The Slump Characters
by John Updike

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The Slump Characters

(Short Stories for Students)

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The Ballplayer
The narrator of this story is a professional baseball player. Readers are not given his name or told what league he plays for. They do know, from the very first sentence, that he is famous enough to have his hitting problem discussed in the newspapers. When he was at the top of his game, children waited around the parking lot of the baseball stadium, just trying to get a glimpse of him. He has an attendant to park his car for him at the stadium. Also, the fact that the ballplayers who were famous when he was young now know his name is one more sign that he is famous and that he may have been a star player before his slump began.

Now that he is afflicted with his batting problem, he does not spend his time studying batting technique. Instead, his thoughts about what has happened to him are philosophical. He is a well-read man, with enough education to be familiar with the Van Allen belt and with the writings of Kierkegaard. The connection between his intellectual musings and his slump is made fairly explicit in the story, particularly where his rest on the beach in Florida is associated with losing, which turns immediately to his unsuccessful attempt to read philosophy. It is not clear whether his philosophical nature is actually causing the slump, forcing him to be too conscious of things that he should do naturally, or if he is turning to philosophy as a way of dealing with the fact that his batting is off.

The slump has affected his entire life. He has no physical contact with his wife anymore, causing her to walk right past him ‘‘with a hurt expression and a flicker of gray above her temple.’’ He does not play with his children anymore as he did in the past. Opponents no longer fear him, and he himself can no longer enjoy simple pleasures that used to mean much to him. On the other hand, he does have more freedom: In the past, he used to turn down the volume on his radio as he approached the stadium because he was a role model for the children, but now it does not matter who hears him; they would not care anyway. And his slump continues because he cannot care enough about his own performance to make them care.

The Ballplayer’s Wife
Trying to help the narrator break out of his slump, his wife tried shocking him, on the night before this story was narrated, by coming into the bedroom wearing a rubber gorilla mask that belonged to one of their children. The fact that she did this as an attempt at therapy is clear from the fact that she brought a stopwatch with her to measure in tenths of a second how long it took him to react. That she thought to time him, and that she thought of this idea to test his reflexes at all, shows that she understands the life of a ballplayer.

She is only mentioned in the narrative in the context of the gorilla mask incident, which comes up a second time when the narrator is talking about dread. He mentions his wife in a mask as an almost erotic image, mentioning that in the old days he would have taken fast, decisive action if she has approached him in such an exotic way; now, she goes away disappointed. And he spends more time outside by himself on the lawnmower than he did before the slump. The third time he mentions the gorilla mask, he thinks that she was probably hinting at his need for a change of pace. Since his interpretation of her action changes throughout the story, with no new input from her, it is difficult for readers to tell her real intentions from those that he assigns to her.

The Coach
The ballplayer’s coach is only mentioned in the first sentence, as agreeing with the newspapers and the fans in thinking that the slump is caused by ‘‘reflexes.’’ He is conspicuous by his absence: Since coaches are supposed to help athletes play better, the fact that this player in the middle of a slump has so little to say about his coach, and so much to say about Kierkegaard, indicates to readers that his problem stems from philosophical causes.