What’s this?! A Classic Couple post?! After SO MANY MOONS OF ABSENCE?!?! I’m so excited to be back with this feature because it’s one of my absolute favorites. I have such a soft spot for classic lit and even though there are certainly some problematic beans out there (I’m looking at you, male-dominated white western canon) there are plenty of thought-provoking, important classic works out there. And I think talking about those problematic ones is equally important because it raises awareness of these flaws and allows us to see what we should really be taking away from those books instead (I’m looking at you, high school English classes: more nuance, please!). Anyways, that’s my little rant about that. Let’s dive back into this feature, shall we?
Today I’ll be comparing and contrasting J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). I was assigned to read the former novel as a freshman in high school and the latter novel as a senior in college, so we’re really coming from opposite ends of the educational scope here.
+ Narrator. Both novels are narrated in the first person perspective of men (albeit one is in high school and the other is a Real Life Adult). But the similarities don’t stop there: it is revealed at the end of both novels that Holden Caulfield (Catcher) and Alexander Portnoy (Portnoy) have been speaking to therapists the entire time. And let’s not skate around the fact that both narrators tend to be quite disliked (mostly because they are annoying and complain a lot).
+ Prostitutes. Both novels involve prostitutes, although in very different ways. In Catcher, Holden hires a prostitute to come to his hotel room just so he can talk to her. The emphasis is placed on self-growth, confusion about growing up, and understanding one’s own identity and place in the world. In Portnoy, Alex’s interactions with prostitutes are misogynistic and very uncomfortable to read (as is the majority of this book).
+ Controversy. Both novels have sparked controversy in their time. From the 1960s to the early 1980s, Catcher was apparently the most censored book in U.S. schools and libraries due to its vulgar language, sexual references, and emphasis on drinking and drug abuse, etc. In fact, it continued to be a frequently challenged book into the twenty-first century. Portnoy was actually prohibited in Australia when it was first published and has since been banned from countless libraries across the globe.
+ Fame. Despite–or maybe because of–the controversy surrounding these books, they both contributed significantly to their authors’ fame. Today The Catcher in the Rye is a commonly assigned book in high school classrooms throughout the United States and at the time of its publication, the brash sexuality of Portnoy was simply unheard of in literature and put Roth on the map as a writer.
All in all, The Catcher in the Rye is definitely the preferred book for me out of this pairing. Portnoy’s Complaint is so incredibly sexist and crude and annoying that it took all my willpower to get through it. At least Holden is a somewhat relatable character—he may be kind of annoying, but I can sympathize with his teenage angst, uncertainty, and desire for some sort of concrete meaning out of life. Portnoy, on the other hand, is just disgusting, rude, and obsessive.
What are your thoughts on either/both of these novels? What other books share these similarities? What classics would you like me to feature in the future? Let me know in the comments section below!