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"Dentistry and Doubt" | John Updike's Complete Stories Summary Analysis

“Dentistry and Doubt” (1955)
Reading John Updike’s Complete Stories

(Click to order)

This series is a re-reading of John Updike’s short stories in the wake of the publication of “The Collected Early Stories” and “The Collected Later Stories,” the twin-volume set by the Library of America (2013), edited by Christopher Carduff. Updike wrote some 230 stories in five and a half decades. The commentaries include the Maple and Bech stories, most of which are excluded from the Library of America edition in anticipation of a subsequent volume collecting those. Contact the editor for questions, debates or corrections. A hyperlinked list of the compete stories appears below.

[Written in Oxford in 1955, “Dentistry and Doubt” was published in the Oct. 29, 1955 issue of The New Yorker, collected in The Same Door, The Early Stories, and the Library of America’s Collected Early Stories.]

You can take this series of stories, of which this is the first, two ways: as almost essay-like theological explorations of one’s place in the universe, meditations on the meaning of life and the harassing proximity of death; or as tedious, repetitive, contrived and self-absorbed examinations of a self looking for spiritual clarity and finding at best fantastic metaphors. The stories have an allegorical feel but since their subject is always the narrator, the breadth of the allegory is always limited. The style is elevated, giving an illusion of depth that the substance of the story does not always vindicate.


In “Dentistry and Doubt,” Burton is a divinity student at Oxford. He must visit a dentist. He presumed that his clerical collar would invite assumptions. It’s perhaps too much of an assumption as the dentist proves less than enthralled by his patient. Indifference, impatience with Yanks, is more like it. The distance between Burton and the dentist imbues the dentist with a touch of divinity, again a device Updike will use to good effect in future stories, such as “Farrell’s Caddie.” Burton is exploring his personal cosmology, just then illumined by Richard Hooker, the Anglican theologian.

Dentist and patient banter lightly. The dentist appears to be unaware of Burton’s home state, Pennsylvania, which Burton describes as an “in-between sort of state.” I liked the reaction of Jim Higgins, the book editor of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, who in his summary of the story noted: ” In-between what? New York and Ohio? As a Pittsburgh native born in 1958, I never felt that way about Pennsylvania, an important state in American political history. I’ll take this odd response as a reflection of Updike the small-town lad, making his way at one of the world’s great universities.”

The theological musings are not particularly engrossing, unless you’re into that sort of spiritual Rubik’s cubing. Between attempts not to feel the procedure’s pain Burton reflects about his pride, his doubt, the limits of his comprehension: “There were things Burton could comprehend. And then there were things he could not, such as God’s aeons-long wait as life struggled up from the atom and the algae. With what emotion did he watch all those preposterous, earnest beasts labor up out of the swamp and aimlessly perish on the long and crooked road to Man? And the stars, so far off, the comedy of waste spaces…” It’s simplistic, and the anthropomorphism, the rendering of “Man” as the only cause of creation is off-putting, though that’s an essential part of Updike’s philosophy.

Burton likes the view from the dentist’s chair. He likes the birds in the backyard. By the time he’s getting the silver, he’s making ample discoveries about the world’s mechanics. The dentist had asked for a Hooker quote earlier. Burton remembers one as he’s leaving, a heavy-handed conclusion to the sermon gilded in the artifice of fiction: “I grant we are apt, prone, and ready, to forsake God; but is God as ready to forsake us? Our minds are changeable; is His so likewise?”

Endless stories can be constructed around the theologically unanswerable.The question is whether the stories are worth the effort. They might bore god.

–P.T.

John Updike: The Complete Stories (Click on Links for Summaries and Analyses)

Title
Year Written
First Published
First Collected
Ace In the Hole
1954
New Yorker, April 9, 1955
The Same Door (1959)
Friends From Philadelphia
1954
New Yorker, Oct. 30, 1954
The Same Door (1959)
A Game of Botticelli
1954
The Liberal Context, Fall 1963
Collected Early Stories (2013)
Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth
1955
New Yorker, Apr. 30, 1954
The Same Door (1959)
Dentistry and Doubt
1955
New Yorker, Oct. 29, 1955
The Same Door (1959)
Snowing in Greenwich Village (The Maples)
1955
New Yorker, Jan. 21, 1956
The Same Door (1959)
The Kid's Whistling
1955
New Yorker, Dec. 3, 1955
The Same Door (1959)
Toward Evening
1955
New Yorker, Feb. 11, 1956
The Same Door (1959)
Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow
1956
New Yorker, April 7, 1956
The Same Door (1959)
Wife-wooing (The Maples)
1960
New Yorker, March 12, 1960
Pigeon Feathers (1962)
Giving Blood (The Maples)
1963
New Yorker, April 6, 1963
The Music School (1966)
Twin Beds in Rome (The Maples)
1963
New Yorker, February 6, 1964
The Music School (1966)
The Bulgarian Poetess (Bech)
1964
New Yorker, March 13, 1965
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech in Rumania
1966
New Yorker, Oct. 8, 1966
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech Takes Pot Luck
1968
New Yorker, Oct. 7, 1968
Bech: A Book (1970)
Rich in Russia (Bech)
1969
New Yorker, Jan. 31, 1970
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech Swings?
1969
New Yorker, Jan. 31, 1970
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech Panics
1970
No magazine publication
Bech: A Book (1970)
Bech Enters Heaven
1970
No magazine publication
Bech: A Book (1970)
The Gun Shop
1972
New Yorker, Feb. 25, 1972
Problems (1979)
Believers
1972
Harper's, July 1972
Problems (1979)
How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time
1972
New Yorker, Aug. 19, 1972
Problems (1979)
Nevada
1972
Playboy, January 1974
Problems (1979)
Sons
1973
New Yorker, April 21, 1973
Problems (1979)
Daughter, Last Glimpse Of
1973
New Yorker, November 5, 1973
Problems (1979)
Ethiopia
1973
New Yorker, Jan. 14, 1974
Problems (1979)
Transaction
1973
Oui, March 1974
Problems (1979)
Augustine's Concubine
1974
The Atlantic, April 1975
Problems (1979)
Except for most of the Maples stories and the Henry Bech stories, the summaries and analyses are based on the texts presented in the two-volume Library of America edition of the complete stories (2013).
 

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