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“Separating” (1975)

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  1. “Separating” (1975) John Updike

  2. John Updike (b.1932) • One of the most prolific American writers working today, famous for his “Rabbit” novels covering 4 decades: Rabbit, Run (1950s), Rabbit Redux (1960s), Rabbit Is Rich (1970s), Rabbit at Rest (1980s) • Born in Shillington, Pennsylvania, small town that is basis of his “Olinger” stories; an only child • Attended Harvard, then studied art in England • Worked for New Yorker magazine, then settled in Ipswich, Massachusetts

  3. John Updike (b.1932) • Other novels: The Centaur (1964), about high school teacher; Couples (1968), about marriage and adultery; The Witches of Eastwick, fantasy about modern-day New England witches (also film & musical); Roger’s Version (1986), about a theologian; Terrorist (2006), a post-Sept. 11 novel • In total, over 60 books: many novels, 6 books of poetry, a play, many essays

  4. Family Conflict • Modern marriage and separation • Father leaving the family: his ambivalence • Examination of middle class life: house, yard, tennis court • Telling the 4 children; their unique reactions • Special focus on relationship between father and sons

  5. Opening • Maples’ separation contrasts with • Nature: “the only stain in Nature” (2268) • Home improvements: new tennis court: “the Maples had observed how often, among their friends, divorce followed a dramatic home improvement” (2269) • Separation has been long discussed and is decided: they story is about how to do it

  6. Richard • The center of consciousness • Separation is his idea: there’s another woman. He is “in love” (2269) with a woman in town he hopes to marry (see 2275) • However, he dreads telling the children: “In his sealed heart he hoped the day would never come” (2269) • Ironically, the process of separating brings him closer to Joan: “Guiltily, he realized he did not feel separated” (2273)

  7. Joan • We see her from Richard’s perspective • Separation is not her idea, but she is resigned to it; she cooperates and even supports him • She insists on Richard handling it responsibly: “Joan’s plan was exact. . . .” (2269) • Her sarcasm and protests suggest her feelings: “your wonderful departure” (2269); “you made it look as though I was kicking you out”

  8. Symbols: Barriers/Lock • “All spring [Richard] had been morbidly conscious of insides and outsides, of barriers and partitions” (2270); barriers between: • Richard & Joan and the “truth” • Past and future • Telling the children and his “new life” • Inside and outside of house: “battening down the house against his absence”: the lock

  9. Symbols: Barriers/Lock • Finally, Richard cannot separate himself from the emotion of separating: • “The partition between himself and the tears broke”—from the image of Judith as their first baby • “The tears would not stop leaking through; they came not through a hole that could be plugged but through a permeable spot in a membrane” • Tears become new barrier, “a shield,” against his family

  10. Language: Euphemisms of Separation • “it was a separation for the summer, an experiment. She and Daddy both agreed it would be good for them; they needed space and time to think: they liked each other but did not make each other happy enough, somehow” (2271) • “We want to see how it feels. For some years now, we haven’t been doing enough for each other” (2275) • No mention of “third person” (2273); avoiding issue of divorce

  11. Language: Children’s Responses • Like their parent’s explanation of the separation, the children’s responses to it often hide or distort their true feelings • Children use sarcasm and melodrama to cloak their feelings

  12. Judith • Oldest, “a woman” now, just back from study-abroad in England • “too energetic, too sophisticated exhalation” of cigarette • “[I]mitating her mother’s factual tone,” but “too cool,” Judith says: “I think it’s silly. You should either live together or get divorced” (2271)

  13. Margaret • Age 13, also called Bean • Looks “as if into a shopwindow at something she coveted—at her father, a crystalline heap of splinters and memories” • She had “long expected it.” Her response is the “faintly dramatized exclamation”: “‘Oh, no-oh!’”

  14. John • Age 15. Asks “Why is Daddy crying?” (2271) • Later: “What do you care about us?” he boomed. “We’re just little things you had” (2272) • Drunk, he lights matches, puts cigarette in mouth • Later still, keeps shouting: “I’m O.K. No sweat” (2273)

  15. John • Richard takes John into yard, to “soft green rise glorious in the sun” • Moment of honesty: John not happy with school • Richard tries “to make too much of the moment, to prolong it” (2273)—so the moment closes

  16. Richard, Jr. • Age 17; first son, called Dickie; “Of the four children Dickie was most nearly his conscience” (2273); he is “moderate” and “reasonable” (2274) • Telling him is a “black mountain” for Richard • Richard to Dickie: “My father would have died before doing this to me.” He has “dumped the mountain on the boy” –or on his conscience? (2275) • Response: calm, but stunned; doesn’t slam door, but sound is “sickening” to Richard (2275)

  17. Richard, Jr. • Father goes to say goodnight; Richard kisses his father and asks “Why?” • Richard’s question is “the crucial, intelligent” one that goes through the barrier: “It was a whistle of wind in a crack, a knife thrust, a window thrown open on emptiness. The white face was gone, the darkness was featureless. Richard had forgotten why” (2276)

  18. Symbol: Moonlight • Richard’s pursuer • On road when Richard drives to pick up Dickie: “a diaphanous companion, flickering in the leaves along the roadside, haunting his rearview mirror like a pursuer” (2274) • “When [Joan] stood, an inexplicable light—the moon?—outlined her body through the nightie” (2275)

  19. “Separating” as Picture of American Middle Class Life • Domestic life: Big homes, yards, tennis court (status symbol); divorce is common • Recreation: golf course; rock concert in city • Public space: Downtown at night: “a gang of T-shirted kids on the steps of the bank”; a bar (2274) • Economy: 1970s energy crisis: shortages and long lines; problem of fueling American material life • Religion: Church is “a gutted fort” (2275)