But the plight that Roth has invented for his protagonists, over and over again, is the plight of “masculine power impaired” (as Roth himself explains it). “As I see it,” he explains in this interview, “my focus has never been on masculine power rampant and triumphant but rather on the antithesis: masculine power impaired.”
The concept of “masculine power impaired” is faulted from the beginning—from a feminist perspective, masculine power should be impaired. In his novels, Roth often writes about masculinity impaired by female sexuality; and this reveals something big and troubling about Roth’s attitudes towards women.
Impaired masculinity is a recurring theme in modern Jewish literature—the subject of college seminars and term papers. Scholars such as the historian, Daniel Boyarin have argued that historically, Jewish men have been the emotional victims of the collision of Western conceptions of masculinity with the prototype of the Jewish male scholar. What Roth makes clear in his creation of menacing seductresses, is that women have been as much to blame for Jewish emasculation as tall, athletic, gentile men. Often times in Roth’s novels, the protagonists’ unraveling is the result of an interaction with women such as the brainless model, Mary Jane Reed (“the Monkey”) in Portnoy’s Complaint or the curvaceous, reformed anti-Semitic Pole, Wanda Jane Posseski of Operation Shylock. These women lure the male protagonist, defenseless against his own lust, into further self-destruction and self-loathing.
Some readers of Roth argue that he is of another generation, that he is an 81-year-old man with antiquated views of gender relations, and the public discussion of his misogyny is at this point just as antiquated. But his novels, like any great works of art, have lasting popular appeal. Roth’s fiction portrays humanity (not only manhood) as impaired by ego and passion. And even today, young people continue to read and discuss his novels on social media. While Roth’s views might be antiquated, his books have not lost their resonance with contemporary audiences.
But even while we can appreciate Roth’s writing, we should not dismiss his sexism as harmless and antiquated. We should not make light of Roth’s evasion of Sandstrom’s question about misogyny and the ludicrousness of comparing feminist criticism with McCarthyism. These comments do not diminish the value of his work; but they do help us to contextualize his art within a specific cultural time and place in which sexism was met with greater tolerance.
Feminism does not seek to silence those who struggle with traditional gender roles and feelings of male inadequacy. These issues should be explored in Jewish literature in a way that does not blame and alienate women. Roth belongs to a generation of post-war writers known for their preoccupation with the male ego. This generation defined what we think of as American Jewish literature—but it should not be its lasting legacy.