Updike, John. "Flight".
The story is set in Olinger, Pennsylvania. The main story line is set in late 1940s, though some events described reach back to 1930s and 1920s. The first-person narrator is Allen Dow, aged seventeen at the time of the story. Allen has been feeling himself selected for a special destiny since the age of eleven or twelve. This was when his mother took him for a hike on a hill overlooking the town and announced that he will leave his family and spread his wings to fly. Allen describes his mother as impulsive, romantic, and inconsistent, but in accordance with her prophesy, he is intent on enjoying the privileges of both being extraordinary and of being ordinary. He is to redeem and reverse the inheritance of frustration and folly that descended from his grandfather to his mother and himself. The family relationships have always been complicated and the house was a site of frequent rows. Allen thinks that his mother hates her father and that she feels that both she and her father were destroyed by marriage.
Allen’s mother, Lillian Baer, spent her childhood on a nearby farm. She loved the place despite the harsh work, and so did her mother. Her father was not attached to the land and when he earned on stock investing in the early 1920s, he bought the house in Olinger. The mother was fourteen when they moved and felt misplaced in the town. At the age of twenty, she graduated from college. She wished to go to New York then but her father forbade her. She married the penniless Victor Dow and moved to Wilmington. The depression hit the young couple and they returned to the house of Lillian’s father. Allen’s birth coincided with the beginning of the Great Depression. The mother worked as a shop assistant in a department store, the father finally found a job as a high school teacher. The grandfather was the last to find an employment. He was hired by the borough crew for shovelling stones and spreading tar around streets. He took this degrading job very badly, but he kept it well into his seventies.
When he is seventeen, Allen travels with three girls from his school to a debating competition. One of them is Molly Bingaman, plump and small, neither very pretty nor very bright. She and Allen get close to each other, spend the evening in a long conversation, and Molly finally kisses Allen. The next day Allen loses the debate, though he won the one of the preceding day. He feels humiliated. His mother disapproves of his girlfriend because she finds her too stupid. Molly’s mother disapproves of Allen because she finds his family too poor. The whole town seems to be conspired against their going out with each other. Their relationship is not a meeting of equals, it is accompanied by often breaking ups and reunions and also by Allen’s hurting and humiliating Molly.
Allen goes out with Molly from fall to spring. Meanwhile his home is marked by his grandfather’s final illness and his mother’s grief over it. Allen applies for a scholarship to a carefully selected college and waits for the results. One spring evening, Allen cannot bear the violent coughing of his grandfather and leaves the house. He drives to Molly’s house, though he does not dare to knock on the door so late in the night. Molly however goes out and joins him. Back at home, Allen’s mother tries to talk with him about Molly. Allen finally tells her that she wins this time, but it is the last time that she does. She tells him good-bye in her melodramatic voice.
The story is preoccupied with relationships, especially then with the relationship of a parent and a child. Allen’s family history follows the pattern of a child who wishes for something different than the parent, who eventually submits to the parent’s will, but who is unable to come to terms with the consequences of such decision and keeps on feeling mistreated and hurt. This is well manifested in Allen’s mother who at first had to submit to moving from her beloved farm and then had to give up her New York plans because of her father. There is no information as to what the mother wished to do in New York, but perhaps she sought for a career rather than marriage.
Allen’s mother treats her son in the same way as she was treated by her father. She seems to be decided that her apparently clever and gifted only child will pursue education and career rather than to stay in the home town and simply settle down. She fears that a simple-minded girlfriend will jeopardize Allen’s future. She wins over Allen, as her father once won over her, when Allen declares that she won the game in the conclusion of the story.
AuthorUpdike, John. (1932 - 2009).
First PublishedIn: New Yorker, 1959.
Updike, John. ‘Flight’. The Anthology of American Literature. Ed. George McMichael. 3rd ed. Vol. II. NY: Macmillan, 1985. 1812-22.