John Updike (B.1932)
Contributing Editor: George J. Searles
Classroom Issues and Strategies
It is sometimes said that Updike is too narrowly an interpreter of the WASP/yuppie environment, a realm of somewhat limited interest; another is that his work proceeds from a too exclusively male perspective. The former concern will, of course, be more/less problematic depending on the nature of the college (more problematic at an urban community college, less so at a "prestige" school). The latter charge, however, provides the basis for fruitful discussion in any academic environment.
First, it's important to point out what Henry James once said, to the effect that we must grant an author's donnée and evaluate only in terms of what is made of it. But in Updike's case, it's also necessary to stress that his real concerns transcend his surface preoccupations. Although he's often described as a chronicler of social ills, really he's after larger game--the sheer intractability of the human predicament. Students must be shown that in Updike the particular is simply an avenue to the universal.
In addition to Updike's stories, students should be referred to the magazine articles listed in the bibliography and to the 1979 short story collection Too Far To Go, which reprints all the previous "Maples" stories, along with several then-new ones including "Separating." Also useful is the videotaped television special based on that collection. Another instructive exercise is to compare this story with some of Updike's early poems, particularly "Home Movies"--a little gem in its own right. Indeed, there's a direct echo of this poem near the story's conclusion: "We cannot climb back . . ./To that calm light. The brief film ends" is rendered in "Separating" as "You cannot climb back . . . you can only fall."
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
During the course of his long and prolific career, Updike has produced a series of interlocking short stories about Richard and Joan Maple, an upwardly mobile but unhappy couple whose ill-fated union closely parallels Updike's own first marriage to his college sweetheart, Mary Pennington. As critic Suzanne Henning Uphaus has neatly summarized it:
"The stories, written over a span of twenty-three years, follow the outward events. . . . Dick Maple, like Updike, married in the early fifties when he was twenty-one; both couples had four children, separated after twenty-one years, and finally received one of the first no-fault divorces granted in the state of Massachusetts."
This is probably the place from which to launch a classroom treatment of a story like "Separating."
Consider the protagonist's bleak assertion in Updike's Roger's Version: "There are so few things which, contemplated, do not like flimsy trapdoors open under the weight of our attention into the bottomless pit below" (74). Surely this has much to do with Dickie's baleful question "Why?" at the end of "Separating," and his father's perception of the boy's query as "a window thrown open on emptiness."
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Updike is acknowledged as a master stylist. "Separating" provides ample evidence of his skill in this area. Note, for example, the story's subtle but relentless accumulation of negative imagery. Again and again, key details reinforce Maple's inner sense of inadequacy, failure, and dread. Simultaneously, however, these images are juxtaposed with details of an ironically playful nature, thereby establishing a balance of sorts between angst and whimsy, a tone of amused negation that's perfectly suited to Updike's view of the human condition.
As this is a contemporary story, the "when/now" issue is not relevant. As for audience, I think that Updike sees himself writing for people more or less like himself: WASP, affluent, etc. But again, it's important when teaching Updike's work to show that the problems his characters confront are in a broad sense everyone's problems: responsibility, guilt, mortality, etc.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Updike is an exceptionally autobiographical writer. Perhaps that's the place to begin with a story like "Separating." Although this approach violates several critical tenets, it will get things rolling, and will lead ideally to discussion of the relationship between fiction and autobiogra- phy . . . how writers transmute personal experience into art. Comparisons can be drawn in this regard between Updike and Philip Roth and John Irving. Useful, too, is a consideration of the several New Yorker short stories by Updike's son David, collected in Out On the Marsh (New American Library, 1988): "Separating" from another angle.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
In a lower-level course (e.g., Freshman Comp, Intro to Lit) Updike's work--and especially a story like "Separating"--can generate good "personal experience" papers, as so many students today have first- or second-hand knowledge of separation and divorce.
Obviously, the story also lends itself exceptionally well to treatments of the whole "responsibility to self vs. responsibility to other" idea.
In an upper-level course, more strictly "literary" topics emerge.
Atlas, James. "John Updike Breaks Out of Suburbia." The New York Times Magazine (10 December 1978): 60-64, 68-76.
Howard, Jane. "Can a Nice Novelist Finish First?" Life (4 November 1966): 74-82.
Kakutani, Michiko. "Turning Sex and Guilt into an American Epic." Saturday Review (October 1981): 14-22.
--. "Updike's Struggle to Portray Women." The New York Times (5 May 1988).
"View From the Catacombs." Time (26 April 1968): 66-75.