IN 1979, two collections of John Updike’s stories appeared, Too Far To Go, published in February by Fawcett, and Problems, published by Knopf in October. Rather than review these books by themselves, I want to discuss the stories in the new collections that round out one distinct phase of Updike’s involvement with themes of family life. It is a phase which began with the Olinger stories and which follows a single narrator through his adolescence, marriage, and divorce. From story to story, this narrator appears in slightly different guises—his name changes, he lives in different towns or cities. Of course, not all the narrators of all the stories are this narrator; but from the Olinger fictions to the most recent ones, certain traits of character and key repetitions from a particular life story identify several heroes as one man.
To a great extent, the tension in these stories derives from the conflict between the illusions fueling the adult from the past and the demands made on him as a parent and husband in the present. His childhood hopes, desires, dreams are frustrated by family life, and Updike’s narrator is constantly turning back—less and less, however, to rediscover his childhood’s glory. As he passes through his cycles of hope, discouragement, and liberation, his childhood becomes the text which he earnestly studies for clues to who he is and what he should do and how he got into his situation in the first place. Over the 20 or so years during which Updike has published stories, much of the drama has been generated by the narrator’s changing view of his relation to his mother and father, as well as the changing way he regards their marriage. In fact, his first marriage seems largely undertaken in imitation of his parents’. The narrator’s slow coming to terms with his unhappiness in the marriage, his falling in love, and gradual accumulation of the nerve to act (to divorce and remarry)—all these occur because of revisions in his understanding of the past.
In the early Olinger stories, during the narrator’s boyhood, he is subject to the willful, frustrated, hard-working adults who roam the house like lions pacing the narrow dimensions of their cage. The narrator is a gifted only child who is both admired and excluded by his contemporaries. Within his family, a once prosperous group who’ve fallen on hard times, his talents give him a special role. His mother’s parents and his parents share a large house; suppressed furies make it feel small, and the boy’s sensitivities pick up every last feathery vibration of the conflicts binding the adults. From the start, he is also conscious of his mother’s urging him to take advantage of his gifts, to fly, to escape the fate she has suffered.
In “Flight,” the narrator looks up from the newspaper while he is reading to his grandfather.
It is worth quoting this passage at length because so much that unravels in the later stories is tied here in intricate knots. Updike’s narrator returns repeatedly to these key elements: his understanding that his mother and father are unhappily married, that his mother is the larger spirit of his two parents, that his father represents virtue, and that he, the boy, is divided between them. As a boy, while he is still his mother’s son, his sense of division is not as intense as it becomes in later years, after the narrator has married and is himself a father.
It would dawn on me then that his sins were likely no worse than any father’s. But my mother’s genius was to give the people closest to her mythic intensity. I was the phoenix. My father and grandmother were legendary invader-saints, she springing out of some narrow vein of Arab blood in the German race and he coming over from the Protestant wastes of New Jersey, both of them serving and enslaving their mates with their prodigious powers of endurance and labor. For my mother felt that she and her father alike had been destroyed by marriage, made captive by people better yet less than they. It was true my father loved Mom Baer, and her death made him seem more of an alien than ever. He, and her ghost, stood to one side, in the shadows but separate from the house’s dark core, the inheritance of frustration and folly that had descended from my grandfather to my mother and me, and that I, with a few beats of my grown wings, was destined to reverse and redeem.
But during his own boyhood, he tailors himself to her unconscious demands. Several stories contain variations on the boy’s sense that his mother is not happy, “that the motion that brought us again and again to the museum was an agitated one, that she was pointing me through these corridors toward a radiant place she had despaired of reaching.” Repeatedly, the mother in these stories thirsts for culture for her son. Sometimes this drive is recollected ironically, so that she appears as a kind of no-nonsense improver—a sort of Carrie Nation of the mind; but, more frequently, the mother is the muse of transcendence, a destination which she believes, however vaguely, however wrong-headedly, can be reached through art. For her son, she is the first woman to be associated with art, but afterwards, women and art will represent the mysteries he wants most to understand.
