Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This story is something of a classic in the subgenre of stories about school because of John Updike’s ability to capture the sense of being in the classroom. He meticulously re-creates the classroom setting by adding detail to detail in a successful evocation of the interplay between students and teacher and among students themselves. The details of description and dialogue reflect the acuteness of Updike’s eye and ear: Students act this way; teachers say these things.

This rich depiction of the setting is matched by Updike’s precise manipulation of point of view. Like Henry James, Updike tells his story through a center of consciousness whose intellectual and moral quality delineates theme. The narration is third-person but confined to the consciousness of Prosser. The reader experiences the classroom through the sensibility of the teacher. Thus, the reader not only knows what Prosser knows but also is in a position to evaluate the quality of Prosser’s processing of experience into wisdom.

The facile overgeneralizing about students as they enter the room marks Prosser as less than profound. The derogatory generalizations about redheads and about the desire of all adolescents to “glide” through life more precisely define the moral and intellectual limitations of this character. By generalizing, Prosser relieves the anxiety brought about by his need to be liked by his students, the sign of his emotional immaturity. Against the evidence of the notes to the other teachers, he insists that Gloria was sincere in his note. Macbeth’s generalizations are rooted deep in his experience; Prosser’s, only in the topsoil of his emotions.