John Updike

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What are the internal conflicts in "Separating" by John Updike?

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In John Updike's "Separating," the external conflicts are seen between the members of the family as Richard and Joan prepare to tell their children of—and then discuss—what they say will be a trial separation. There are two kinds of conflict: internal and external. Conflict is the engine that drives a plot. The first conflict is between Richard and Joan. The narrator infers that Richard has had an affair. It is not something that gives him joy—her presence is "vaguely" presented to the reader, and seems equally vague to Richard. They tell the kids they have grown apart, but the truth must cause Joan a great deal of pain.

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The internal conflict that exists at Updike's "Separating" rests with the struggle of Richard to do the right thing as he and his wife prepare to tell their children they will be separating.

Richard wanted to tell everyone at once, but Joan did not. Richard's conflict at the start is pretending that everything is just as it's always been—while it is totally untrue.

So he had drudged away, in love, in dread, repairing screens, getting the mowers sharpened, rolling and patching their new tennis court.

Richard is also conflicted by Joan's plan: to start with Judith and then tell the others. However, he feels that something is off with the plan:

...it had an edge of false order...like Joan's long chore lists...

It is inferred that there is something contrived in the telling—something less than forthright, and manipulative. In carrying it out, Richard also feels that it makes the separation that much harder for him:

Her plan turned one hurdle for him into four—four knife-sharp walls, each with a sheer blind drop on the other side.

The four hurdles are telling his four children separately. Richard is worried about how the children will cope. He works hard to prepare the house "against his absence." He hides the future that waits "vaguely" in front of him—for nothing seems certain, and he is unhappy about the need for what awaits them in the telling of their broken relationship. He fears the loss of members of his family because of the divorce.

As Richard continues his chores, his pain is evident. He...

...clumsily hammered and chiselled, each blow a kind of sob in Richard's ears.

As Richard faces his children, he is overcome with tears; he struggles to contain them—joking about his allergies. His love and his pain assault him.

The "third person" in the marriage is someone Richard has been seeing. Joan handles herself well. However, we do not learn of her inner-most feelings. 

The children all take the news differently. Judith dismisses the idea of a trial separation: be married or be divorced! It is hard to sense what kind of internal conflict she may be experiencing. John gets angry and acts foolishly at the table. His inability to understand bursts forth, so the reader can assume that he is struggling with the news. Ultimately he pulls himself together and tells his parents that he's fine. Margaret is stunned by the news, but the narrator does not give a great deal of information regarding her feelings. 

Richard tells Dickie—having picked him up from the train. At first this son seems unaffected. His lack of emotion upsets Richard, who sends Joan to check on him. Dickie's lack of "tantrum" makes Richard feel sick. When he at last goes in to check on the boy, Dickie still pretends that he is all right, but when Richard goes to kiss him goodnight, his son—with his face covered by tears—kisses his father and...

...moaned one word, the crucial, intelligent word: "Why?"

Dickie's pain is visible. Richard's pain is gut-wrenching as the reader finishes the story:

It was a whistle of wind in a crack, a knife thrust, a window thrown open on emptiness...Richard had forgotten why.

The use of images of knives throughout the story can only imply the extreme pain Richard is feeling, even while he tries to cover it up. For in face of all that he loves within his family, his reason for turning away from Joan is something, by comparison, that he can no longer even recall.

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What external conflicts exist in "Separating" by John Updike?

In John Updike's "Separating," the external conflicts are seen between the members of the family as Richard and Joan prepare to tell their children of—and then discuss—what they say will be a trial separation.

There are two kinds of conflict: internal and external. 

Conflict is the engine that drives a plot.

Conflict exists here between characters. In this story, the external conflict seen is man vs. man.

The first conflict is between Richard and Joan. The narrator infers that Richard has had an affair. It is not something that gives him joy—her presence is "vaguely" presented to the reader, and seems equally vague to Richard. They tell the kids they have grown apart, but the truth must cause Joan a great deal of pain. The narrator does not give the reader any deep insight to what she is feeling, other than through her conversation with Richard—the chasm between them is obvious.

It is Joan that comes up with a plan to tell the children separately. However, like ripping off a band-aid, Richard wants it to be over quickly—telling them all at the same time. 

Her plan turned one hurdle for him into four—four knife-sharp walls, each with a sheer blind drop on the other side.

Rather than saying it once, he must carry out the telling four different times. Richard agrees to Joan's plan, but Joan senses some criticism from him and becomes sarcastic—exposing the conflict that exists between them as their marriage comes to an end:

Do you have any better plan? That leaves you the rest of Saturday to answer any questions, pack, and make your wonderful departure.

The lock Richard fixes on the door may be symbolic of the opening of a closed portal that has hidden their secret. Richard cannot keep from crying at dinner. As the children clear the table and go into the kitchen, Margaret asks why "Daddy" is crying. Judith (who was told earlier and asked to say nothing) tells Margaret and John. Suddenly, Joan's plan falls apart.

There is some sense of conflict with Judith—emotionally calm, she dismisses their idea of separation. She believes they should be married or get a divorce: nothing in-between. Of the children at the table, John is the one who reacts most forcefully. He becomes angry, demanding to know why they had never told the children they were having problems. Then he begins to act foolishly, and Judith tells him to grow up. 

The conflict that is shown in these examples centers around the separation: it rises up between Richard and Joan, between them and the children, and—on a smaller scale—even between the children—something Richard had feared.

Conflict between Richard and Joan appears again after dinner. He apologizes for crying:

I couldn't stop. I wanted to but couldn't.

Joan is accusatory, saying he did it on purpose:

You didn't want to. You loved it. You were having your way, making a general announcement.

Joan sees his crying as Richard's desire to tell everyone at once, even though she had planned to tell each child separately. She thinks he purposely sabotaged her efforts.

Joan reminds him:

You still have Dickie to do...

Richard notes that she also implies, "That's one piece of your dirty work I won't do for you."

Dickie is, in fact, the child who is hardest to tell. He tries to act unaffected. This conflict comes from Richard's inability to explain to his son "why." There is no aggression here: simply two people trying to connect—looking for meaning and comfort where there is none. 

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