Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

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A familiar theme of John Updike’s work is the relationship between generations, particularly the ambivalent feelings of fathers and sons: the combination of guilt, pride, rivalry, and inadequacy. It is clear that Ben feels inadequate both as a father and as a son. In his role as son, he has not been quite what he thinks his father wanted: He does not work with his hands and he does not have the drive that his father sees in young Murray. He has led a cautious, orderly life, never exposing himself in the way his father does. He recognizes that the traits his father praises in young Murray are not inherited from him. As a father, he feels he has not done his job: “to impart the taste of the world” to his son. In paying for Murray’s golf lessons or skiing instruction, he has simply purchased amusements for the boy. It is his father, not he, who finds a way to get the rifle fixed on Thanksgiving Day. Similarly, old Murray feels inadequate in his role as a father. He thinks Dutch would have given Ben something more.

On the other hand, although fathers and sons may feel inadequate, they also have a sense of rivalry. Young Murray’s threat to kill his father may have been the result of a childish tantrum, but it also expresses the resentment of the younger generation toward the domination of the older one. Sally frequently sides with young Murray, telling Ben that he is too hard on the boy, a suggestion that the hostility young Murray feels may be more than childishness. This rivalry, though, can bring about guilt. When Sally warns Ben to be easier on their son, he replies that his father was nice to him and it only gained old Murray “chest pains. A pain in the old bazoo.”

There is a sense, however, in which the rivalry is natural and right. When Ben asks his father if they have worn him out, old Murray says, “That’s what I’m here for. . . . We aim to serve.” Sons should surpass fathers, and it is the job of fathers to make that possible. Thus, at the end of the story, when Ben shouts that young Murray is killing him, he refers not only to his son’s marksmanship but to the larger rivalry as well. The relief he feels may come partly from the fact that the killing is metaphoric, that he is being beaten in a contest. The mingling of pride and relief suggests, however, that he is joyful that young Murray can defeat him. He is proud and relieved that his son is a better man than he.