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.
[“Wife-wooing” was published in the March 12, 1960 issue of The New Yorker, collected in Pigeon Feathers, Too Far To Go, The Early Stories, and the Library of America’s Collected Early Stories.]
Though not a Maple story in the classical sense–it’s in the first rather than the third person, Richard and Joan are not named, the man’s object of desire is, for once, his wife, though object is the operative word–Updike included it in Too Far To Go, as the second story in the Maple collection. They have been married seven years. They have three children. He still finds her attractive down to her thighs, whose “parallel whiteness of their undersides is exposed to the fire’s warmth and to my sight,” and to his Joycean fantasies. He remembers the line from Ulysses, “Smacked smackwarm on her smackable warm woman’s thigh. Something like that.” (The exact line is “Smack. She set free sudden in rebound her nipped elastic garter smackwarm against her smackable a woman’s warmhosed thigh.”
The family is gathered around the fire as if in an “intimate cave.” He’s just returned from gathering food, meat, hamburger and fries, “wrested warm from the raw hands of the hamburger girl in the diner a mile away” (that’s the extent of his hunting). They eat. We don’t know what’s going on in any of the character’s minds except his. To him, it’s an erotically charged atmosphere. He still finds his wife desirable after seven years though she’s become his “wide wife,” her “toes an inch closer to the blaze,” her “thigh’s inner side  lazily laid bare,” and that garter “smackwarm against my hidden heart.” He doesn’t speak his feelings but rather philosophizes–showing off? To us? To an invisible audience, instead of making conversation with his wife?) about the necessities of wooing even a wife, his evening’s intentions having been made clear. He’s horny. He wants some. But he knows: “Wife. A knife of a word that for all its final bite did not end the wooing. To my wonderment.” And: “Courting a wife takes tenfold the strength of winning an ignorant girl.” That tells you of Richard’s experience with ignorant girls, his willingness to let his libido come first, as it does here. His wife has responsibilities. He interprets them solipsistically: “You love the baby more than me.”
But there’s no wooing whatsoever. That’s the irony of the title. Whatever wooing going on is in his head. He’s not courting, he’s not attempting to seduce. He’s inwardly yammering, too enthralled by his Joycean tongue to so much as attempt a pass at hers.
He still desires her as they undress at 11 for bed, if with a note of self-congratulatory conceit that seems to say, look at me, she’s fat, but I’m still willing to love her: “”oh, fat white sweet fatness.” But then, horror of horror. She goes for another Dick. She reads a book about Richard Nixon. This is 1959, 1960 mind you, well before Nixon has become the trickster in chief, though even then he fascinates her and she hates him. He tries to draw her away from the book by pretending to summarize it for her. He’s hurt. “Once my ornate words wooed you.” Words he doesn’t way out loud. She wants to finish the chapter. She falls asleep.
Then, the Updikean cruelty. “”In the morning , to my relief, you are ugly. Monday’s wan breakfast light bleaches you blotchily, drains the goodness from your thickness, makes the bathrobe a limp stained tube flapping disconsolately, exposing sallow décolletage. The skin between your breasts a sad yellow. I feast with the coffee on your drabness, every wrinkle and sickly tint a relief and a revenge.” The words carry the sting of misogyny. They’re not merely descriptive. They condemn. A wife senses the disdain even when it’s not verbalized. It is pure objectification, as it had been the evening before, but on the flip side. There is no remorse on the narrator’s part. He’s being as clinical with his cruel description of his wife as he had been textually analytical with the “irrefutably magical life language leads within itself” the night before. Are we to assume that he, on the other hand, is still as handsome as he was seven years before? That his breath doesn’t stink, his skin doesn’t flake?
Reflecting on Updike’s meanness in U and I (1991) , Nicholson Baker asked and answered: “Mean? Yes, he is mean.” He singled out that passage in “Wife-Wooing” as particularly egregious: “The meanness that first bothered me, though, when I encountered it a decade ago, long before I was married, was in a short story in Pigeon Feathers in which a young husband returns with hamburgers and eats them happily with his family in front of the fire, and thinks lovingly of his wife’s Joyceanly “smakwarm thighs,” and then, in the next paragraph, says a narrator (the “you” directed at the narrator’s wife), ‘In the morning, to my relief, you are ugly…. The skin between your breasts is a sad yellow.’ And a little later, ‘Seven years have worn this woman.'” This hit me as inexcusably brutal when I read it. I couldn’t imagine Updike’s real, nonfictional wife reading that paragraph and not being made very unhappy.”
That evening when she woos him “with a kiss of toothpaste to me moist and girlish and quick,” he rejects her: “an expected gift is not worth giving.”
The Updike paradox: a story as beautifully written as its narrator is repulsive.
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|