In fact, Updike did grow up to be an artist, and though there is probably an autobiographical connection between the author and his central narrator, the important thing here is to settle what is set forth in the fiction. In terms of the narrator’s profession, things are rather shadowy, as if his job were of third or fourth importance in his life. In one story, the narrator has “a job teaching mathematics to ex-debutantes at a genteel college on the Hudson.” In another, he is an “assistant professor at a New Hampshire college.” In “Wife-Wooing,” the narrator’s job is a poetic composite of all men’s work. “Stone is his province, the winning of coin. The maneuvering of abstractions. Making heartless things run. Oh the inanimate adamant joy of jobs!” Richard Maple, the narrator of the central series of stories about a marriage that fails, commutes to an unnamed occupation. Like all the other narrators, Richard Maple’s primary task is not business, but self-awareness. More than that, his first responsibility is to know the meaning of life; what he should do, how he should live.
For this man, women are the carriers of the mystery within which meaning may lie. His various, not to say conflicting, desires for them create the moral problem he struggles to solve. Yet when he marries, he marries young (long before he has had any real experience with women), and he chooses someone who is both “better and less” than he. “She was a fine-arts major, and there was a sense in which she contained the museum, had mastered all the priceless and timeless things that would become through her, mine as well. She had first appeared to me as someone guarding the gates.” With one difference, the wife’s limiting or critical relation to the narrator is almost exactly what he perceived his father’s was to his mother. The difference is that his wife’s superiority is one of class, as if he’d understood all his mother’s urgings as a simple plea to climb the social ladder. Still, the effect of his wife’s upper class is like that of his father’s virtue, and in one of its manifestations (civic duty), is exactly the same, It is impossible not to feel that the narrator is repeating the pattern of his parents’ unhappy marriage. He seems to be taking on his mother’s suffering, in part because he identifies with her and does not want some pleasure she will never have herself. He assumes her suffering out of a desire to solve it, so that he might find an answer both of them can use.
However, once the narrator becomes a father his interest in his own father begins to increase, if not actually to shift away from his mother. The boy in the Olinger stories saw his father as a “ditherer.” The young father regards the same man as a “potential revelation” and competes with his wife “partly in the vain hope of the glory his father now and then won in the course of his baffled quest.” But this rising identification also complicates the narrator’s sense of his role in his marriage. The closer he comes to his father—the more, in other words, that he is conscious of his responsibility—the more trapped he feels. As his sense of being forced to match his wife’s virtue increases, his sense of diminishment waxes proportionately. He has not solved the suffering in his parents’ marriage; he has repeated it.
The level of domestic irritation begins to rise. “He felt caught in an ugly middle position, and though he as well felt his wife’s presence in the cage with him, he did not want to speak with her, work with her, touch her, anything.” He begins to be unfaithful, though, at first, this does not involve him in any real conflict. Having lapsed into the familiar unhappy pattern of his parents’ marriage, he takes the unhappiness in marriage as an eternal truth. There is nothing to do but pursue what little pleasure one can find (this pleasure, however, brings no real joy because nothing ever really changes) and wait for death. Then everything is suddenly, unexpectedly, and completely altered. He falls in love.
Though his ostensible problem is being torn between his wife and his mistress, this division is the twin of loyalities that were originally torn between his mother and father. On the one hand, romantic love satisfies the raised expectations he received from his mother; on the other, his wife and children have the claim of duty, a claim raised in the narrator’s estimation by his adult appreciation of his father’s strengths. Yet even while love forces the narrator to face his divisions clearly, love also seems to offer a whole new resolution to his conflict. “Seeing her across a room standing swathed in the beauty he had given her, he felt a creator’s, a father’s pride.”
His mistress and the love they share offer him the chance to become the author of his own happiness. Their love is not just a chance to be free, but also to be his own father, his own man. At the same time, the narrator in love identifies himself with “the creator,” the artist, and says that “in this museum I was more the guide; it was I who could name the modes and deliver the appreciations. . . I had come to the limit of unsearchability. From this beautiful boundary I could imagine no retreat.”
