Updike, John. "Separating".
The story is told from the point of view of Richard Maples, a middle-aged middle-class man, who is about to separate from his wife Joan. He intended to leave already at Easter, but Joan insisted that they wait for their four children to assemble and for the summer holidays to begin so that the children would have time enough to get over the news before their school duties begin.
The month is June, the time of renewal in nature, contrasting with the decay of Richard and Joan’s marriage. Divorce is often preceded by a period of dramatic home improvements. So is the case with the Maples, who however did not suspect anything yet when they had a new tennis court built last year. Winter left the court in bad shape and Richard is labouring to return it to its former state. He diligently replaces ‘screens and sash cords, hinges and latches’, obsessed with putting things in order before he leaves.
Richard feels that telling the children will be the most difficult task. He would prefer to tell them all at once, but Joan thinks that they will take the news better if they are told one by one. The eldest daughter, the nineteen-year-old Judith, returns after spending a year in England. Joan, the more practical and pragmatical of the couple, suggests giving her some time for acclimatization. On Friday, after her welcome-home dinner, Judith will be told as the first one. The seventeen-year-old Richard Jr. is returning in the night from a rock concert, he will go as the second. In the morning the two younger children, the fifteen-year-old John and the thirteen-year-old Margaret, will be informed, too. This is how Joan’s precise plan goes.
The dinner of lobsters and champagne is served. Richard realizes that it is the last time he is sitting at the table as head. He cannot help himself crying throughout the meal. The curtain of tears provides him at least with some protection from his assembled family. Everybody notices, of course, but it is John who asks his mother why the father is crying. He is told, so the other children present are told, too. Margaret seems to have suspected it and in a way she seems to be relieved that she knows the truth now. Judith thinks that it is silly of her parents to talk about separating for summer without planning a formal divorce yet. John blames his parents for not telling them that they do not get along with each other. Richard admits that they do get along, only they for some reason do not love each other anymore.
John, drunk on the champagne, feels the centre of attention and starts behaving childishly. He lightens matches and holds them to his mother’s face for her to blow out. He breaks a cigarette into two pieces and shoves them into his mouth. Then he makes a ball out of a napkin and a leaf of lettuce and puts it into his mouth, too. He thinks that he is being amusing. Richard leads him out and makes him spit the things from his mouth. John starts sobbing and complains that it is not just the separation, the whole of the year has been bad for him. He is unhappy at school. Richard realizes how selfish he has been and promises to see what can be done about a transfer to another school.
Richard thanks his wife for managing the situation so well. She is however not very happy with it, she complains that Richard did not try enough and that he was only too happy to have his way in making a general announcement instead of telling the children individually. Richard appreciates that the children did not suspect that there is another woman. Joan thinks it unfair that Richard made it look as if she were kicking him out, though in fact it was Richard’s idea. Richard hugs his wife and realizes with feelings of guilt that he does not feel separated. He tells Joan that if he could, he would take it all back. Only he does not know where he would begin, of course.
It is now up to Richard to tell Dickie. Richard waits for his son at the train station to take him back home. In the car he tells him. Dickie is a moderate and reasonable boy and he takes the announcement calmly. He did not suspect that anything was wrong either. Only later in bed Dickie asks the crucial question why. But Richard has forgotten.
The story deals with an ordinary middle-class American family which is exposed to corruption from inside in the person of the husband and father. Richard Maples experiences what would be today called a middle age crisis. He got romantically attached to another woman whom he hopes to marry and is ready to abandon his whole life so far, his wife, and his children.
What is striking about Richard’s situation is the quality of his present marriage. He admits that he does get along with his wife, only he thinks that they do not love each other. There seem to be no violent rows, no deep discord, everything looks as it ought to on the surface. Even the children did not notice that a separation was coming. The separation is presented as a fact but Richard’s reasons for it are subtly questioned throughout the story. This culminates in the final epiphanic revelation when Richard realizes that he forgot the reason himself.
Richard inflicts his family with pain. At his best moments he recognizes his selfishness but he does not act upon it. The marriage in the story may be perhaps compared to the tennis court that Richard so diligently repairs. It was perfect when it was new but now it is in ruins and needs patching. A marriage, like a court, should be taken care for and not simply abandoned when crackles start to show. With proper care and attention, both can then last for a lifetime.
AuthorUpdike, John. (1932 - 2009).
First PublishedIn: New Yorker, 1975.
Updike, John. ‘Separating’. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym et. al. 4th ed. NY: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995. 2294-302.