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Among contemporary American novelists, John Updike is our most prolific and talented writer of marriage fiction. Having taken up the subject of marriage in "Ace in the Hole," his second published short story, he has treated this topic as a central concern throughout his twenty-six years as a publishing writer. At age forty-nine the author of ten novels, five short story collections, four volumes of poetry, a play, and a vast quantity of non-fiction, Updike has regularly addressed the subject of marriage in all but one of the literary forms he practices. Of these, most important is the novel and in particular, Rabbit, Run (1960), Of the Farm (1965), Couples (1968), Rabbit Redux (1971), and Marry Me (1976). In these novels, the marriage portrait is an object of characterization as vital as those of the central figures in each work. As it has been in the past so hopefully in the future marriage will continue to engage this writer's interest. All of Updike's fiction bespeaks a vision and technique, which place him in the foremost rank of contemporary American writers yet he retains a special distinction among them, for his unique treatment of the institution of marriage.
Updike's early marriage stories are collected in The Same Door (1959) and Pigeon Feathers (1962). Each of them concerns the central character's youthful reaction to the subtle and complex demands of marriage. As recognition stories plot centers upon the character's response to a new situation pertaining to the nature of his relationship to his wife. The character's reaction to that situation identifies the degree to which he understands the responsibilities of his marital role.
Updike uses dramatic irony to characterize those figures who fail to advance beyond a solipsistic point of view. Frequently described as emotionally immature and callous, these characters are either threatened by their marital responsibilities or else altogether ignorant of them. In those stories wherein a character exemplifies self-growth, Updike describes the revelation/climax as a moment of marital harmony. However, rather than a shared moment, the apprehension of emotional union is experienced solely by the husband.
All of the marriage stories in The Same Door originally appeared in The New Yorker while Updike was working for the magazine as a roving reporter and book reviewer (1955-57). Twenty-three when the first marriage story, ââ‚¬Å“Ace in the Hole," was published, Updike, a young husband and father, here initiates his treatment of the conflict between individual freedom and marital existence that typifies his approach to the subject of marriage. to three of the stories--"Ace in the Hole," "Toward Evening," and "Incest"--the husband evades any kind of authentic communication with his wife by indulging in a fantasy about the past or an erotic encounter. In "Sunday Teasing," Arthur and Macy's marriage is seen to be reduced to a performer-observer relationship. "Snowing in
Greenwich Village," the first Maple story, recounts Richardsââ‚¬â„¢s initial experience with an available woman. In each of these stories, the husband has neither the subtlety nor sensitivity to recognize and fulfill the demands placed upon him as a marriage partner.
With the exception of "Ace in the Holeââ‚¬Â, the stories in this series demonstrate the characters' willingness to perform the obvious duties of husband and/or father while refusing to answer more subtle needs. For example, while Rafe, Richard Maple, Arthur, and Lee do not question their role as family provider, they evade their wives implicit requests for attention or sympathy. Thus their understanding of marital responsibility is limited to material concerns. Commitment to the marriage partner is replaced by commitment to the institution of marriage. As a result, these characters cannot honor or communicate emotional needs. Their feelings of entrapment as well as their reliance upon fantasizing indicate their own dissatisfaction with what has become the central concern of their marriages.
In these early stories, "Ace in the Hole," "Toward Evening," "Snowing in Greenwich Village," "Sunday teasing," and "Incest," Updike characterizes individuals who have not established a mutually satisfying relationship with their partners. Had Updike, in describing the wives of these characters, justified his husbands' evasive strategies, the judgment that he is cynical toward marriage would be accurate. But he does not characterize these wives with an eye toward inducing sympathy for the husbands. On the contrary, he correlates the uneasy condition of each marriage with his male characters' refusal of commitment. The characteristic form of that refusal, a reversion to fantasy, will become his later protagonists' major strategy of evasion.
Two of the marriage stories in Pigeon Feathers, "Walter Briggs" and "The Crow in the Woods," concern a couple named Jack and Clare. In the third, "Wife-Wooing," a first person narrator offers an unspoken encomium to his wife. Marking a departure from The Same Door stories, each of these celebrates the husband's vision of marital happiness. Described as a moment of insight, the vision signifies the characters acquisition of a new perspective toward his wife.
