Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 609
The plot of “Walter Briggs” is a straightforward sequence of events, starting in the car in the drive from Boston and ending late that same night. The bulk of the action, however, is retrospective in that it takes place in the memory of the main character. Still, the emphasis is not in the events themselves, but on what they reveal about the protagonist and the effect they have on him. The journey as a plot device is a common one, and it is appropriate here in that it serves as a metaphor for Jack’s journey into a part of his past self that had been forgotten.
Jack’s character is revealed primarily through the exchanges with Clare. However, it is a very subtle dialogue in that the thrusts and parries of the conversation as well as the underlying hostility between Jack and his wife are artfully concealed beneath the banal observations of a somewhat bored couple on a tedious automobile trip. As often occurs in real life, the major issues between Jack and his wife are not directly stated but are indirectly brought out and then passed by as the conversation quickly shifts to another person or incident. In the end, Jack is revealed as a complex and dynamic character with very human failings yet also a person to like and perhaps admire. The author shows Jack as a person capable of change who manages to extract something permanently valuable from an unpromising evening in a car.
The point of view is limited omniscience; the story is told in the third person through the eyes of Jack, the protagonist. Although characterization mostly emerges from dialogue concerning memories from camp, the final important insight into Jack’s character comes from the author’s direct recording of what Jack is thinking and feeling, which permits one to see the intensity of Jack’s new awareness. Because the point of view is restricted to Jack’s consciousness, the reader learns about Clare only by what she says and does and by what Jack thinks of her, not through any authorial revelation of her thoughts.
“Walter Briggs” demonstrates those aspects of style for which John Updike is widely praised. Among these are the strong sense of time and place in modern America, created here by the references to contemporary religious and political figures, by his knowledge of everyday practices of Americans, and even by his mention of brand names and common commercial products. Updike also has a careful ear for the way people speak and for the rhythms of conversation. In the dialogue between Jack and Clare, Updike expertly captures the ebb and flow, repetitions, and interruptions of two people who know each other intimately. The opening conversation between Clare and her daughter Jo is a masterpiece of mother-child dialogue.
Above all, Updike is notable for a poetic style, which in a single telling phrase or in the perfect word or image evokes the essence of a character or a scene. The following description, for example, captures the bleakness of the summer cabin, which stands in contrast to the remembered richness of the experience there: “All around the cabin had stood white pines stretched to a cruel height by long competition, and the cabin itself had no windows, but broken screens.”
Finally, the title itself serves a dramatic function by creating a sense of mystery. Who is this character, Walter Briggs, one wonders, whose name Jack and Clare are so desperately trying to recollect? At the end, the name, fully shown again in the last two words of the story, is a helpful instrument for the revelation of Jack’s new awareness.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 105
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