Inside and Outside: Moral Goodness In Three Short Stories by John Updike
John Updike’s early short fiction written during the period between the late 1950s and mid 1970s confronts the issue of morality in post-World War II America. Updike wrote in his novel Rabbit, Run, “Goodness lies inside, there is nothing outside. . .” (325). Updike’s fiction shares in common the theme of inner goodness confronted with a world where morality is empty. In three of Updike’s short stories, “The Happiest I've Been,” (1958), “A&P,” (1960), and “Problems,” (1975) the author treats the subject of morality in three different but connected ways. J.A. Ward comments that Updike’s characters are solipsistic and self-involved. He writes that for Updike’s characters, “human society is unreal unless it is converted by the mind” (29). But isn’t this the point of his stories to show that the inner self is not an exercise of navel-gazing, but an attempt to find moral goodness? In this paper, the three stories will be analyzed to show that the characters in the stories embody an inner morality, but the world in which they inhabit is devoid of moral goodness.
In “The Happiest I’ve Been,” Updike presents with two young college students who have a night of drinking. On the surface, it is a story of friendship, between the Narrator, John Nordholm, and Neil Hovey. Neil comes to John’s home, where he lives, to take him to Chicago ostensibly so John can meet a girl he wishes to date. The story is interesting because in the end, John never makes it to the girl, and through a series of pit stops, finds himself deeper in the unknown territory of life. Morality is presented in a series of outside and inner dichotomies, that play on the theme of society’s love of appearances and the struggle of identity. Appearances are symbolized by “Neil Hovey came for me wearing a good suit” (67). Neil drives his father’s gray Chrysler and he wears a gabardine suit, and John is reminded of his grandparent’s word of admonition, "Never trust the man who wears the red necktie and parts his hair in the middle," (68). John, who is the narrator of the story, and whose name mimics the author, is not as well-dressed as Neil. John is smitten with the girl whom the reader never meets, and his family is suspicious of Neil who picks him up in a dapper suit, because his grandmother had once smelled beer on his breath (69). Neil has a better way to manipulate social reality, and John seems unsure of himself. On Neil’s slickness with John’s parents: “it was with an equality established on the base of my helplessness.” John is unsure of his moral goodness and wonders if it is his wholesome athleticism and “whatever it was that aroused loyalty and compliance in beautiful girls” that makes him attractive (70). But John turns out to gain the higher moral ground in the story and is troubled by Neil’s remark that "’The trouble with you guys that have all the luck,’ he said slowly, ‘is that you don't give a fuck about us that don't have any.’ Such an assault coming from Neil surprised me, as had his blarney with my mother hours before.” (72).
The story is simple in its construct, but it shows first an unsure John who has uncertainty about going into the world. But in the end, he loses touch with his friend Neil, who had seemed to be a safe one in the story. In the end, John says “I had brought us safely. Ahead, a girl waited who, if I asked, would marry me, but first there was a vast trip: many hours and towns interceded between me and that encounter” (74). It is important that the reader never sees the girl in the end for to use Ward’s logic; the unreality of the world had been converted in John’s mind. It does not matter that we do not meet the girl. John has entered into the unknown, and his inner disposition has changed.
The concept of inner disposition is more carefully, and explicitly played out in “A&P.” Just as in the former story, “A&P” is told through a young male protagonist who is slightly younger than John. Sammy works at the A&P grocery store to earn some cash during the Summer in a town that is close to the beach. Conventional morals crumble in this story, and Sammy tries to act the hero. When a few girls clad in their swimming suits enter the store, the manager treats them badly, and Sammy in act of defiance quits his job. Did he do it just to win the admiration of the girls? Or was he acting on the inner structure of morality that goes against the phony, empty morality of society?
Sammy calls the customers who come to shop in the A&P sheep, which is his way of ridiculing their herd instinct (598). Sammy is unhappy in his job, and when he sees the young girls walk into the store barefoot he immediately identifies them as higher the than the sheep: “The sheep pushing their carts down the aisle—the girls were walking against the usual traffic” 598). When he is called to task by not giving the exact change he is due a customer, Sammy is already primed to convert in his mind and act of rebellion to show his moral superiority to the sheep, and to his manager.