In "Walter Briggs," Jack discovers that he and his wife are still capable of engaging each other's attention after five years of marriage. Convinced that they had already exhausted each other's fund of shared memories and anecdotes, he delights in his wife's recall of their stay at a YMCA Camp after they were first married. To Jack, Clare's vivid memory of that period is both a generous gift and a sign that their relationship is still vital. In "The Crow in the Woods," Jack bestows a gift upon his wife when he gets up with the baby early in the morning after they had been out late the night before. Stumbling without complaint through the preparation of the infant's breakfast, Jack hears his wife's movement above stairs with relief and gratitude.
While she efficiently completes this preparation, he experiences a revelation about the mutual dependence between his wife and himself which, paradoxically, honors their inherent differences. "Wife-Wooing" also contains the gift motif but it emphasizes the freedom of the bestower as the central determinant in evaluating the quality of the gift. Wishing to make love to his wife, the first person narrator graciously accepts her unexpected refusal. When she approaches him the next night, he perceives that he had not previously granted her the necessary freedom to accept him of her own volition. Lacking the egotism of The Same Door husbands, this character feels doubly rewarded by his wife's honest refusal and, the following night, her genuine desire to be with him.
These short simple stories illustrate fleeting instances of the husband's emotional attachment to his wife. They are described with a lyric intensity which underscores the special significance each represents to the central character. However, it must be emphasized that these are not shared moments; they are experienced and enjoyed in isolation. Furthermore, the characters relish these moments as if, given the context of the marital environment, they could not have been previously anticipated. Thus the husbands' enjoyment of the revelation is as much owing to its unexpectedness as to its emblematic significance.
In the next three volumes of short stories, The Music School (1966), Museums and Women (1972), and Problems (1979), Updike describes first the deteriorating marriage and then the pain of separation. Whereas in The Same Door stories the youth of the husband and the relatively short duration of the marriage make it impossible to predict with certainty whether or not the marital relationship will improve or further degenerate, in the marriage stories of the first two volumes, the couple's separation is imminent in Problems, the theme of guilt for the past and adjustment to the present establishes the dissolved marriage as a fait accompli. Of the nine marriage stories included in The Music School and Museums and Women, six concern the Maples, whom Updike first introduced in "Snowing in Greenwich Village."
With the exception of this first story, the Maple series charts the progressive deterioration leading to the couple's separation and divorce. On the one hand, Updike's sympathy toward both of these characters issues in an exacting and sensitive history of their twenty-two years of marriage. On the other, a failure to maintain objectivity toward them precludes the approach used in the marriage novels, whereby Updike simultaneously characterizes a marriage and evaluates that characterization according to the criterion of his norm of authentic commitment. Thus Richard Maple, whose egotism and immaturity wax and wane throughout the series, is frequently the recipient of Updike's compassion rather than the kind of censure applied to other characters similar to Richard.
In his marriage short stories, Updike initiates characterizations, themes, and techniques that appear in his marriage novels. For example, in the novels the male protagonist bears strong similarities to the typical husband of the short stories. In respect to a characteristic psychology, the central figures of both genres (excluding
Pigeon Feathers) perceive marriage as a trap from which they attempt to escape by various means. Furthermore, in the novels Updike expands his treatment of the theme of false idealism which figures prominently in the majority of the short stories. A second theme, the paradox of marital dependence and independence, first appears in the stories in Pigeon Feathers. Whereas this theme is most explicitly treated in of the Farm, it is the basis of the norm present in each of the five novels. Finally, Updike employs certain scene setting techniques that in both the short story and the novel characterize the physical and emotional environment of a marriage. Often, specific objects in a catalogue of household furnishings (for example, the cobbler's bench in Rabbit Redux) are linked by imagery to the values of one or both marriage partners. Similarly, Updike exploits certain recurring situations for the purpose of depicting the ways his characters respond as husband and wife. The description of a characteristic response serves to illustrate established patterns of authentic as well as apparent communication.
While the marriage stories do not, as a unit, chronologically precede the marriage novels, I suggest that Updike consistently uses the novel form to develop key situations, personalities, and themes which initially appear in the short stories. Therefore, although these stories are unquestionably important in their own right, they best serve an attempt to discuss Updike's attitude toward and treatment of marriage in an introductory capacity.