He may not retreat, but for a long time he is unable to move forward. A series of stories reveal the narrator as lacking either the nerve, the passion, or perhaps the cruelty necessary to leave his wife. The love, which at first offered a clear alternative to his unhappiness, begins to subside, some of it actually seems to slosh back into the marriage—as if his emotions were like the water on the floor of a rocking boat. Though he does not act, he does seem changed, lovingly released in a new way. Nonetheless, while his love spreads out to the world in general—to his wife, his mistresses (he seems to start to have many again), his children, his dog—he still has not satisfied his specific yearning. He is much happier, but his life again becomes static. Once more, his conflicts are so well-balanced that he is paralyzed.
During this period, which stretches through several years, his memories of his childhood begin to serve a new purpose. In the Olinger stories, the narrator’s childhood seems to be recollected out of a nostalgia for the past, and in the interest of drawing the original battle lines that marked the little boy’s character. In the later stories, once the central crisis of the narrator’s marriage has occurred, the stories about childhood seem to go in search of some liberating insight. And in “Solitaire,” the narrator finds what he is looking for. He has always regarded his parents’ marriage as a difficult one, but he had never doubted its solidity. Having seen their perseverance as a support to himself, as a standard to meet and an example to follow, he comes to see how he kept them together, not they him. In “Solitaire,” the narrator plays cards and remembers his mother playing the same game years before.
The narrator is forced to recognize how he literally kept his parents married, requiring them to stay together on his account. (The echo of this is heard in “Avec La Bebe-sitter,” after the narrator has fallen in love with another woman; he and his wife agree to stay together “for the children’s sake.”) But the more important understanding which comes out of this reexamination of the past is that he sees himself as his parents’ “creator, their father.” The Freudian logic or compulsion, tactful and twice-removed as it is in these stories, collapses as the narrator assumes the imaginative responsibility for his parents. All along, they have been his fictions, and insofar as he has imitated or denied them, he has relinquished crucial authority. But that is just the point: in seeing how the knot is of his own intellectual making (and not a hard, universal law), the narrator frees himself from the binding psychoanalytic tie. “Solitaire” ends: “He was a modern man, not superstitious even alone with himself; his life must flow from within. He had made his decision, and sat inert, waiting for grief to be laid upon him.”
He knew now that her mind had been burdened in that period. Everything was being weighed in it. He remembered very faintly—for he had tried to erase it immediately—her asking him if he would like to go alone with her far away, and live a new life. No, must have been his answer, Mother don’t . . . And she, too, must have felt a lack of ripeness, for in the end she merely moved them all a little distance, to a farm where he grew up in solitude and which at first opportunity he left, a farm where now his father and mother still performed, with an intimate expertness that almost justified them, the half-comic routines of their incompatibility. In the shrill strength of his childish fear he had forced this on them; he was, in this sense, their creator, their father.
After this, the narrator slowly pulls away from his marriage, though as he arrives at his decision to divorce, he once more sees less and less difference between his wife and mistress. In “Domestic Life in America,” a story from Problems, coming home after a visit first to his wife and then to his mistress, the narrator is struck by the time 10:01 (and temperature 10°: things are the same and their sameness is repeated infinitely). Like his women, the hours and minutes are perfect mirror opposites. But the tone of the story is different from the defeated tone of earlier stories when the narrator saw unhappy marriage as the unchangeable human condition. Though the narrator now sees himself as driven back and forth between two sets of equally draining demands, one of the women (his mistress) gives him something he wants. She offers him sexual happiness, and, finally, he has reached a point where he regards himself as free to choose on the basis of his desires, whatever they are.
In the end, the influence his mother has on his life has declined to the extent that the once overpowering, magical fulfillment she urged him toward has become sexual contentment. At various times, Updike has represented sex as glorious or lost or the only alternative to the death of religion. In “Domestic Life in America,” sex is a simple human connection which makes him feel more at home on earth. He has come to choose this because he has given up on the morality that belongs to his wife and father. Yet he does not escape judgment. The virtue which he has found so frustrating in his wife, that very quality which made his father both “better and less” than his mother, that same virtue has the last word. His wife and father have been good, but diminishing, reducing life so it will be small enough for virtue to cover neatly its complexity. But what this means is that, by the narrator’s own definition, embracing the complexity is both vital and immoral.
