The main themes of the short story “The Penis” by Hanif Kureishi are sexual objectification and identity crisis. These two themes are enhanced by the motif of vanity, a trait that both Doug and his penis have in common. The message behind the story is that sexual objectification can influence the way people perceive themselves and their life choices. People, like Doug, might be willing to go to extreme (and absurd) lengths to maintain an image that in fact devalues them.
By sexual objectification, we mean perceiving a person simply as an instrument of sexual pleasure. In a larger sense, objectification refers to treating people as instruments which are useful for a certain purpose, disregarding their personal value as human beings.
In the story, the personified penis and Doug become symbols of objectification. When the narrator presents Doug’s perspective on his penis and the way he has used it to achieve fame in the pornographic industry, we realise that the penis has become like an object. But in the process, Doug has lost any other personal values that he might have had, leading people to assume his penis is “his only asset” (p. 82, ll. 1-2).
An identity crisis is defined as a period of confusion in which a person questions who she/he is and his/her role in society. In the short story, both Alfie and Doug go through an identity crisis.
Alfie’s identity crisis is marked by the fact that he is a hairdresser while his wife wants him to be more business minded and to appear on television. The fact that he comes home with a penis that is bigger than his own further accentuates Alfie’s crisis and frustrations.