In Rabbit, Run, the first marriage novel, Updike recounts the experiences of a twenty-six year old boy who, like Peter Pan, refuses to grow up. An extended version of the story "Ace in the Hole," this novel explores the consequences of Rabbit's solipsistic idealism. Contrasting his depiction of those events comprising the actual environment of the novel with the interior space into which Rabbit retreats, Updike characterizes Rabbit's willed isolation from his family and, in particular, his wife Janice. An extremely fearful character, Rabbit associates security with the unqualified isolation which Updike images as the atemporal, non-spatial realm of this character's consciousness.
In this dark novel, Updike exposes the empty shell of his characters' marriages. From the hypocrisy of the Springers' relationship to the parasitism of the elder Angstroms' to the savagely repressed incompatibility of the Eccles', one by one, the various marriages reveal his characters' strategies for evading emotional connection.
Rabbit and Janice's marriage is equally empty; it is the violent consequences of this condition that sets them apart from the others. Like her husband, Janice is a threatened, unstable person who communicates with Rabbit only to extort something from him. When the two speak to one another, the inevitable disagreement which arises triggers
Rabbit's sense of suffocation and he then flees. Willing to converse, but unwilling to communicate, Janice and Rabbit can be called partners only in respect to the unyielding mistrust each has of the other.
Updike's evaluation of Rabbit's behavior and the condition of his marriage is rendered by means of dramatic and romantic irony, psychological setting, and through the limited perspective of the child Nelson. The death of the infant Rebecca provides a painfully dramatic climax to Rabbit and Janice's failure to accept marital and familial responsibilities. Even more damning is Rabbit's refusal to acknowledge his part in the baby's death. No one, finally, can penetrate Rabbit's inner space: dismissing his pregnant mistress as casually as he abandons his only surviving child, Rabbit, once again, escapes the muddle of circumstance.
Like Rabbit, Joey Robinson dwells in the past, though unlike Rabbit, Joey relives old memories as a means of self punishment. Both burdened with possessive mothers who seemingly encourage their sons' retreat into the past, Rabbit and Joey avoid the complexity of their present lives by regressing to a state of puerile dependence. In Of the Farm, however, Joey rises above this initial condition to a level of self-awareness that signifies his independence of the past and his mother. In turn, this discovery enables him to offer a bond of authentic commitment to his wife Peggy.
Updike has chosen as his epigraph to Of the Farm Sartres assertion that the individual must experience the condition of freedom himself before he can comprehend the significance of freedom to others. In the novella, this idea is expressed in several ways: as long as Joey continues to permit his past to control his present life, he cannot conceive of himself and his mother as separate individuals; yet when he frees himself from the past, he not only becomes aware of his autonomy, he, more importantly, accepts the responsibility that the condition of freedom imposes upon the individual. Having gained this insight by means of revelations which have a cumulative effect upon him, Joey then grants Peggy freedom from his dependence upon her as well as from the stereotype by which he has negated her personality. As a result of this change in the nature of his relationship to her, Joey advances beyond passive dependence to a stage of active responsibility for himself and his marriage.
Updike illustrates the beginning of Joey's progression toward independence by describing Joey's differentiation between his guilt-laden nostalgia for the past and a more objective recall of events as they actually occurred. Continually hovering over those reminders of the past scattered about his mother's house, Joey discovers, to his own surprise, that the images which come piecemeal to his mind testify to a forgotten unhappiness pervading both his youth and first marriage. In consequence, the guilt he experiences for divorcing his first wife diminishes in proportion to his ability to remember the problems of the earlier marriage.
A similar revision occurs in Joey's attitude toward Peggy. Seeing her as an erotic goddess who has lured him from his unsuspecting wife, Joey responds solely to his own creation, ignoring in Peggy all but this fantastic role. Always susceptible to the judgments of his mother (who shares this attitude toward Peggy with him), Joey unsuccessfully resists Mrs. Robinson's characterization of Peggy's vulgarity and even stupidity. However, when Joey accepts the responsibility of forming independent judgments, he not only releases his mother from the burden of making decisions for him, he corrects his own faulty perspective toward Peggy.
