John Updike

Start Free Trial

John Updike Short Fiction Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

From the beginning of his career as a writer, John Updike demonstrated his strengths as a brilliant stylist and a master of mood and tone whose linguistic facility has sometimes overshadowed the dimensions of his vision of existence in the twentieth century. His treatment of some of the central themes of modern times—sexual and social politics, the nature of intimate relationships, the collapse of traditional values, the uncertainty of the human condition as the twentieth century draws to a close—is as revealing and compelling as that of any of his contemporaries. Although he was regarded mainly as a novelist, the short story may well have been his true métier, and his ability to use its compressed structure to generate intensity and to offer succinct insight made his work a measure of success for writers of short fiction, an evolving example of the possibilities of innovation and invention in a traditional narrative form.

The Same Door, and Pigeon Feathers, and Other Stories

Always eloquent about his aspirations and intentions—as he was about almost everything he observed—John Updike remarked to Charles Thomas Samuels in an interview in 1968 that some of the themes of his work are “domestic fierceness within the middle class, sex and death as riddles for the thinking animal, social existence as sacrifice, unexpected pleasures and rewards, corruption as a kind of evolution,” and that his work is “meditation, not pontification.” In his short fiction, his meditations followed an arc of human development from the exuberance of youth to the unsettling revelations of maturity and on toward the uncertainties of old age, a “curve of sad time” (as he ruefully described the years from 1971 to 1978 when his first marriage failed), which contains the range of experience of an extremely incisive, very well-educated, and stylistically brilliant man who was able to reach beyond the limits of his own interesting life to capture the ethos of an era.

Updike’s artistic inclinations were nurtured by his sensitive, supportive parents, who recognized his gifts and his needs, while the struggles of his neighbors in rural Pennsylvania during the Depression left him with a strong sense of the value of community and the basis for communal cohesion in a reliable, loving family. At Harvard, his intellectual capabilities were celebrated and encouraged, and in his first job with The New Yorker, his ability to earn a living through his writing endowed his entire existence with an exhilaration that demanded expression in a kind of linguistic rapture. The 1950’s marked the steepest incline in time’s curve, and his first two collections, The Same Door and Pigeon Feathers, and Other Stories, while primarily covering his youth and adolescence in the town of Shillington (which he calls Olinger), are written from the perspective of the young man who overcame the limitations of an economically strained and culturally depleted milieu to marry happily, begin a family, and capitalize on his talents in the profession that he adored. There is no false sentimentality about Olinger or the narrowness of some its citizens. Updike always saw right through the fakery of the chamber of commerce manipulators who disguised their bigotry and anti-intellectualism with pitches to patriotism, but the young men in these stories often seem destined to overcome whatever obstacles they face to move toward the promise of some artistic or social reward.

In “Flight,” a high school senior is forced to relinquish his interest in a classmate because of his mother’s pressures and his social status, but the loss is balanced by his initial venture into individual freedom. “The Alligators” depicts a moment of embarrassed misperception,...

(This entire section contains 5421 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

but in the context of the other stories, it is only a temporary setback, an example of awkwardness that might, upon reflection, contribute to the cultivation of a subtler sensibility. “The Happiest I’ve Been” epitomizes the author’s attitude at a pivotal point in his life, poised between the familiar if mundane streets of his childhood and the infinite expanse of a world beyond, enjoying the lingering nostalgia he feels for home ground, which he can carry in memory as he moves on to a wider sphere of experience. These themes are rendered with a particular power in the often-anthologized “A & P” and in “Wife-Wooing,” both fromPigeon Feathers, and Other Stories.

“A & P”

As in many of his most effective stories, in “A & P” Updike found a voice of singular appropriateness for his narrative consciousness—a boy of nineteen from a working-class background who is working as a checkout clerk at the local A & P grocery store. The store stands for the assembly-line numbness that is a part of the lockstep life that seems to be the likely destiny of all the young men in the town, and it serves as a means of supply for a nearby resort area. When three young women pass the boy’s register, he is enchanted by “the queen,” a girl who appears “more than pretty,” and when she is ordered to dress properly by the store manager on her next visit (“Girls, this isn’t the beach”), Sammy feels compelled to deliver a declaration of passionate defense of their innocence. Frustrated by the incipient stodginess and puritanical repression of the entire town and moved by his heart-driven need to make some kind of chivalrous gesture, he finds that his only recourse is to mumble “I quit” as the girls leave the store.

