John Updike Updike, John (Vol. 15) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The interest of Updike as a moral fabulist is that his judgments are never univocal. By his own avowal, he has too much tenderness for his characters to condemn their follies. On the other hand, his sense of humor and his ethics do not permit him to let their foibles go unnoticed. He himself acknowledges this duality when he affirms that all his work says "Yes, but." We find the same ambivalence in the definition he gives of the people he considers as spiritually alive: "I feel that to be a person is to be in a situation of tension, is to be in a dialectical situation." Most of the charm of Updike's protagonists in general, and of Harry Angstrom in particular, is that, close to them as we may feel, we can never really anticipate the inconclusive ending to which their contradictions will lead them. We do not even know where Rabbit is heading at the end of Rabbit, Run. Perhaps it is because of this ultimate ambiguity that his existence leaves such a lasting impression on our inner sensibilities….

Ten years later, bringing him back to life in Rabbit Redux, Updike poses the critic another problem: must he consider this book as a continuation or just as another step in the novelist's itinerary? In recent years, as a reaction against the excesses of critical biography and literary history, there has developed a tendency to regard a novel as a self-contained unit producing its own logic, its own reference system. And indeed Rabbit Redux can be pleasurable and exciting even if one has not read the first book, Updike providing enough data to enable us to have a fair understanding of the factual links between the two works. Yet it is obvious that there exist shades of meaning perceptible only to those who are already familiar with Rabbit, Run. Elements of the decor such as the iceplant, the park, the quarry, images like those of the web, the net, the hole, carry latent connotations that the newcomer cannot grasp. He can neither fully enjoy the comical zest of the inversion of roles—epitomized by Harry's complaint: "Everybody now is like the way I used to be"—nor be aware of the similarities between the two novels, similarities in structure but also in tone since Updike returns here to the present tense he had almost completely abandoned after Rabbit, Run. Besides, through a series of echoes, reminders, and private jokes, he establishes with the initiated reader a complicity which greatly contributes to his pleasure. Mirroring scenes and motifs from the first book, even going to the length of repeating complete sentences, the author plays on an intertextual shuttle which modifies the separate meaning of each book. Following his example, one can imagine that it may be instructive to juxtapose or superpose fragments of his prose and either other passages of his books or the production of another writer used as external reference. The purpose of this article is to work out a number of variations on the character of Rabbit, concentrating primarily on his apprehension of "the poetry of space" … and on the metaphors which express it. (p. 95)

[Most] constituents of the beat mystique [of the 1950s] appear in the sensibility of Harry Angstrom: his sentimental involvement with the popular culture of his time; his bitter dissatisfaction with the standards of the era of conformity; his instinctive revolt against the forces of depersonalization; his somewhat inarticulate, though insistently asserted, belief in "something else"; his desire, unconsidered but persistent, to get away from it all and go back to nature; all this makes of him an archetypal figure now, that of the pioneer on the trail of modern disaffiliation. (p. 96)

The journey need not be long or eventful for Updike's heroes to relish the elation of going away. (p. 97)

[It] is typical of Harry's inconsistency that, while fancying himself an enemy of conformity, he panics at the slightest suggestion of the wilderness he is supposed to be returning to. The Amish passengers of a buggy past which he drives frighten him as "devils" and "fanatics";… a narrow, twisting "snake of a road" … strikes his high-strung senses as ominous; and he dreads to think that some ghost or beast might suddenly appear in the headlights of the car. Unnerved by the irruption of the unexpected, apprehensive of the unknown, Updike's hero cuts a sorry figure indeed as a would-be partner to the protagonists of On the Road whose stamina and natural gusto turn every incident between New York and San Francisco into an ecstatic experience. Surrendering in turn to instinct and reason without ever making up his mind as to which he should follow, Rabbit gets lost, narrowly misses having an accident, finally tears up his map, and drives back to Brewer. Of course, "The trip home is easier,"… symbolically made so by the assistance of numerous road signs that he had not noticed on the journey outward. (pp. 98-9)

The inglorious outcome of Harry's escapade is not only a sample of Updike's irony toward the thoughtlessness of his hero. It is also a warning against the solutions advocated by the beats to dodge the angst of modern life. This is not to say that Rabbit, Run was conceived as an anti-beat novel, even though Updike himself expressed in an interview his belief that a style of life based on cross-continental travel could not provide an adequate remedy to the suffering of the characters of Rabbit, Run, caught as they are in the meshes of small town life. Unlike Kerouac in On the Road he is not content with following the zigzag of his hero's quest but devotes important sections to the other side, to the grief, or rancor, of those who are left behind. Besides, flight appears at best as a form of illusory escapism. Rabbit has not driven twenty miles before he realizes that the road is "a part of the same trap,"… of the same net now enlarged to the intricacy of the highway system, so that he has no choice left but to turn around and head back to "the center of the net, where alone there seems a chance to rest."… (p. 99)

