Updike, John. "The Persistence of Desire."
The story is set in Pennsylvania, perhaps in late 1940s or early 1950s. Clyde Behn, a young man probably in his late twenties or early thirties, is in the waiting room of Dr Pennypacker. He is on one of his regular visits home to his mother, otherwise he lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two children. The next patient to arrive is Janet, Clyde’s sweetheart from his boyhood whom he has not seen for more than seven years. Janet has also left her home town, she was in Germany with her husband who served in Air Force. Now her husband is looking for a new job. The couple is childless, they wanted to wait until their life settles down.
Janet is not very talkative, she seems to be as uneasy as Clyde. Clyde tells her what he has prepared to say in case he ever saw her again, that she is the person whom he most wanted to see of all the people in this town. Their breaking up must have been painful and Clyde realizes that he hurt her very much. He is sorry for it. The chubby and not very bright Janet was the only person to like him, outside of his family members.
Clyde came to see the doctor because of a tick in his eyelid. The doctor finds that he has fungus on his lids, which in some cases may lead to loss of eyelashes. The cause of the tick is however not the fungus but muscular fatigue. Clyde ought to wear his glasses all the time, not just for watching films and reading. Also he should replace his fashionable pair of glasses by a more practical one. After Clyde, Janet is treated for headaches.
When he waits in the consulting room, Clyde approaches Janet who is in the next room. He asks her suddenly if she is happy, but she does not respond. He kisses her on her neck. Janet does not protest, but asks what he means by it. Clyde must see her again. Janet wonders whether Clyde does not love his wife whether if he is not successful. He only says that happiness is not everything.
Though she refused to meet him at first, Janet presses a note in Clyde’s hands when he emerges from the doctor’s office. Then she leaves immediately, her husband is waiting for her outside in the car. Clyde is surprised to realize that he cannot read the note, perhaps because his eyes have been dilated by drops before the examination.
The story is told in the third person, from the point of view of Clyde to whose consciousness the narrator has access. The theme is well captured already by the title. The persistence of desire applies to both Janet and Clyde, though Janet is more ready to regard the long past affair as a closed case. Clyde seems to feel that their relationship was not ended properly as he hurt Janet in his youthful foolishness. Clyde’s return to his home town is connected to the pleasant memories of his youth and it seems to him to be the proper setting to revive a former affair.
Throughout the story, Clyde is consistently reminded of the fact that he growing old(er). This is symbolized by the one new thing in the doctor’s otherwise familiar waiting room, that is a compact black clock which Clyde reads and examines. Clyde stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the passing time. This is manifested in his unwillingness to wear his glasses all the time and by his concern for his looks, as in the threat of losing his lashes or in the imprints left on the nose by the pads of glasses. In the conclusion of the story, Clyde finally realizes that he is no more very young when he is unable to read Janet’s note. Still he plunges quite happily in the street of his youth which he associates with joyful and carefree existence.
AuthorUpdike, John. (1932 - 2009).
Full Title"The Persistence of Desire".
First PublishedIn: New Yorker, 1959.
Updike, John. ‘The Persistence of Desire’. The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. 560-70.