Lengel, the aptly named manager-curmudgeon, speaking for unreasoning minor authority, uses several power trips to maintain his petty tyranny, but Sammy refuses to back down, even when Lengel presents the ultimate guilt ploy, “You don’t want to do this to your Mom and Dad.” This is an appeal to conformist quiescence, and Sammy, like most of Updike’s protagonists, is susceptible to the possibility of hurting or disgracing his family in a small, gossip-ridden community. When Lengel warns him, “You’ll feel this for the rest of your life,” Sammy recognizes the validity of his threat but realizes that, if he backs down now, he will always back down in similar situations. Frightened and uncertain, he finds the resolve to maintain his integrity by carrying through his gesture of defiance. He knows that he will have to accept the consequences of his actions, but this is the true source of his real strength. Acknowledging that now “he felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter,” his acceptance of the struggle is at the root of his ability to face challenges in the future. As if to ratify his decision, Lengel is described in the last paragraph reduced to Sammy’s slot, “checking the sheep through,” his visage “dark gray and his back stiff.” If the reward for selling out is a life like Lengel’s, then even an act that no one but its agent appreciates (the girls never notice their champion) is better than the defeat of submerging the self in the despair of denial.


“Wife-Wooing” is the real reward for acting according to principle. If the A & P is the symbol of enclosure and the girl a figure for the wonder of the cosmos beyond, then marriage to a woman who incarnates the spirit of wonder contains the possibilities for paradise. The mood of ecstasy is established immediately by the narrator’s declaration of devotion, “OH MY LOVE. Yes. Here we sit, on warm broad floor-boards, before a fire. ” He is a man whose marriage, in its initial stages, is informed by what seems like an exponential progression of promise. Thus, although he has “won” his mate, he is impelled to continue to woo her as a testament to his continuing condition of bliss, of his exultation in the sensuality of the body’s familiar but still mysterious terrain—its “absolute geography.” The evocative description of the couple together—framed in images of light and warmth—is sufficient to convey the delight they share, but what makes the story noteworthy is Updike’s employment and investigation of the erotics of language as a register of feeling. The mood of arousal becomes a kind of celebration of the words that describe it, so that it is the “irrefutably magical life language leads with itself” that becomes the substance of erotic interest.

Updike, typically, recalls James Joyce, using Blazes Boylan’s word “smackwarm” from “the legendary, imperfectly explored grottoes of Ulysses” to let loose a chain of linguistic associations beginning with a consideration of the root etymology of “woman”—the “wide w, the receptive o. Womb.” Located in a characteristically masculine perspective (inevitable considering Updike’s background and the historical context), the narrator envisions himself as a warrior/hunter in prehistoric times, and in a brilliantly imaginative, affectionate parody of Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse, Updike continues to express the husband’s exultation through the kind of linguistic overdrive that makes his mastery of styles the focus of admiration (and envy) of many of his peers. Beneath the wordplay and the almost self-congratulatory cleverness, however, there is still another level of intent. Once the element of erotic power in language itself has been introduced, Updike is free to employ that language in an investigation of sensuality that strains at the bounds of what was acceptable in 1960. His purpose is to examine a marriage at the potentially dangerous seven-year point, to recall the sexual history of the couple, and to show how the lessons of mutual experience have enabled them to deepen their erotic understanding as the marriage progressed. Continuing to use language to chart the erogenous regions of the mind and body, Updike arranges a series of puns (“Oh cunning trick”) so that the dual fascination of love—for wife, words—is expressed in intertwined images of passion. The story concludes with the husband leaving for work in the cold stone of a city of “heartless things,” then returning to the eternal mystery of woman/wooing, where, as Robert Creeley’s poem “The Wife” expresses it, he knows “two women/ and the one/ is tangible substance,/ flesh and bone,” while “the other in my mind/ occurs.”

The Henry Bech stories

Updike’s energetic involvement with the dimensions of life—the domestic and the artistic—crested on a curve of satisfaction for him as the 1950’s drew to a close. The chaotic explosion of countercultural diversity that took place in the 1960’s fractured the comforting coordinates of a world with which Updike had grown very familiar, and he began to find himself in an adversary position both toward the confines of bourgeois social values and toward the sprawling uncertainty of a country in entropic transition. As a means of confronting this situation at a remove that would permit some aesthetic distance from his displeasure, Updike created Henry Bech, an urban, blocked Jewish writer seemingly the polar opposite of the now urbane Updike but actually only a slight transmutation of his own sensibility. Bech is much more successful in managing the perils of the age than Harry Angstrom, who represents Updike’s peevish squareness in Rabbit Redux, and the “interview” “Bech Meets Me” (November, 1971) is a jovial display of Updike’s witty assessment of his problems and goals.