In Updike's fiction departure from one's home town somehow amounts to a betrayal of the self. For Shillington-Olinger-Mt. Judge is not only a compound of maples, telephone poles, neighbors, and brick houses: it is essentially "a state of mind." Hence the uneasy sense of guilt experienced by the characters of Of the Farm, "Home," or "A Traded Car" at the moment of return. Nowhere is this guilt more keenly felt than in Rabbit Redux, in which the very notion of travel is infected by the remorse Harry nurses over the death of his daughter…. Rabbit Redux turns on lack of hope, not only because it stresses the dangers and disillusionment awaiting those who boldly step from the middle of the road, but, more depressingly, because it instills from the first pages the feeling that escape is absolutely meaningless.

Rabbit is thus suspended in a vacuum of the soul, halfway between his dissatisfaction with his life in Brewer and the rooted conviction that no change of scenery could improve his existence…. Harry views his being settled in Brewer as an atonement for his past errors, the price he has to pay for his former mobility, but it strikes the reader as a dangerous form of inertia, a neurotic refusal to face the outside world. Harry turns away from it out of sheer cowardice, as he turns away from the road signs, "awesome insignia of vastness and motion,"… which remind him of the vagrant he used to be and of the hopes he once cherished. In the last analysis, his dogged allegiance to his home town essentially proceeds from a fear of being confronted with his former self. Feeling that he has already "lived twice,"… the antihero of Rabbit Redux tries hard not to resurrect the questing hero of Rabbit, Run and the illusions he entertained about space and flight. Though ten years' time has almost entirely silenced the romantic voice of "the great Harry Angstrom," he still has to be checked when he unexpectedly reappears on some familiar street-corner. Rabbit, cautious as he may be, is occasionally tempted by some mirage of the past, as for instance when he drives up the street where Ruth used to live:

At the end of Summer Street he thinks there will be a brook, and then a dirt road and open pastures; but instead the city street broadens into a highway lined with hamburger diners, and drive-in sub shops, and a miniature golf course with big plaster dinosaurs, and food-stamp stores and motels and gas stations that are changing their names, Humble to Getty, Atlantic to Arco. He has been here before.

(pp. 99-100)

In this passage Updike brings together, as it were, two different characters. The first part of the sentence echoes the words and feelings of the last scene of Rabbit, Run in which Harry substituted for an urban decor the landscape of his desires. So great was his urge "to travel to the next patch of snow" in the midst of...

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George W. Hunt, S.J.

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Updike has been a professional writer for two decades. His first decade's work, for the most part, records the strife, observation, and feeling of that pre-twenty year old wherein nostalgic recollections of boyhood are transmuted by an adult's imagination and youthful autobiography is altered into art…. [His] youthful memory informs almost all the fiction of [the] 1955–65 decade.

Updike wrote [the] Foreword to Olinger Stories in 1964 with the intention of saying farewell to Pennsylvania and to his boyhood memories. Except for brief returns in Rabbit Redux (1971) and Buchanan Dying (1974), he has sustained that intention. After the novel, Of the Farm (1965), his...

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Margaret Drabble

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

After the glittering and extravagant landscapes of The Coup, we return in [Problems and Other Stories] to more familiar domestic terrain—gas stations in Nevada, church basements, motels, subways, bathrooms. We are back in the world of Everyman's everyday suffering and everyday grace….

Heroically mundane, still desperately hopeful, their minds echoing with quotations from Blake and St. Augustine and esoteric scraps of information about extinct ungulates, Updike's characters stumble bravely on through the dark world, remembering past innocence and past delights, for they are aging and guilty, victims of the "curve of sad time" which Updike invokes in his dedication…. And yet, as...

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John Romano

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Updike [in his "Problems and Other Stories"] has some questions to put to us; "problems" to pose, as math teachers used to use the word, not in the contemporary, fallen sense of "Don't mind John Updike, he's just having problems at home." The problems concern divorce, the guilt of divorce, childhood memories, the guilt attaching to certain childhood memories, lust, the guilt that follows hard upon lust, and the fate of American Protestantism. (p. 1)

I find [the title story] "Problems" to be a work of really awesome literary cunning. The cunning, or much of it, is in the sudden darkening of the question: "Which has he more profoundly betrayed?" The words "more profoundly" rescue the...

