Old Dogs New Tricks

A comparison of two of Phillip Roth’s novels – The Human Stain written in 2000 and Portnoy’s Complaint written 40 years earlier.

This paper examines the differences in attitudes towards sexuality, especially male sexuality, as portrayed in Roth’s novels. The writer shows that Roth has always been very open about Jewish male sexuality in his works and compares how these two novels address this issue. Writing style and technique is analyzed as well as the main characters of each story – Portnoy and Coleman Silk.
`Philip Roth’s The Human Stain does not present a simple picture of gender roles in relationships. Rather, this novel, published by Roth in 2000, at the age of 67, presents a mature complex view of human sexuality especially when compared with Portnoy’s Complaint which he wrote and published 40 years earlier. A writer for Esquire came up with a perfect phrase to describe Roth’s evolved perspective on sexual roles. Sven Birkerts entitled his review of The Human Stain, Old Dog, New Trick. Roth is the old dog, who over the last 40 years has been popularly known for frank presentation of sexuality, especially Jewish male sexuality. From the horny Portnoy who masturbated into a piece of fresh meat while his Jewish mother screamed at him from outside the locked bathroom door, to Coleman Silk’s convoluted relationships with women, Roth has come a long way. Roth, the survivor of prostate surgery gives the telling of the story of Coleman Silk to his stand-in Zuckerman, a writer who has also surgically survived prostate cancer. Thus, the author and narrator, both distanced from the intensity of the sexual circus, can offer a new more enigmatic perspective. In Coleman Silk, Roth exhibits the old male myths of phallic power, but also he shows how there is so much more than appears on the surface in gender relationships. Through Silk, Roth shows that the masks humans wear in relationship are as multiple and complex as the masks worn by the Greek tragedians who were so close to Coleman’s heart.`
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