The individual Bech stories, beginning with “The Bulgarian Poetess” (from The Music School), which covers Updike’s experiences on a trip to Eastern Europe sponsored by the State Department, generally work as separate entities, but they are linked sufficiently that there is a clear progression in Bech: A Book, while Bech Is Back is closer to a novel than a collection of short fiction and Bech at Bay is classified as long fiction. Through the personae of Henry Bech and Rabbit Angstrom, among others, Updike maintained a distinct distance from the political and incipient personal turmoil that he was experiencing.

The Music School

In The Music School, the stories include fond recollections of a positive, recent past, as in “The Christian Roommates” (which “preserved” aspects of his Harvard experience), or tentative excursions into the malaise of the times, as in the fascinating dissection of psychoanalytic methods offered by “My Lover Has Dirty Fingernails” and in the unusual venture into the possibilities of renewal in a natural setting of “The Hermit.” In this story, the prickly, idiosyncratic spirit of the New England individualist and environmentalist Henry David Thoreau is expressed as an urge to escape from the social realities of success—an essentially forlorn quest for a larger sense of life than “they” will permit and an attempt to explore the possibility of a mystical essence beyond the attainment of intellectual power.

Museums and Women, and Other Stories

While Updike spoke admiringly of the “splendid leafiness” of Pennsylvania and could evoke the mood of Scotland’s highland moors (as in “Macbech”) with typical facility, his central subject has always been the nature of relationships. In Museums and Women, , and Other Stories, he returned to the consequences of marked changes in the social climate and his personal life that could not be avoided by fictional explorations of subsidiary concerns. The story “When Everyone Was Pregnant” is a paean to an old order passing into history, a celebration of years of relative pleasure and satisfaction that he calls “the Fifties” but which actually encompass the first half of the century. “My Fifties,” he labels them, positioning himself at the center of a benign cosmos, where tests were passed (“Entered them poor and left them comfortable. Entered them chaste and left them a father”) and life was relatively uncomplicated. The paragraphs of the story are like a shorthand list of bounty (“Jobs, houses, spouses of our own”), and the entire era is cast in an aura of innocence, a prelude to a sudden shock of consciousness that utterly changed everything. The factors that caused the shift are never identified, leaving the narrator bewildered (“Now: our babies drive cars, push pot, shave, menstruate, riot for peace, eat macrobiotic”), but the alteration in perception is palpable and its ramifications (“Sarah looks away” after fifteen shared years) unavoidable.

The last section of Museums and Women, and Other Stories contains five stories under the subhead “The Maples.” Updike eventually published seventeen stories about Richard and Joan Maple, a family with four children that might be said to approximate Updike’s first marriage, in Too Far to Go, and the narrative thread that becomes apparent in the full collection is the transition from optimism and contentment to uncertainty and fracture. A story that registers the process of psychological displacement particularly well is the last one in Museums and Women, and Other Stories, “Sublimating,” in which the Maples have decided to give up sex, which they have mistakenly identified as the “only sore point” in their marriage. Since nearly all that Updike has written on the subject indicates that sex is at the heart of everything that matters in a relationship, the decision—as Updike assumed would be obvious to everyone but the parties involved—was a false solution that could only aggravate the problem. What becomes apparent as the story progresses is that everything in the relationship has become a pretext for disguising true feeling, but the desperation of the participants makes their methods of camouflage sympathetic and understandable.

Unable to accept that change in both parties has permanently altered their position, Richard and Joan repeat strategies that have previously revitalized their marriage, but nothing can be successful, since the actors no longer fit their roles. The procedures of the past cannot be recapitulated, and their efforts produce a series of empty rituals that leave the Maples exhausted and angry. Using external remedies for internal maladies (the purchase of an old farmhouse, impulsive acquisition of trivia), bantering about each other’s lovers to reignite passion, turning their children into would-be allies, exchanging barbed, bitchy, and self-regarding comments, the Maples are more baffled than destructive, but both of them are aware that they will eventually have to confront the fact that they have no solution. Sublimation is ultimately suppression of truth, and Richard Maple’s description of the people in a pornographic film house on Forty-second Street in Manhattan as perpetual spectators, who watch unseeing while meaningless acts of obscenity occur in the distance, stands as an emblem of stasis and nullity, a corollary to the paralysis that engulfs the couple. Joan Maple’s final comment on their current state, a pathetic observation about the “cleansing” aspects of their nonsensual behavior, brings the story to a conclusion that is warped with tension, a situation that Richard Maple’s comment, “we may be on to something,” does nothing to relieve.

