“Dentistry and Doubt” (1955)
Reading John Updike’s Complete Stories
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.
John Updike: The Complete Stories (Click on Links for Summaries and Analyses)
|Ace In the Hole|
|Friends From Philadelphia|
|A Game of Botticelli|
|Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth|
|Dentistry and Doubt|
|Snowing in Greenwich Village (The Maples)|
|The Kid's Whistling|
|Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow|
|Wife-wooing (The Maples)|
|Giving Blood (The Maples)|
|Twin Beds in Rome (The Maples)|
|The Bulgarian Poetess (Bech)|
|Bech in Rumania|
|Bech Takes Pot Luck|
|Rich in Russia (Bech)|
|Bech Enters Heaven|
|The Gun Shop|
|How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time|
|Daughter, Last Glimpse Of|