John Updike Short Fiction Analysis
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, 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...
(The entire section is 5,421 words.)