Problems, and Other Stories

Updike’s next collection, Problems, and Other Stories, contains a prefatory note that begins, “Seven years since my last short story collection? There must have been problems.” The central problem has been the end of Updike’s first marriage and the removal of the core of certainty that the domestic structure of his family provided. The unraveling of the threads that were woven through a lifetime of intelligent analysis and instinctual response called everything into question and opened a void that had been lurking near the surface of Updike’s work. Updike was far too perceptive ever to assume that a stable family was possible for everyone or that it would provide answers for everything. From the start of the Rabbit tetralogy, the strains inherent in an ongoing marital arrangement were examined closely, but the dissolution of his own primary household drew several specific responses that expanded the range and depth of his short fiction. First, the sad facts of the separation and divorce were handled in the last Maple stories.

“Separating” recounts the parents’ attempts to explain the situation to their children. It is written in bursts of lacerating dialogue, a conversation wrought in pain and doubt that concludes with a child posing the tormenting, unanswerable query “Why?” to Richard Maple. “Here Come the Maples” presents the ceremony of the divorce as a reverse marriage, complete with programmed statements forcing the couple to agree by saying “I do.” The jaunty tone of the proceedings does not totally mask the looming cloud of uncertainty that covers the future. Then, the artist turned toward his work for sustenance. In “From the Journal of a Leper,” Updike projects his psychic condition into the life of a potter who is afflicted with a serious skin disease akin to his own. The fear of leprosy stands for all of his doubts before an unknown universe no longer relatively benign; his work provides some compensation but is intricately connected to his psychological stability; a woman with whom he is developing a relationship improves and complicates the situation. The story is open-ended, but in a forecast of the direction Updike has begun to chart for his protagonists, the artist recognizes the necessity of standing alone, dependent ultimately on his own strength. The final words may be more of a self-directed exhortation than a summary of actuality, but they represent a discernible goal: “I am free, as other men. I am whole.”


The difficulties of freedom and the elusiveness of wholeness are explored in “Transaction,” one of Updike’s most powerful stories. In The Paris Review interview with Charles Thomas Samuels, Updike said:About sex in general, by all means let’s have it in fiction, as detailed as needs be, but real, real in its social and psychological connections. Let’s take coitus out of the closet and off the altar and put it on the continuum of human behavior.

The transaction of the title involves a man in his middle years, married but alone in a city labeled “N—,” in December at a conference, who somewhat impulsively picks up a prostitute and takes her to his hotel room. What exactly he is seeking is not entirely clear, because the cold, mechanical city and the “raffish army of females” occupying the streets are as much threat as promise and his temporary liberty to act as he chooses is undercut by his feelings of isolation and loneliness. Regarding his actions as a version of an exploratory adventure in which he is curious about how he will react and tempted not only by lust but also by the desire to test his virility and validity in establishing a human connection with the girl, he is moving into unknown country, where his usual persuasive strategies have no relevance. The “odorless metal” of the room mocks his efforts to re-create the warmth of a home in an anonymous city, and the false bravado of other men around him reminds him of the insecurity that lies beneath the bluster. Even what he calls the “paid moral agent” of his imagination—that is, his mostly vestigial conscience—is summoned briefly only as a source of comforting certainty in the uncharted, shifting landscape he has entered.

His initial investment in the room and in purchasing some aspect of the girl’s time does not permit him to exercise any influence on their transaction, a reminder that his generally successful life (marriage, money, status) counts for less than he had thought. The language of commerce that he has mastered does not contain a vocabulary for expressing his current feelings. Ruled by old habits, the preliminary stages of the transaction are a capsule courtship, but he finds that his solicitations are subject to scorn or rebuke. The girl wavers in his imagination between alluring innocence and forbidding authority, an amalgam of a dream lover who accepts him and an indifferent critic who reinforces the mechanical motif by calling his genitals “them” and prepares for their assignation “with the deliberateness of an insult or the routine of marriage.” Although Updike uses his extensive abilities of description to render the physical attributes of the girl in vivid detail, she does not seem sexually attractive—an implicit comment on the failure of erotic potential when it is restricted to the external surface, as well as a subtle dig at the magazine Oui (a Playboy clone), where the story originally appeared. Without the spontaneity of mutual discovery, the transaction becomes clinical and antierotic, an unnatural or perverse use of human capability.