In “The Egg Race,” another story from Problems, the narrator goes back to a high school reunion where a classmate says, “You aren’t half the man your father was.” The narrator agrees. His father has emerged from the past as the real hero by whose standards Updike’s narrator feels he has failed. In “The Egg Race,” the narrator speaks of having left his wife for another woman: “He had long contemplated this last, but would never have done it had his father been alive.” Though he’s made his way out of the charmed circle of the childhood world he shared with his parents, they have clearly left their mark on the shape he finally assumes. The individual he becomes actually unites his parents again, but in a form that declares his separation, his distinctness. He chooses the path his mother wanted for him, the road to a happier life, but by doing so, he leaves her behind. At the same time, he goes against the example set for him by his father (who, after all, stayed with his wife), and so always knows how he is fallen. I recently read in an essay by Freud that a very long labor will cause the imprint of the mother’s pelvic bone to be impressed on the baby’s skull; I can’t think of a better analogy to describe the influence of his parents and their marriage on the final form of the narrator’s character.
As the narrator comes to view himself as the author of his parents’ marriage, so the author of the narrator seems increasingly to write out of a simple, coherent core. Both books of short stories published in 1979, Too Far To Go and Problems, demonstrate how fully fledged the author’s understanding is of his narrator’s place in his domestic world. Too Far To Go collects all the Maple stories, the first of which was written in 1956. None of them suffers from the stylistic excesses that mark other stories—as if the Maple series were the best stories from any given stage of Updike’s developing perception. At each stage, Updike has written many stories about the insight of that stage, but the Maple stories represent his most polished statement. An exception to this is “Domestic Life in America” in which the narrator is named Fraser, though everything else about his life—his divorce, his wife, children, mistress—are straight out of Richard Maple’s résumé, including the clarity of the story’s style.
Because of the purity and sureness of the writing, the Maple stories are a clear medium for the narrator’s moral dilemmas. The medium is rendered clearer still by the fact that the Maples’ experience is considered all by itself, in terms of Richard and Joan and their children. The stories about the narrator’s most romantic passion are not written through or for Richard Maple; yet it is known throughout the series that he has had love affairs, and he ultimately leaves Joan for another woman. Tonally, the stories are dominated by the itchy, loving irritation of Mr. and Mrs. which can’t include the wilder reaches of emotion. That life swells in secret, and I make the assumption that the unhappily married narrator in the stories about a raging love affair is actually Richard Maple stepping outside his marriage. This is an assumption based on the differences and limitations of tone. The tone of the Maples’ domestic affection outlaws lyricism in a literary as well as an emotional sense. Yet Richard seems to benefit from the experience of other narrators, which is why I imagine they are all one man.
But there are other links between the Maple series and the wider exploration of all of Updike’s stories about marriage, family, and adulterous love. In Too Far To Go, the central problem between man and wife is sex. He wants it more than she does (sometimes it seems she doesn’t want any). His sexual frustration, in its most profound implications as “unlived life” (Lawrence’s phrase), reminds us of the unhappiness which allied the younger narrator with his mother. In Too Far To Go, Richard Maple’s frustrated longing meets Joan Maple’s cool reserve much as in the Olinger stories the mother’s restlessness collided with the father’s more temperate nature. Like that father, Joan is both “better and less” than Richard; his slow advances toward freedom and love identify his journey with the narrator, who realizes his mother’s dream against his father’s restrictions.