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Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Problems and Other Stories] divorce is like a more profound kind of marriage. The relationship is purified by distance, ennobled by nostalgia. It becomes a tragedy, instead of a comedy of errors. Divorce releases a desire for the former husband or wife that can be neither defined nor satisfied.

Someone said about James Joyce that he gave up his religion, but kept his categories. Mr. Updike's husbands and wives keep their categories, too. Their future is framed by their past. They struggle to find new mistakes to make. (p. 539)

Not all the stories work in "Problems." Sometimes Mr. Updike merely toys self-consciously with the short-story form. Other times he tries to force the lock of our feelings with empty virtuosity. His characters have always had a weakness for portentous remembering. Once in a while, in rehearsing their sorrows, his divorced husbands are like men retelling old army stories.

But is some of these pieces are forgettable, others are not. At his best, John Updike stitches his stories into our skins….

While Mr. Updike has become the poet laureate of domestic life and divorce, the children in "Problems" are oddly boring. Perhaps this is because they were born and bred in a world where divorce is a commonplace. Their needs and their range of gestures seem limited and predictable, as simple as tropisms. (p. 540)

Anatole Broyard, "'Problems'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 2, 1979 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. II, No. 11, 1979, pp. 539-40).


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Problems and Other Stories shows once again that John Updike] is pre-eminent among contemporary writers of the short story, once thought the most American of literary forms. It is not that he has moved the form forward, as, for example, Hemingway did by forcing it into a new idiom, but that he has brought the dominant type of today's story—the New Yorker story—to its highest excellence. The type is characterized by sophistication, texture, smooth craftsmanship, and, on occasion, ingenuity of device…. "Shallow people get hurt, too," wrote critic Tom Shales this year, commenting on the television treatment of Updike's characters, the Maples, and thus summed up the basic appeal of an Updike story....

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Doris Grumbach

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Seventeen of the stories in [Problems and Other Stories] first appeared in The New Yorker, and they have upon them the white, bloodless thumbmark of that publication. They do not bleed or cry, they do not hurt us in the chest or the throat; they are, instead, the work of a fine craftsman in cool, classic stone. Simple, directly written, they are pleasantly wry and often intelligently ironic. The plots are thin, clear, almost translucent….

In such tales as "Here Come the Maples," "Domestic Life in America," and "Separating," the pain is so refracted that it becomes self-depreciating, wry, and touching only in a carefully controlled way.

In perhaps the finest of these...

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Daphne Merkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Updike is an éminence grise of the short-story form. I imagine him writing them almost in his sleep, determined to retain a scrap of dream even as he dreams it. In Problems … Updike once again demonstrates how circumscribed his world is and how good he is within its limits.

Updike's style—his finicky choice of words, his love of adjectives—is a linguistic fence. The very mastery of it insures order, guarding certain subjects and keeping others out. Guilt, for instance, is a topic that nestles inside his dazzlingly-wrought sentences: "A guilt-gem is a piece of the world that has volunteered for compression. Those souls around us, living our lives with us, are gaseous clouds...

(The entire section is 494 words.)

Martha Heimberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Compelling and revealing and brought off with superb control of language and theme, [Problems and Other Stories] confirms Updike's growing position as the foremost master of the genre in our time.

The stories … appear in chronological order and together form an unusually lucid record of many of the social themes and influences of the decade just past. From the smooth perfection of the television commercial to the increasing gains of the psychoanalyst as the mythical father of being for the modern psyche, Updike's telling prose captures images of the recent past with a kind of comic sadness which gives the reader a needed perspective and a sense of his own place in the spectrum of time....

(The entire section is 372 words.)

David Evanier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

At least five out of the 23 stories [in Problems and Other Stories] rivet: "Transaction," "The Egg Race," "Separating," "The Faint," "Daughter, Last Glimpses Of." But Updike can be portentous and pretentious in his short-shorts, which, while dealing summarily with the same subjects as his full-bodied stories (separation, divorce, grieved children, living alone, middle age), are built upon arty structures and laced with significant quotes…. (p. 231)

The stories of separation and divorce that constitute the core of the book all manifest the thought the narrator's wife (who has left him) has in the story "Nevada": turning forty was "as if then you began a return journey that could not be...

(The entire section is 493 words.)