Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Critics have hailed John Updike as a magician with words, but he has been criticized, perhaps unfairly, for shallowness of theme. Here, without frills, he tackles important issues. In this meditation, the central question is not “What happens?” but “What is felt?” As Arthur Mizener concluded about Pigeon Feathers, and Other Stories (1962), the collection that contains “Lifeguard,” Updike’s “fine verbal talent is no longer pirouetting, however gracefully, out of a simple delight in motion, but is beginning to serve his deepest insights.” There are interesting similarities between “Lifeguard” and two other stories in this collection, “A&P” and the title story, “Pigeon Feathers.” In the former, the fascination is with three girls, including one described as a queen. In the latter, the fascination is with death and immortality. Compared with “Lifeguard,” the other two stories are more situational and the characters less passive. In “Pigeon Feathers,” a fifteen-year-old shoots a half-dozen birds; in “A&P” a nineteen-year-old quits his job at the supermarket when his boss insults three barefoot female customers.

The lifeguard is fascinated not only with religion and sex but also with aging, not unlike Harry Angstrom in Updike’s Rabbit trilogy and Piet Hanema in Couples (1968). As in many of the other short stories contained in Pigeon Feathers, and Other Stories, the Protestant ethic of individual responsibility is quite pronounced, and the lifeguard suffers...

(The entire section is 630 words.)