Written in the first person, Of the Farm is itself a memory Joey narrates. As an event of signal importance to him, the visit to the farm represents a period of growth and acceptance. Through Joey's consciousness, Updike elaborates upon the discovery of a right relation in marital partnership and the conditions preparatory to that discovery. Defining marriage in the Sunday sermon as a bond of faith between autonomous yet complementary individuals, he presents evidence in Joey and Peggy's relationship that authentic commitment is a realistic possibility.
In Of the Farm, Joey Robinson effects a change in his marriage in light of a willingness to accept responsibility as a condition of his independence; in Couples, the characters re-order their marriages according to a definition of freedom which negates responsibility. Undertaking to alter the patterns and limitations of marital existence, the Tarbox group establishes a code of behavior which promulgates their credo of "essential," i.e., qualified fidelity. Naively assuming that allegiance to a marital partner need not restrict an individual's sexual freedom, the characters pardon themselves the necessity of honoring what they consider an out-moded prohibition.
Among many techniques illustrating the psychic damage the characters experience in the name of "essential" fidelity, those which specifically depict the consequences of the group's false ideal are the corrupt children motif, the anonymity motif, and the invasion of domestic space theme. Whether Updike is describing the characters as group, as illicit lovers, or as individuals, he portrays them as greedy, spoiled children. Dreading those adult responsibilities which call them back to the weekday routine of home and professional life, the ten couples meet continuously as a group; in between parties, lovers pair off with equal regularity. When Updike describes either, he focuses upon the childishness of these characters and the absurd postures they affect. In addition, he establishes a connection between the vitality of the group and a reduction in the characters' freedom of movement and expression. Whereas group members pronounce their intra-group relationships free of out-moded social restrictions and traditional decorum, they in fact sacrifice their individuality in order to conform to the regimen of group sanctioned behavior. Updike demonstrates the characters' melding into an indistinguishable pack with imagery depicting the effect of this reductive process. For example, after Marcia little Smith and Janet Appleby swap husbands with each other's consent, Updike likens them to faceless victims in a hospital ward. Finally, Updike uses the occasions of group parties and lovers' trysts to illustrate the group's invasion of domestic space. Focusing upon trivial events such as scarring furniture as well as more significant events such as appropriating the marriage bed for adulterous encounters, he portrays group members as an alien force invading and contaminating the home, a symbol of private, even sacred, space.
In Couples, Updike makes it clear that the group's reordering of marriage values is not inappropriate, but rather misconceived. Thus he provides a lengthy explanation of the group credo as a reaction against an older generation's spiritless obeisance to marital prohibitions. However, he demonstrates that the characters' choice of "essential" fidelity is a step backward. His depiction of the consequences of this choice exemplifies the convictions that fidelity is not divisible and that freedom without responsibility, a false ideal, cannot provide the individual strategies for participation in the given world.
That the Harry Angstrom of Rabbit, Run could step forth in Rabbit Redux as an exemplar of authentic emotional commitment is surely one of Updike's most amazing accomplishments. Yet this is exactly what happens: the older Rabbit moves toward, not away from, the shared intimacy of marriage. Having returned to his wife after his final desertion at the cemetery and lived with her for ten uneventful years, Rabbit, now thirty-six, is paid in kind by Janice when she leaves him for a used-car salesman. During her absence, Rabbit opens his home to a runaway girl and a black Vietnam veteran who has jumped bail. As a result of his contact with these two individuals, Rabbit identifies his need for a committed relationship with his wife and, equally as important, accepts the responsibility of pursuing this ideal.
In this novel, Updike contrasts description of physical setting with the domestic imagery of psychological setting expressing Rabbit's domestic ideals. Beginning the novel with the Apollo Eleven lift-off, he presents this technological feat as an emblem of society's preference for scientific as opposed to humanitarian goals. Furthermore, he identifies the dreary sub-divisions, endless parking lots, and fast-food restaurants that compose the topography of the novel with the instability and disconnectedness of his characters. As representative members of the young generation, Jill and Skeeter, Rabbit's make-shift family, survive respectively on drugs and hatred, extreme forms of disconnection.
By means of his exposure to these two characters, Rabbit discovers the selfishness beneath his bland loyalty to Janice. Previously unaware of his unconscious resentment toward her, he learns to distinguish between apparent fidelity and authentic commitment. Updike reveals Rabbit's consciousness of this distinction through images which express his desire for another chance to connect with Janice. In contrast to an earlier dependence upon his own inner space, this older and wiser Rabbit continually looks for evidence that a connection is possible. The images that come to his mind presage the reunion at the Safe Haven Motel.