The man is aware of the inadequacy of his supplications. He has been using the strategies of commerce—a mix of supposedly ingratiating self-pity and cold calculation—and when these fail he tries false compliance, then bogus amiability. In desperation, because of a severe reduction in sexual potence, he begins to “make love” to her, and in a shift in tone that Updike handles with characteristic smoothness, the writing becomes lyrical as the man becomes fully involved, and the woman finally responds freely and openly. Old habits intrude, however, and the man’s heightened virility causes a reversion to his familiar self. He stops producing pleasure and seeks it again as his due. His excitement has been transformed from authentic passion to calculation, the transaction back on its original terms. Both parties to the agreement have reached a level of satisfaction (he is a successful sexual athlete, and she has met the terms of the contract), and, when she offers to alter the original bargain in a mixture of self-interest and genuine generosity, he is unable to make a further break away from a lifetime of monetary measure. He contents himself with small gestures of quasi gallantry that carry things back toward the original situation of customer and salesperson. Thus, the true cost of real freedom is gradually becoming apparent. He feels an urge to go beyond the transactional to the honestly emotional, but he is hindered by fear, and his instincts are frozen. The residue of the encounter is a dreadful shrinking of his sense of the universe. “She had made sex finite,” he thinks, but in actuality, it is only his cramped view of his own possibilities that he sees.

“Trust Me”

“Transaction” marks the beginning of a phase of maturity in Updike’s work in which recollection of an earlier time of certitude, confidence, and optimism is still possible, but in which a search for new modes of meaning is gradually taking precedence. “Deaths of Distant Friends,” from Trust Me, which appeared in an anthology of Best American Short Stories, is a finely wrought philosophical meditation—exactly the sort of story cautious anthologists often include, a minor-key minirequiem for a grand past with only a twist of rue at the conclusion to relieve the sentimental mood. “The Egg Race,” from Problems, and Other Stories, is somewhat more severe in its recollection of the past. Here, the origins of the problems of the present are traced with some tolerance of human need back to the narrator’s father. The title story, “Trust Me,” is closer to the mood of middle-life angst that informs many of the stories. Again, the narrator reconsiders the past in an effort to determine the cause of the emptiness of the present, but in his attempts to explain the failure of faith in his life, he reveals (to himself) that his parents did not trust each other, that his first wife did not trust the modern world, that his child did not trust him, that with his girlfriend he does not trust himself, and that with a psychotropic agent, he does not (or cannot) trust his senses so he ultimately cannot trust his perceptions. Logically, then, he cannot know, with surety, anything at all. His predicament is a part of a larger vision of loss that directs many stories in the volume, as Updike’s characters attempt to cope with a deterioration of faith that revives some of the earlier questions of a religious nature that formed an important dimension of Updike’s writing in books such as The Poorhouse Fair or A Month of Sundays (1975). The situation has changed somewhat, though, since the more traditional religious foundations that Updike seemed to trust earlier have become less specifically viable, even if the theological questions they posed still are important. The newfound or sensed freedom that is glimpsed carries a terrifying burden of singularity.


“Slippage” conveys this feeling through its metaphors of structural fragility. A “not quite slight earthquake” awakens a man who is “nauseated without knowing why.” His wife, a much younger woman, is hidden under the covers, “like something dead on the road,” an image of nullity. Blessed or cursed with a memory that “extended so much further back in time than hers,” he feels she is preparing them prematurely for senility. At sixty, he sees his life as a series of not-quite-achieved plateaus. His work as a scholar was adequate but not all that it might have been, and his “late-capitalist liberal humanism” now seems passé. Even his delight in the sensual has been shaken, “though only thrice wed.” Updike depicts him in his confusion as “a flake of consciousness lost within time’s black shale” and extends the metaphor of infirmity to a loose molar and a feeling that his children are “a tiny, hard, slightly shrivelled core of disappointment.” In the story’s denouement, the man meets a woman at a party; she excites him, but it turns out that she is “quite mad,” an ultimate betrayal of his instincts. At the close, he lies in bed again, anticipating another earth tremor and feeling its unsettling touch in his imagination.