Sammy, on one level, sees himself as above the morality of the crowd, even to the point of acting superior to his coworker who has children and is married. Sammy is young, but he seems to feel trapped and wants more out of his life. But Updike makes the point that life will not be good to Sammy. For as Dessner points out, there is another layer of social critique going on in Sammy’s mind. He both values the young, scantily clad girls who come into the store, but he also sees himself as not on the same social ladder as they are (316). He both admires them, but he is very much in tune with his social class. In his world, there are no herring snacks in his family. Ironically, Sammy muses, “When my parents have somebody over they get lemonade and if it's a real racy affair Schlitz in tall glasses” (599). Sammy is caught in a world where he does not fit with the young girls’ social class, not does he fit the working world of the A&P with its arbitrary morality. All he has is his own broken moral compass. For society does not value the inner life, and when Updike writes “how hard the world was going to be to me from here on in,” he is making his protagonist Sammy realize that the inner conscience will forever be in struggle with the empty mores of a vapid society.
As we have seen, the stories of Updike present us with the question of what does it mean to be a good man (Olster 43). In the same vein, “Problems” is a later story of Updike and it plays with the world of mathematics to make a moral point. Again, the notion of asking a question, “Something feels wrong. What is it?” plays out in a playfulness between inner and outer (807). “Problems” is more internally driven than the other two short stories merely because it is a heady story. But there are common links, one of them being that the protagonist is also male, as in the other stories, but he is older, and his worries are different. The protagonist has children and is married, and his concerns fall toward paying bills for his children’s education, and trying to figure out pragmatically the right way to act. “A&P” and “The Happiest I’ve Been” leave the characters in the lurch. But in “Problems,” the story has advanced beyond adolescent fear of the unknown and Updike deals with the unknown of adult life. If the stories are read as on a continuum, then the male protagonists of the first two stories have grown up, and “Problems” presents us with an older version of Updike’s earlier fiction.
In “Problems,” the characters have been reduced to mathematical formulas. A is the protagonist, as if he is a variable in the equation. Again the theme of the inner mental life is presented as a way to deal with the outer struggle of family demands. The math problems A tries to solve mimic the problems he faces in his life: “Plot this curve. Find the starlike point where A's brain begins to bend” (806). A’s life, or at least how Updike writes the story is like a mathematical story of equations written in the guise of a family: “A has 4 children. Two are in college, 2 attend private school” (806). Updike is clever in this story, making the connection between the mathematical word problem with the problem of morals and the goodness. In Math, solutions are made using objective logic, and the question that lingers at the short story’s ending is whether or not logic can also solve life’s other difficult problems. For A is married to B but he is in love with C. A wonders, “Which has he more profoundly betrayed, B or C?” But can the questions of marital fidelity be as easily solved as the mathematical structure of a geometry problem? Can we plot on a graph the trajectory of our life? It seems what Updike is saying that even the inner objectivity of plotting lines on a graph, where the X and Y axis are clearly delineated, is not so easily delineated in the messy stuff of life.
In conclusion, the three stories deal with the uncertain trajectory of a life. Can John easily plot the trajectory of his life’s path in “The Happiest I’ve Been?”? Can Sammy know what his future holds once he quits the A&P? In all three stories, the characters Updike has crafted lead themselves to make decisions that are not so easily delineated. The outer world of society does not give any answers. In fact, the outer world of society for Updike is empty, so in his ontology the characters have to search within their inner lives. But their inner lives, even if goodness can be found, is not presented like a crystal ball. Sammy does not have certainty that what he is doing is the good thing to do, nor does A really have certainty on whether he should leave his B wife for C girl, and John is certain only of his own uncertainty. In the end, the solution Updike seems to suggest is that one must enter the void armed only with the irresolute tools of one’s own moral compass, albeit a skewed one where the directions are not entirely grafted onto guaranteed success.
Dessner, Lawrence Jay. "Irony and Innocence in John Updike’s ‘A&P.’." Studies in Short
Fiction 25 (1988): 315-317.
Olster, Stacey. The Cambridge Companion to John Updike. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2006. Internet resource.
Updike, John. The Early Stories, 1953-1975. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Print.
Updike, John. Rabbit, Run. New York: Ballantine Books, 2010. Internet resource.
Ward, John A. "John Updike’s Fiction." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 5.1 (1962):