her apron” (2). Nothing changes in this respect in his teenage years, as he describes Sophie as paroling “the six rooms of our apartment the way a guerilla army moves across its own countryside – there’s not a single closet or drawer of mine whose contents she hasn’t a photographic sense of” (194).

Stereotypes do not exist in a vacuum and are not without a history, and the Jewish mother is certainly no exception. The roots of her American version may be found in the eastern European shtetl literature, from which the stereotype got into the United States along with the twentieth century Jewish immigrants. In these two traditions, however, the representation of the Jewish mother is very much different, we may even say completely antithetical. The shtetl mothers had so much work with fighting every day for the family’s survival that they did not really have much time, energy, or finances to spend on their children (Adler, 69). Even though these self-effacing mothers and wives reacted with extreme courage to poverty (and in case of the immigrant ones also with displacement) and had an incredibly strong sense of survival (Ravits, 9), the circumstances had them neglect their children and leave them deprived of their love (Adler, 70).

In her essay, Ruth Adler attempts to uncover and explain the possible roots of this essential discrepancy between the two literary traditions (Adler, 70). Firstly, she believes that such pampering to which the children of the American Jewish mothers were exposed was made possible largely by the material comfort of the immigrant families – while the mothers still had to work, they did so frequently at home and thus appeared much more approachable to their children. Secondly, Adler is convinced that the new stereotype came into being precisely at the time of the collapse of the European shtetl and thus represented a temporary glamorization of the character of the Jewish mother. Finally, Adler also alludes to the (psychologically and therefore also novelistically highly alluring) relative incongruity in the relationship between mothers and their children, pointing out that while the children yearn for some maternal protection, at the very same time they strive for personal growth and independence. Following this logic, Adler continues, it is easy to understand why the relative inaccessibility of the mother strengthens a sense of yearning in the child, while her close proximity brings forth only defiance.

In spite of Ruth Adler’s argumentation being spot-on in many ways, there is one more cause for the rise of this stereotype which she seems to have overlooked – the contemporary attack on feminism, the masculine backlash related to the rise of the female power in the society. The Jewish mother stereotype was developed by Jewish writers in the nineteen-sixties, “the era of political turbulence that coincided with the second wave of feminism in [America]” (Ravits, 3). As such, “her image combines the misogyny of both the American and the Jewish patriarchal traditions” (Ravits, 8). With some degree of simplification, we may say that while women were gradually gaining strength in the society, men largely perceived this development as dangerous and threatening the stability of the patriarchy. Therefore, in order to regain their ground, they needed to dismiss women as their competitors – and in case of the Jewish American literature, the stereotype of the Jewish mother seems to have done precisely this job. The depiction of this character is fundamentally unfavorable, mocking even, and by having the audiences laugh at her, the woman is deprived of any semblance of power. As Martha A. Ravits writes, “humor is often an instrument and indicator of social change” (Ravits, 5).

Sophie Portnoy represents exactly this kind of character – a woman who threatens the status of men everywhere around her as well as a woman who is depicted in such an overblown and absurd way that it almost seems her primary function in the story is to be laughed at. Whereas in “the traditional home life of Jewish immigrant families the father is the head of the family group and is highly respected” (Young, 239), it is clear from the beginning of the novel that due to the health issues of Alex’s father, it is Sophie who is the (un)official leader, the woman behind the curtain, the puppet master. Once accused of “filling the patriarchal vacuum” (45), her power is ascribed “both to self-aggrandizement and to a weakening of male dominance; she becomes a site of displaced anxiety about the subversion of gender roles in America” (Ravits, 8). Alex talks of this phenomenon directly, exclaiming: “Christ, in the face of my defiance – if my father had only been my mother! and my mother my father! But what a mix-up of the sexes in our house” (45)! Not only does Sophie take on herself the role of the man in the family, though, she also (albeit unintentionally) emasculates her son in his eyes. Having been named a “castrating mother” (133) by him, she either makes him feel less of a man by, for instance, referring to his penis as his “little thing” (54), or feminizes him by calling the stream of his urine “‘a sis.’ A sis, I think, is undoubtedly what my sister makes, little yellow threads that you can sew with” (55). Additionally:

When American myths of masculinity push the son to strike out for the open road, his Jewish mother’s pleading draws him back and reminds him of obligations to home and family. Her enjoinders embarrass him by subverting his stance of machismo and independence, threatening his mental composure (if not mental health), and arousing anxiety and (that word most associated with her) guilt. (Ravits, 11)

So far, it has been stated that Sophie Portnoy conforms to the stereotype of the Jewish mother and to the rhetoric of the nineteen-sixties anti-feminist movement, but as of yet she has not been analyzed as a standalone being. After all, Philip Roth is too good a writer to present a character so uninterestingly one-sided. On the following pages, a very different reading of the character (from, perhaps, the most popular one – seeing Sophie as a mere overblown and humorous representation of a stereotype) is to be presented, a reading much more tragic in its nature.