“The City”

The aura of discouragement that “Slippage” projects is balanced by another of Updike’s most forceful stories, “The City” (also from Trust Me). Recalling both “Transaction” with its portrayal of a business traveler alone in an urban wasteland and several later stories in which illness or disease disarms a man, “The City” places Carson—a “victim of middle-aged restlessness—the children grown, the long descent begun”—in a hospital, where he must face a battery of tests to determine the cause of a vague stomach pain. Confronted by doctors, nurses, orderlies, other patients, and fellow sufferers, none of whom he knows, Carson is alone and helpless in an alien environment. The hospital works as a fitting figure for the absurdity and complexity of the postmodern world. The health professionals seem like another species, and Carson’s physical pain is a symbol of his spiritual discomfort as he proceeds with the useless repetition of his life’s requirements. From the nadir of a debilitating operation. Carson begins to overcome the indignity and unreality of his plight. He becomes fascinated with people who are unknown to him, like a beautiful black nurse whose unfathomable beauty expands the boundaries of his realm. He calls upon his lifelong training as a stoic WASP and determines not to make a fuss about his difficulties. He finds his “curiosity about the city revived” and develops a camaraderie with other patients, a community of the wounded. His removal from the flow of business life—he is a computer parts salesman fluent in techno-babble—helps him regain an ironic perspective that enables him to regard his estranged daughter’s ignorance of his crisis as “considerate and loving” because it contributes to the “essential solitude” he now enjoys. In a poetic excursion into Carson’s mind, Updike illustrates the tremendous satisfaction available to a person with an artistic imagination capable of finding meaning in any pattern of life’s variety. Carson makes the necessary leap of faith required to “take again into himself the miracle of the world” and seizes his destiny from a mechanized, indifferent cosmos. In a reversal of the curve of decline that was the trajectory of Updike’s thought from the problems of the early 1970’s through the 1980’s, Carson is depicted at the end of “The City” as a version of existential man who can, even amid doubt and uncertainty, find a way to be “free” and “whole”—at least as much as the postmodern world permits.

The Afterlife, and Other Stories

The central character in many of the stories collected in The Afterlife, and Other Stories has a superficial autobiographical relationship to Updike, including having moved from the city to the country as a child and having desired to return to the city. In the award-winning “A Sandstone Farmhouse,” Joey Robinson visits his mother’s farmhouse and watches her die as the farmhouse deteriorates. After she dies, he discovers that the farmhouse was his true home: “He had always wanted to be where the action was, and what action there was, it turned out, had been back there.” “The Other Side of the Street” involves a protagonist, Rentschler, returning to his childhood home and seeing it from a house across the street, where he goes to have some papers notarized. He discovers that one of his childhood friends still lives next door to the notary’s house. As he leaves, he sees what used to be his house “lit up as if to welcome a visitor, a visitor, it seemed clear to him, long expected and much beloved.” He thus experiences a kind of homecoming. The final story in the collection, “Grandparenting,” is another tale in the Maple saga. Divorced and married to others, both Richard and Joan (now Vanderhaven) Maple are present when their daughter Judith has her first baby. In spite of the divorce, the Maples still continue as a family.

Central to The Afterlife, and Other Stories is the family as seen from the perspective of an aging male. Story after story deals with people aging and dying. One, “The Man Who Became a Soprano,” treats a group who get together to play recorders. As members of the group begin to form liaisons that end in divorce, and some move away, the group itself agrees to play a concert for an elderly audience at the Congregational church. The concert is a success, but it signals the end of the recorder group.

“The Afterlife,” the first story in the collection, focuses on Carter Billings. His and his wife Joan’s best friends, the Egglestons, move to England. During the first night of a visit there, Carter awakens and, wandering through the hall, tumbles down the stairs. “Then something—someone, he felt—hit him a solid blow in the exact center of his chest,” and he finds himself standing on a landing on the stairway. The next morning he decides that he actually bumped into the knob of a newel post. Nonetheless, after the experience his life seems charged with new feeling. It is as though he has had some kind of taste of the afterlife so that he is now “beyond” all earthly matters.


John Updike American Literature Analysis


John Updike Long Fiction Analysis