In the first story in Too Far To Go, “Snowing in Greenwich Village,” that dream exists as the young husband’s niggling lust for a woman dinner guest. In “Here Come the Maples,” the last story in the collection, the couple gets divorced. Richard has fought for his desires and won, though it means failing his father even as he sheds him. Richard says to his eldest son, after he has told the boy about the separation, “I hate this. Hate this. My father would have died before doing it to me.” In the course of the collection, what starts as weakness, slyly acknowledged, becomes a transforming force. The Maple’s disagreement about sex is, in the end, a debate between the claims of society and the claims of the self. For a long time, Joan’s side—the former—has more power in the marriage because she has rules to go by and Richard has not.
There are times when this makes her less appealing than her husband. In Too Far To Go, two stories specifically contrast her virtue with his irresponsibility—”Giving Blood” and “Marching Through Boston.” Both are about her insistence on doing something for people they have no real personal connection with and his sense of being deprived of her most important affections. “Marching Through Boston” is a comic masterpiece about Joan’s involvement with the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. Despite a bad cold, Richard goes with her to a march in Boston, gets a worse cold, and comes home wildly raving, “Ah kin heeah de singin’ an’ de banjos an’ de cotton balls a burstin’. . .an’ mebbe even de what folks up in de Big House kin shed a homely tear or two. . . .’ He was almost crying; a weird tenderness had crept over him in bed, as if indeed he had given birth, birth to his voice, a voice crying for attention from the depths of oppression.” His charm carries the day; he wins the story hands down. Joan gets no points in the reader’s heart, despite the fact that she is out saving the world.
In other stories, Richard’s attunement to the “life that flows within” makes him quite awful. For one thing, in the earlier stories, he is hopelessly ambivalent. This compares badly with Joan’s prim, but unswerving commitment to duty. In “Twin Beds in Rome,” Richard’s move toward and retreat from divorce are emotionally exhausting to no avail. The lust which troubled him at the start of the marriage has graduated to love, but the fact that he addresses it to his mistress as well as his wife seems self-indulgent. Joan’s dutifulness is clear, constructive, restful. In “Waiting Up,” Richard’s dependence on his wife’s virtue is actually disgusting. The story describes him waiting for Joan’s return from an encounter with Richard’s mistress and her husband. It’s not exactly clear what the encounter was supposed to accomplish, but it was deliberately planned and executed in a thoroughly grown-up way. Possibly its purpose is for Joan to smooth over the social awkwardness of the affair having been discovered. In any case, the meeting doesn’t change the situation. At the end, Richard persists in wanting both women, and the fact that he does makes us prefer the claims of society in the form of Joan over the claims of the self in the form of this selfish vascillator.
About halfway through Too Far To Go, it has become obvious that both of them have lovers. We have to assume that Joan’s adultery is at least partially retaliatory, but regardless of what drives her to it, the fact that they are both having affairs and both know it brings them equally low. At first, in “Your Lover Just Called,” there is a little spurt of intimacy and rediscovery which comes with Richard’s first realizing that Joan is attractive to other men. This accelerates in “Eros Rampant” when he learns that she has also been involved in complete love affairs. Finally, however, in “Red-Herring Theory,” they seem more petty than racy. They bicker about whom the other is really sleeping with. Joan’s red-herring theory is that he pretends to be interested in one woman as a way of drawing attention from his real mistress of the moment. Set after a party, the story is as gritty as the overflowing ashtrays the Maples are cleaning up. The reader longs for one of these characters to make some sweeping, noble gesture, to renounce something, anything—even if it’s just to give up smoking. In this story, they seem to have been endlessly treading the same dirty water, both of them, getting nowhere, stirring the same pain round and round and round.
Just as we lose patience with their problems, a new spiritual strength appears in their relationship. They pass beyond sexual discontent and competition. In “Sublimating,” they actually decide to give sex up between themselves (and thus to stop arguing about it). Other lovers are still in the background, but there is new clarity to Richard and Joan’s characters—like windows which have just been washed. This sharpness does not bring them closer together. In fact, in “Nakedness,” the last story before the Maples tell their children they are separating, various bodies are stripped, but all that’s exposed is Richard and Joan’s individual loneliness within the marriage. We don’t know about Joan, but Richard’s thoughts about his mistress have a loving, solid—one might say husbandly—ring. His encounters with his wife are hollow. He nurses his insults about her in the privacy of his thoughts. “”My God,” Joan said, “It’s like Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden.” And Richard felt her heart in the fatty casing of her body plump up, pleased with this link, satisfied to have demonstrated once again to herself the relevance of a humanistic education to modern experience.” If he once loved her for her erudition, he now no longer does.