First of all, when reading Portnoy’s Complaint we must never forget that the book “provides a coherent world view of an individual man” (Segal, 259), and that Alex’s point of view, in spite of his great intellect of which he likes to boast from time to time, is rather biased when it comes to his family. We are only allowed to see his mother through his own eyes and so it may be difficult to view her objectively. Alex is obviously not particularly fond of his mother, blaming her for all sorts of his shortcomings, but if we read his complaint carefully we will discover that this “freckled and red-headed descendant of Polish Jews” (256) may not be as diabolical as we may be invited to think after all. At one point, Alex remembers a time he actually loved his mother without feeling oppressed by her reciprocal emotion:

While I crayon a picture for her, she showers – and now in the sunshine of her bedroom, she is dressing to take me downtown. She sits on the edge of the bed in her padded bra and her girdle, rolling on her stockings and chattering away. Who is Mommy’s little boy? Who is the best little boy a mommy ever had? Who does Mommy love more than anything in the whole wide world? I am absolutely punchy with delight… (49)

If we recall Ruth Adler’s reasoning that while children yearn for some maternal protection and at the very same time they strive for personal growth and independence, we may perceive Alex’s later animosity towards his mother precisely as a child’s strife to become independent. Nevertheless, it would be an understatement to say that such behavior is unfair to his mother, who unwaveringly loves her child and does not seem to understand why he would want to fight against her affection. Her situation is all the more difficult because she doesn’t have any support from her husband, who has issues of his own.

Ironically enough, she herself willingly chose this husband of hers even though there also was another young man at one time interested in her. “She was once a tall stringbean of a girl whom the boys called ‘Red’ in high school” (33) and as such she dated and could have even married a boy who eventually became “the biggest manufacturer of mustard in New York” (34). She did not, however, and all she can do now is dream about this life she could have had but never will whenever she comes to the corner delicatessen with her family – her family one of whose members grows ever more spiteful of her while another one is unable to really lend her his support. Once again, Alex’s admission that “she is probably not the happiest person in the world” (33) does not even begin to cover the whole story.

A good portion of her problems, though, has its roots in her almost exclusively domestic presence and in her absence of work outside of the family house. Firstly, one of the protective functions of working outside the home is that it allows women to escape the otherwise unimportant demands of their families – as such a satisfying job can be highly therapeutic (Bart, 443). Due to the fact that Sophie Portnoy is essentially a perfect housewife, almost never leaving the household, she deprives herself of this therapeutic relief and, in the end, only creates for herself an exceedingly tidy golden cage. Secondly, because of her lack of contact with the contemporary American culture, she does not seem to have much understanding for it and in effect appears to be backward and ignorant to her son. As Ravits fittingly writes about the character of the Jewish mother as such:

Her ethnic manner and gaucheness did not keep pace with the rapid assimilation and adaptation of her Americanized son. Her backwardness threatened to prevent his acceptance in wider social circles. Therefore, the mother, by virtue of gender and generation, functioned as a scapegoat for self-directed Jewish resentment about minority status in mainstream culture. (Ravits, 6)

Alex addresses this issue directly when having a fit of anger against his parents and other relatives during his bar mitzvah, screaming: [O]h, how I hate you for your Jewish narrow-minded minds” (84)! Ravits points out, however, that a certain degree of narrow-mindedness is to be expected in the characters of the Jewish mothers of this time, arguing that when growing prosperity of Jews in America allowed them to move out of the ghettos and into the suburbs, the more affluent, middle-class lifestyle meant increasing isolation and a narrowing of gender roles for women (Ravits, 10). In this light, even if Sophie does come off as a little narrow-minded she cannot be blamed for that, being essentially a victim of the social system. Alex’s antagonism towards her, then, appears to be rather inappropriate, to say the least – especially since, being the only male child in the family, he carries with himself all of her hopes and dreams about the future well-being of him and the family.

