The Taste of Metal by John Updike
In The Taste of Metal by John Updike we have the theme of infidelity, control, dominance, loneliness and selfishness. Taken from his The Early Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Updike may be exploring the theme of infidelity. Not only has Eleanor’s husband cheated on her but Richard too cheats somewhat on Joan. Something that is predictable from the beginning of the story when Richard loses focus on everything around him apart from Eleanor’s legs. Though some critics might suggest that Eleanor and Richard kissing is no more than a drunken kiss. This may not necessarily be the case. Throughout the story there is a sense that Richard wants to be with Eleanor. Her marital status ‘separated’ also appears to arouse him. It is as though there will be no complications should he make an advance on Eleanor. At no stage in the story does Richard think of Joan. Rather it is Richard who tells Joan to go with the young man who sees Richard’s crash. By doing so the reader is aware that Richard is affording himself the opportunity to get closer to Eleanor. It is also interesting that Eleanor herself is the one who kisses Richard first and it is noticeable that he is receptive to her advances. Advances which last till the police arrive.
Updike may also be exploring the theme of control. Richard appears to control Joan. Though she has worries about his driving her and Eleanor home Richard does not allow Joan to drive the car. It may be a new car however it is clear to the reader that Richard is drunk and shouldn’t be driving in the first place. The fact that Richard also instructs Joan to go with the young man who sees the crash further suggests that Richard is the dominant person in his relationship with Joan. Symbolically it may also be important that Joan is sitting in the back seat of the car because in many ways she may be taking a back seat in her marriage to Richard. The crash itself may also have some symbolic significant as it highlights the reality of Richard’s life. He is not in control though he might like to think he is. Fueled by alcohol he loses control of not only the car but himself too when Eleanor kisses him. No thought whatsoever is given to how Joan may feel.
Other symbolism which may be important in the story includes Eleanor’s legs. Without her knowing it they have become an instrument of seduction for Richard. It is as though Richard longs to not only touch them but to have control over Eleanor entirely. To have her in a position in which he is dominant. However it is Eleanor who is the dominant force throughout the story. She is the one who is controlling Richard while they wait for Joan to come back. With it being crystal clear to the reader that Richard is receptive to Eleanor’s advances. As to what the trigger may be for Richard’s infidelity is difficult to say. Eleanor on the other hand may be lonely now that she is separated from her husband. It may also be significant that Updike doesn’t suggest to the reader that Eleanor is a friend of Richard and Joan’s. If anything she appears to more of an acquaintance who attends the same parties as Richard and John. So Richard may not feel guilt over his actions considering that Eleanor is neither his nor Joan’s friend. Though in all likelihood it probably makes no difference to Richard.
What is also interesting about the story is the fact that Richard sends Joan to get help. When the reality is he could have gone himself. He allowed his wife to get into the car with a stranger in the middle of the night in order to free himself up and pursue his desires with Eleanor. At all stages of the story the most important person in Richard’s life has been himself. He drove his car while drunk without consideration for others. He let his wife drive away with a stranger and his number one priority is to see if he can engage romantically with a woman who is not his wife. If anything throughout the story Richard has acted selfishly. However this is not something that appears to affect Richard. There is no sense of feeling guilty. If anything guilt is the furthest thing from Richard’s mind. Something that is noticeable by the fact the reader is aware of just how long Richard and Eleanor were kissing. Eleanor too appears to consolidate her loneliness by attaching herself to a married man. However at least she has some sort of valid reason. She as mentioned appears to be lonely. Whereas Richard is only thinking of himself and what he can get away with. Joan and her feelings are not even at the back of Richard’s mind. Richard seems to be driven by the excitement of having control over Eleanor however it may be as mentioned the other way around and Eleanor has control over Richard.