“Separating,” another excellent story, does not surprise us with its news about the end of the Maple’s marriage. It is remarkable as a relevation of Richard’s changed character. He has altered slowly through the stories, but here he emerges, speaking with real authority. He has mixed feelings of love and guilt, hope and regret, but he no longer slides back and forth between the two poles of his ambivalence. He has made a decision in favor of the woman he really wants. As cruel irony would have it, his self-assertion robs his wife of the support of everything she’s stood for. When he leaves her, Joan’s virtue does not keep her warm. In “Divorcing: A Fragment,” she has lost her control; she is miserable; she begs him to come back after a year and a half of separation. There is the horrible suggestion that without a self to suppress, duty hasn’t got a leg to stand on. It turns out that her virtue was just her form of selfishness, her method of keeping her husband. It was also her way of denying him, as his self-assertion is his way of denying her.
At the end of the collection, their roles are reversed. “Here Come the Maples” is the story of the couple’s moment before the judge. Richard’s values are triumphant. He knows what he wants and insists that his wife play by his rules. Joan is as fragile and accommodating as her young husband had once been when she was the keeper of the social order. If only because the author takes sides, lavishing his gifts on Richard’s subtleties, we do, too. In the course of time, Joan will probably make a comeback as the world’s most wonderful person, but at the end of Too Far To Go, we feel that Richard’s upper hand is more than just a win. It seems like a step in the right direction of freedom, truth, and love.
Updike seems to write the way spiders spin: weaving his webs to catch life as it passes, spinning, spinning as much to survive as to astonish. He is probably the most prolific gifted writer of his generation, though the quality of his outpouring is uneven. The problem of picking and choosing between what is good and what is less good is related, I think, to his subject. As a rule, the stories about the particular narrator I have described seem to be better than Updike’s other stories. These others fall into several categories: experimental (“Under the Microscope,” “During the Jurassic”), descriptive (“The Indian,” “Son”), and—for lack of a better word—journalistic (“When Everyone Was Pregnant,” “One of My Generation,” “How to Love America”). All of these stories have in common the absence of such literary conventions as character, plot, or dialogue. They seem to serve the purpose of unburdening the author’s receptive mind of all the different kinds of information that he breathes in from his environment.
What distinguishes the stories about the narrator is the emotion irradiating the finely spun structures. They are more truly felt than the experimental or journalistic stories which seem too much like demonstrations of the author’s facility with language and data. At the same time, the stories about the narrator also vary; between the earliest stories and the most recent ones, while the narrator is struggling to come to terms with sex and love, the style is often puffy, sometimes it seems downright anxious—as though the author were really not sure of the material. In the course of Updike’s development, the problem of meaning has been complicated by and interlocked with the problem of handling his talent. At moments, he seems to have been swept away by sheer youthful delight, as though his gift were a marvelous toy; other times, a terrible piety seems to have possessed him, as though he could only live up to his promise by taking his Style seriously. And then his intelligence, along with his remarkable observing powers, presented real problems by crowding his attention with an embarrassment of impressions, details, facts.
These distractions get the upperhand when the author’s moral grasp of his material is weakest. In “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, A Dying Cat, A Traded Car,” for instance, the overwriting goes hand in hand with the falsely ancient tone of the young man. He comes home to see his sick father in the hospital, his thoughts coated by a world weariness worthy of a very old person who’d seen nothing but war, torture, and death. In fact, the narrator is a young, suburban husband who’s seen nothing but peace and domesticity, whose real problem (as he confesses to a hitchhiker) is that he doesn’t see the point of his virtuous life. This is not quite the same thing as confronting the void, though there is a tendency in Updike’s stories to inflate American boredom into French existentialist despair. At his worst, there is more sneakiness than evil in Updike, more opportunism than moral questing in his restless, curious narrator.
Then, too, though the narrator is clearly a self-centered person, it is not clear that his suffering is more than the pinch we all feel trying to live decently with others. His suffering sometimes seems like pure whining—his philosophizing nothing more than a complaint that spouses can cramp a person’s sexual style. It is generally assumed that Updike’s stories about domestic life are autobiographical. This assumption seems to be made out of a worldly wisdom which allows all sophisticated people to connect what is known about the author through articles (i.e., that Updike has been married, divorced, and recently remarried) and what happens in the fictional life of his central hero (who has been married, divorced, and recently remarried). It is hard not to wonder if the narrator hasn’t benefited from Updike’s possible experience. At the start, the narrator is a timid, even a cowardly man. That he slowly, but surely has his way with women probably has less to do with a change in his personal charm and more with the unadmitted fact that the author’s fame made him desirable and gave him unexpected opportunities, ones which Updike passed on to his narrator. There are times when the narrator’s cheerlessness about his adulteries seems just insupportable, only explicable by something having been left out—such as the fact that this is not the typical experience of a lusty suburban male, but rather the typical experience of a celebrity who suddenly finds himself in sexual demand. The narrator’s depression would be more believable if it were openly identified as the cynicism a famous author might feel towards a rise in his desirability that had nothing to do with his true human self.
Yet having made these criticisms, I want to disassociate myself from the knowing, wordly assumption that Updike’s work must be autobiographical. I want to consider the role of autobiography in these stories, but I want to do it from the inside out. Instead of talking about them as reflections of the author’s life, I want to discuss their importance in his development as a writer.
Updike himself makes the connection between the human content and the author’s art. He speaks of his hero’s sense of being the “creator” of both his parents and his mistress. From the start, we know the narrator regards women and art as equally mysterious, if not equivalents. We know that women have dominated his experience, that they are the media through which he comes to terms with the past, learns to love and begins to act for himself. When the author refers to the narrator’s sense of himself as the artist of his private life, the association of women with art naturally teams up with Updike’s identification with his hero. We can take this as the primary, the essential starting point of any discussion of the role of autobiography.
Having begun, there are several paths open to us, all leading to “Domestic Life in America” as a culmination of the art the author has evolved through his hero’s quest. Through time, the resonance in these stories has deepened, the authorial voice has become true, simpler, wiser. As a collection, Problems is marked by the author’s growth as a writer, but the best stories in the book are best because they are about the subject which is most crucial to Updike. In those, form and feeling are one; the problem raised and the problem solved matter because the human heart is at stake; the drama is literally tied to it like a creature punished in the flames.
The narrator is not that complicated a character, but he seeks complexity out. As he has explored the varieties of erotic experience and conflict, Updike’s style has reflected the alteration in values and depths and types of feeling. The best Olinger stories provide us with a model of what Updike’s recent stories have returned to. In “Flight,” “Pigeon Feathers,” “A Sense of Shelter,” there is more fancy writing than there is in Too Far to Go or Problems, but in both groups of stories the writing all serves a purpose. In the long run, the unruly impulses in his style seem to have been brought under control by the same principle that liberates the narrator from the past.
“His life must flow from within.” As the narrator clarifies his values, as he becomes his own man, free of his ties to the past, Updike’s style becomes simpler again. In “Domestic Life in America,” there are few unnecessary words, almost no irrelevant descriptions. There is a very clean-cut relationship between content and art, between the narrator’s inner state and the story’s language and design. In fact, it is a photograph of the narrator’s feelings at this moment in his life, yet the story has more power than this description of stasis might imply. It has the power of Updike’s best writing—his quick insight, wit, and catlike tread. I associate this purity of style with another source of power in the story: it reveals a new resolution of conflicts which the narrator has been wrestling with from the start.