In simple terms, whether she wants to or has to because of the rules of the society, Sophie spends most of her days locked behind the Venetian blinds of her house, essentially living vicariously through her son and her husband whom she sends out into the world (Ravits, 12). Writing about the door to occupations of prestige, wealth, and influence Alex Segal illuminates the issue as following:

[I]t was open not so much to the parents, who used the old skills and attitudes to earn a living from lower-middle-class occupations, but to their children. The hopes of the community for a better life focused on the futures of the children, whose success would in turn illuminate and strengthen the community. In other words, the Jewish child became the centre of the aspirations of others. (Segal, 262)

Alex, of course, utterly misinterprets his mother’s well-intended motivation and yearning for his better future, and understands them as evidence of her pushiness and his lack of freedom to do as he likes. He is unable to see that she only wants what is best for him and, sensing the weight of her expectations, he cracks under the pressure, blaming her for his failure and turning against her for it.

All of this also has to do with Sophie’s overprotectiveness of Alex, with all the babying, and also with what he perceives as “scolding, correcting, reproving, criticizing, faultfinding without end” (45) – that is all of the fruits of the maternal worries for the future well-being of her child. Alex sees this kind of behavior as unacceptable without even realizing that there might be a good reason for it. According to Thomas Sowell’s description, the area of Poland and Russia from which most Eastern European Jews came (Sophie being one of them) was known at a certain time for its virulent anti-Semitism, Jewish boys being in constant danger of being kidnapped to be Russified (Ravits, 10). The image of the ever-vigilant and overprotective Jewish mother is quite understandable, then, in view of the Jewish experience in Eastern Europe – and not even in America could the life pattern of the previous centuries be so easily broken (Ravits, 10). Alex, however, does not seem to be able to see it this way. Instead, he perceives his mother as constantly stepping over some lines and right all over his freedoms.

 In conclusion, Sophie Portnoy certainly is the epitome of the Jewish mother stereotype but she is far from being only a laughable caricature of a human being. As a mother she is scathingly criticized by her son, yet she does a good job of caring for him and making sure he is safe, healthy and provided for; as a character she is most of the time hilariously exaggerated, yet she proves to have distinctly tragic layers to her personality and behavior. Sure, she does have her own limitations – she is clumsily racist and blatantly gives priority to only one of her children – but everybody has their shortcomings. The woman is simply more than meets the eye and it is time for her to be recognized as more than a mere caricature. The mocking interpretations of the character had their quasi-justifications in the times of the anti-feminist movement during the nineteen-sixties. “By portraying women as uppity, excessively verbose, and demanding, men implied that there was little reason to take women’s complaints seriously” (Ravits, 12). Nowadays, though, she should be read as much more multilayered than that.


Primary literature:

Roth, Philip. Portnoy’s Complaint. New York: Fawcett Crest, 1969.


Works Cited:

Adler, Ruth. “‘Skutečná’ židovská matka?” Transl. Hana Ulmanová Host 1.8 (2008): 69-70.

Bart, Pauline B. “The Review of ‘The Depressed Woman’ by Myrna M. Weissman and Eugene S. Paykel.“ Contemporary Sociology 5.4 (1976): 442-444.

Ehrlich, Howard J. “Stereotyping and Negro-Jewish Stereotypes.“ Social Forces 41.2 (1962): 171-176.

Ravits, Martha A. “The Jewish Mother: Comedy and Controversy in American Popular Culture.“ MELUS 25.1 (2000): 3-31.

Segal, Alex. “Portnoy’s Complaint and the Sociology of Literature.“ The British Journal of Sociology 22.3 (1971): 257-268.

Singer, A. Jeffrey. “Making Sense of Jewish Stereotypes.“ The Future of Freedom Foundation 18 June 2012. 18 June 2012 <http://www.fff.org/freedom/0400f.asp>

Young, V. Pauline. “The Reorganization of Jewish Family Life in America: A Natural History of the Social Forces Governing the Assimilation of the Jewish Immigrant.” Social Forces 7.2 (1928): 238-244.


Works Consulted:

Cohen, Eileen Z. “Alex in Wonderland, or ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’.” Twentieth Century Literature 17.3 (1971): 161-168.

Gross, Barry. “Seduction of the Innocent: Portnoy’s Complaint and Popular Culture.“ MELUS 8.4 (1981): 81-92.

Napsat komentář

Vaše e-mailová adresa nebude zveřejněna.