Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 665

Like many of John Updike’s works, “A Sandstone Farmhouse” grew out of his own life and especially out of his relationship to a six-room sandstone farmhouse on an eighty-acre farm near Plowville, Pennsylvania. He lived there from 1945, when he was thirteen, until 1950, when he left to attend Harvard University. Before living in the farmhouse, the family lived in Shillington, Pennsylvania, eleven miles from the farmhouse. Updike’s mother was born in the house and died there. Several of his novels, including The Centaur (1963) and Of the Farm (1965), and many of his short stories, including those collected in Olinger Stories: A Selection (1964), are in part based on his experiences in and around the sandstone farmhouse. The Joey Robinson in Of the Farm seems to be the same person as the Joey in “A Sandstone Farmhouse.” The story won first prize in the O. Henry Prize Stories competition, appearing in Prize Stories, 1991: The O. Henry Awards, and was also included in The Best American Short Stories, 1991.

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For most of his life, Joey resented his parents’ buying the house in which his mother was born and making him move there from the town of Olinger, one of the fictitious names Updike uses for Shillington. In Olinger, Joey had friends and felt comfortable. He disliked the isolation of the house and the hard work involved in rebuilding parts of the house and adding on to it. Before his mother died, he resented her attachment to the house. He did not feel comfortable visiting the house and wanted his mother to move away. She, however, insisted that the house needed her, even though she was too old and sick to take care of it.

After her death, Joey decides to sell the farmhouse. He becomes obsessed with cleaning it, selling or destroying most of the things his mother kept in the house. In examining her old photographs before discarding them, he sees how happy she was during her childhood in the farmhouse. The only things that he keeps are those his family owned before moving to the farmhouse, that is, those objects from the time he considered himself to be happy. Thus, he tries to reject the farmhouse and all he thinks it represents in his life. It is as though Joey is fervently trying to erase all relation he might have had to the house, as though he is trying to erase the time he spent in the house and convert the house into an empty shell. He almost succeeds. The death of the flying squirrel, however, reminds him of his early days in the farmhouse and of the things he and other members of his family accomplished there. It produces in him the epiphany with which the story ends: his realization that he has been fruitlessly attempting to find real life away from the farmhouse. Now that the farmhouse, like Joey’s life, is empty, he realizes that true life for him was to be found only in the farmhouse. Like his mother, he feels that the farmhouse needs him. It was, he feels, a kind of paradise that he has ignored for far too many years. Now his realization that the house needs him—and that he needs the house—probably comes too late.

Many of Updike’s central characters are dislocated people, longing for a past that may never have existed. They are dissatisfied with their own lives in which they repeatedly experience broken marriages, grief, and the loss or death of loved ones. They recognize that people and things change, decay, and eventually die or deteriorate beyond recognition, and they often try to counter that recognition by immersing themselves in their present lives and work. Joey follows this general pattern, including three broken marriages; however, for him, the changes seem irrevocable. He learns that the center of his life—the escape from grief, dislocation, and longing—could have been the old farmhouse, but only after he destroys the last vestige of life in it.

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