In the novel's concluding scene, Updike synthesizes Rabbit's domestic imagery with the space imagery found throughout the novel. Thus Janice, having returned from her journey to the moon, re-docks with her "earthman" Rabbit. Forgiving one another the pain each has caused, they achieve the absolute connection Rabbit associates with the visual paradox of motion and stillness in a bird's flight. At rest and yet moving toward one another, it seems certain to Rabbit they are "drifting deeper into being married." In Marry Me, Updike presents an idealist, a modern-day Tristan, who creates an ideal realm for the purpose of escaping the tedium and complexity of social existence. Unlike the younger Rabbit Angstrom, Jerry Conant possesses the imagination of an artist; as such the realm he creates is a visually rich "mindscape" of reflecting pools, mirrors, and exotic hide-aways. Even more to the point of Updike's psychological approach to his protagonist, Jerry locates an Iseult to inhabit this realm with him.
When Jerry begins to feel constricted by his marriage to Ruth, he forms an intense attachment to Sally Mathias who is also married. The progression of their affair constitutes the novel's plot line and yet adultery is rather a situation than a central concern of the novel. Identifying Jerry as a Tristan figure, Updike employs the occasion of Jerry's adultery to describe a universal impulse toward an ideal love object.
Jerry's attraction to Sally is contingent upon her unattainableness. Stolen moments at the beach and furtive trips to Washington only serve to enhance Jerry's stricture that their love remain forbidden. His refusal to legitimize their relationship in order to preserve its ideal character is the central tenet of Updike's psychology of ideal love. Related to it is the lover's vision of his beloved. In consequence of the nature of his love for Sally, Jerry refuses to see her as an actual person since her significance to him is as an embodiment of his ideals. Thus while ideal love mandates an unattainable object, at the same time the lover envisions this object as a reflection of himself. In
Jerry's spoken and unspoken thoughts, this aspect emerges in the doubling imagery he consistently relies upon when describing Sally's appeal to him.
Updike's qualified acceptance of Denis de Rougemont's theories of romantic love is well known. Yet his now famous review of Love in the Western World is as important a statement of his own theory as it is an explanation of de Rougemont's. Of particular significance to his treatment of ideal love in Marry Me is his comment about Tristan's creation of Iseult. Emphasizing the imaginativeness and artistry of the Tristanian lover, Updike expounds on the fictitious object a lover fashions from his innermost self. In Marry Me, he illustrates this component with doubling imagery evoking the narcissism of Jerry's infatuation. Thus while the impulse toward an ideal love object originates in a search for self-validation, it is a solipsistic act and as such cannot alter the condition which has occasioned it.
Jerry sheds the Tristan role by a process of discovery that enables him to define the interiority of ideal love. As a result, he again becomes a social being in the sense of directing his emotions toward another person rather than an object he has created. At the same time no longer at odds with actual circumstances, he consigns the ideal realm to his imagination. As it happens, the person Jerry wants to be married to is not Sally but Ruth. Like her counterpart, Iseult of the White Hands, in Updike's "Four Sides of One Story," Ruth is convinced that her husband suffers from a temporary delusion. While she is not always certain Jerry will return to her, she intuits considerably earlier than he the inevitable conclusion of his ideal romance.
Jerry and Ruth reunite, like Rabbit and Janice, in a scene that certifies their pact of allegiance. Whereas previously Jerry had been threatened by Ruth's individuality, he now accepts their differences. Their mutual decision to continue a "parallel" relationship signifies his willingness to commit himself to an actual, rather than ideal, partner. While Updike presents highly individualized variations of his characters' marital strategies for both evasion of and connection to one another, each of these novels holds as a standard of evaluation his norm of authentic commitment. In two of the novels, Rabbit, Run and Couples, the characters are unwilling to initiate a process of self-growth that would enable them to accept the requirements of commitment to a marriage partner. However, in Of the Farm, Rabbit Redux, and Marry Me, the protagonists emerge from their solipsistic isolation. Re-entering, in an emotional sense, the environment of marriage, they affirm a partnership based on shared needs and responsibilities.