“Domestic Life in America” describes Fraser’s visit to his estranged wife and two of their children, followed by a trip to his mistress’s household. The parts mirror each other like two halves of an inkblot. Though there are different people in each place, they present the same degree of difficulty. Eraser’s guilty relationship to his own children is no better than his problematic relationship to his mistress’s offspring. The reminders of death he finds at his first wife’s do not go away when he goes to his next wife’s. At the first, he is involved in the burial and emotion attending the death of their dog, a yellow Labrador. As he arrives at his mistress’s house, he sees her pinching mealybugs off her plants and killing them. It is almost a tie between the trade-offs each woman involves. The wife, of course, has claim to his guilt; but in her intelligence, her nonchalance under pressure, her decisiveness, Jean also seems personally more attractive than Eraser’s mistress. Gerta is rather vulgar, though humorous, and much more selfish than the woman he has left for her.
The sexual pleasure Fraser finds with his mistress is compared to the pleasure he always got coming home from work and diving into the channel beside his land. “It was as when, tired and dirty from work, Fraser had stripped and given himself to that sustaining element, the water in the center of the channel, which answered every movement of his with a silken resistance and buoyed him above its own black depth.” While this comparison shows yet another similarity between the two households, it also contains the essence of their difference. There is pleasure for him in both places; and that pleasure has something to do with the unconscious (underwater) life of the senses. But his first wife contributes to this satisfaction only insofar as she is an aspect of his property. If she were all he had, he would have lost what made him happy as her husband. Though he owns nothing with his mistress, though he is actually a trespasser on her property (the gift of her husband), still Fraser is happy with her.
The equations between one household and the other mount as the story progresses, culminating in Eraser’s glimpse of the time and temperature as he returns to Boston: 10:01 and 10°. The perfection of this image sets the drama in final clarity before us, recalling the whole history of the narrator’s problem even while it casts this dilemma in a new form. The series of numbers demonstrate the similiarity between the narrator’s choices, but as the witness he is also another actor—one who can and does tip the balance.
Originally, the narrator was paralyzed because every action involved a life-and-death struggle. He could not move without moving against someone else. For the young narrator, identification with one parent meant attacking the other. For Richard Maple, giving his wife her way meant giving up his own. Finally, however, the narrator is compelled to act because not acting hurts himself. No one else is going to act on his behalf; he has to. But for him to reach this point the problem has had to change. The extreme either/or that characterized the important people in his life has subsided. The narrator slowly but surely has incorporated into himself the parts of his parents which, at first, he served alternately as absolutes. He takes his own shape, and as he does, the opposing principles in the universe around him cease to clash so violently. The sense of futility so often present in the early stories is transformed, not because the problem goes away, but because the narrator has become engaged in it. “Domestic Life in America” is there as proof. The narrator is alive and well by virtue of his willingness to pursue what he wants. He has accepted the fact that this will hurt others, and does what he can to take responsibility for his part in the dog-eat-dog reality. He cannot change his feelings, but he does not hide or suppress them. While he also fulfills his obligations at the level of finances and work, the most important form his responsibility takes is acting on what he perceives to be “the real relation between things.”
This last is from Marx, who also said that people would only know what these real relations were once they had rid themselves of their illusion. Through time, the narrator’s illusions have worn away, allowing the difficult, tiring, moving human truth to emerge. The relationships which have had various kinds of power over the narrator turn out to be commanding for the simplest reason. These people, after all, are not the symbols he once envisioned. They are just the people he happened to know in life. He probably would have known them anyway, even if they had not fit into his sense of how the world was divided.
Division has haunted the narrator and informed the writer’s art. It grew out of the boy’s understanding of the differences between his parents and grew into his conflict between marriage and wife, on the one hand, and love and mistress, on the other. For some time, the division between parents and women was also between duty and self, morality and pleasure. In “Domestic Life in America,” the element of compulsion, of one thing versus another, has fallen away. There is still strife and conflict, but it is between characters who are both good and bad, who are as mixed as the blessings they enjoy and the penalties they pay. The arguments which the narrator worked out through them were always only partially true about the human beings. And the real debate was always one the narrator was having with them about his own nature.