Separating by John Updike

Separating - John UpdikeIn Separating by John Updike we have the theme of struggle, confusion, conflict, acceptance and separation. Taken from his The Early Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Updike may be exploring not only the theme of separation but the theme of conflict and struggle too. Richard and Joan disagree with each other when it comes to how they should tell their children that they plan on separating. Richard wants to tell the children when the family are sitting down for dinner while Joan would prefer if each child was told individually. By telling the reader that Joan’s ‘plan turned one hurdle for him (Richard) into four—four knife-sharp walls, each with a sheer blind drop on the other side’ Updike also manages to highlight to the reader the difficulty or struggle that Richard feels when it comes to telling the children that he is separating from Joan. It may also be important that though the reader is aware (or at least suspects) that Richard and Joan are separating due to Richard having had an affair, none of the children are aware of this. By keeping the children in the dark about why Richard and Joan are separating Updike succeeds in adding confusion (particularly for John and Dickie) into the story.

Updike also appears to be exploring the theme of acceptance. Apart from John, who seems to be confused as to why his parents may be separating, each of Richard and Joan’s children appear to accept the fact that their parents are planning on separating. How accepting Judith is of her parents planned separation is noticeable when on discovering that Richard and Joan plan to separate, just for the summer, she tells Joan ‘I think it’s silly. You should either live together or get divorced.’ This line may be important as not only does it suggest that Judith accepts the possibility of her parents separating (and divorcing) but Updike may also be highlighting the independence that may have existed among young women at the time the story was written (1974). Just as Judith felt a sense of freedom while she was in England similarly it is possible that Updike is suggesting that Judith may be of a generation who no longer see the necessity in remaining in a marriage should either person be unhappy. Joan also seems to fully accept that her marriage to Richard is over. However it is interesting that when Richard and Joan are in their bedroom, Joan does tell Richard that it is up to him to tell Dickie that they are separating, with it being implied ‘that’s one piece of your dirty work I won’t do for you.’ This line may also be important as though it would appear that Joan accepts the separation she still remains unwilling to make life any easier for Richard, ensuring that it is him and not her who tells Dickie that they are separating. If anything it would appear that Joan is attempting to make sure that Richard takes responsibility. It is after all as a result of his actions (of having the affair) that Richard and Joan have decided to separate.

It is also noticeable that throughout the story Richard is struggling. Not only does he find it difficult to tell the children about the separation (and ends up crying) but as he is working on the lock on the screen porch he also seems to be struggling. It is possible that Updike is also using the lock as symbolism. Locks as the reader would be aware are used to secure something. By having Richard change the lock Updike may be (at least symbolically) suggesting that Richard and Joan’s marriage is no longer as secure as it previously had been. There is also further symbolism in the story which may be important. The tennis court which has fallen into disrepair may symbolize Richard and Joan’s marriage. Just as the tennis court was once perfect likewise Richard and Joan’s marriage may also have been perfect (at the beginning). However just as the tennis court has fallen into disrepair so too has Richard and Joan’s marriage.

It is also possible that by giving Richard the surname Maples, Updike is introducing irony into the story. Maple trees are commonly known for their strength and endurance however unlike the tree Richard and Joan’s marriage does not last. It is also noticeable that out of all the characters in the story Joan, Judith and Margaret appear to be the most resilient (or display an ability to endure and overcome difficulty). This may be important as by allowing the female characters in the story to be resilient Updike may be deliberately reversing the perceived gender roles that may have existed at the time the story was written (men being strong and women being weak). Rather than attributing any strength to the male characters in the story Updike appears to be reversing gender roles (or perceived gender roles) and allowing each of the females in the story to be strong and accepting of the separation.

The end of the story is also interesting as Updike appears to be further exploring the theme of confusion. By having Dickie ask Richard ‘Why?’ Updike succeeds in highlighting to the reader the confusion that Dickie may be feeling over Richard’s plans to separate from Joan. The fact that the reader is also aware that Richard has ‘forgotten why’ he is separating from Joan may also be significant as Updike may be suggesting that despite having had an affair Richard may no longer be as excited as he had previously been about starting a new life with another woman There is a sense that rather than being excited about the prospect of a new life Richard may actually regret his actions (of having an affair). No longer is he as sure as he had been at the beginning of the story that what he is doing (leaving Joan) is the right thing to do.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "Separating by John Updike." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 4 Jul. 2015. Web.

10 comments

  • I’ve read a couple of Updike divorce stories and I like how he focuses on the current emotions. Not necessarily how the marriage fell apart (though here we do find out about his affair) but how people work through the separation at the moment and try to make sense of their new lives.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Hila. There definitely is a sense that Updike is focusing on the present and how each character feels about the separation rather than drawing (or pulling) the reader into the past and exploring what may have motivated Richard to have the affair.

  • Love the way you narrowed each character’s perspective and how it affected Richard.

  • I just wanted to add that Joan never actually said that thing about dirty work. It is said that she didn’t need to add it, it was implied.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Helden. I just double checked the story and you are right. I’ve updated the post. Thanks for highlighting the error.

  • So how do we know which one Richard or Joan initiated the idea of separating?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Reason. We don’t know for sure but all signs point to Richard being the one who wants the separation. He wants to live with another woman and he is the one who is hesitant to tell the children about the separation which suggests that he knows that he is the guilty party.

  • What two sentences in the story give concrete evidence Richard would want to end his marriage?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Ben. One sentence very early on suggests that Richard would want to end his marriage. In the first paragraph Cheever tells the reader that ‘Richard had thought to leave at Easter.’ Another sentence also in the first paragraph is ‘So he had drudged away, in love, in dread, repairing screens, getting the mowers sharpened, rolling and patching their new tennis court.’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *