Probably it will be John Updike's "domestic fiction" for which he will be best remembered and perhaps on the basis of which he will be judged as a writer. And indeed "The Married Life," the third section of The Early Stories, provides the most provocative and most consistently accomplished set of stories in this book so far. (For a discussion of the first two, go here and here.) Of the fourteen stories in this section, probably only "The Crow in the Woods" and "Wife-Wooing" fail to reward a careful reading.
Which is not to say these stories are unequivocally agreeable, without their disturbing qualities. The portrayal of marriage that emerges probably has at least as many shadows as warm light, although that is ultimately what makes them seem more honest than not and gives them the dramatic tension they need to succeed as short stories. The underlying assumptions about gender roles can at times seem questionable--again the majority of the stories were written in the 1950s and early 1960s--as can some of the attitudes toward unfolding political and cultural changes that are at times expressed or at least implicitly suggested. However, many of these problematic features can be interpreted as inherent in the circumstances and the mindsets of the characters themselves, whose assumptions and actions are precisely the focus of Updike's depiction of marriage in postwar America.
Most of the stories in "The Married Life" are in the form of vignettes or isolated episodes, episodes that nevertheless reveal much about the characters and their moments of heightened awareness of the pain and toil involved in married life. It is a form that Updike handles well (and that he had perfected long before it was taken up by the minimalists and neorealists of the 1970s and 1980s), seems perfectly suited to the disclosure of small insights Updike seems to be after, and that also allows him to exercise his stylistic gifts in a way that can transform the stories into something like lyrical set-pieces. (Readers will of course have greater or lesser tolerance for fiction of this kind.) Even the slighter stories have these kinds of lyrical moments, as in the conclusion to "The Crow in the Woods": "Something happened. Outdoors a huge black bird came flapping with a crow's laborious wingbeat. It banked and, tilted to fit its feet, fell toward the woods. His heart melted with alarm for the crow, with such recklessness assaulting an inviolable surface, seeking so blindly a niche for its strenuous bulk where there was no depth. It could not enter. Its black shape shattering like an instant of flak, the crow plopped into a high branch and sent snow showering from a sector of lace. Its wings spread and settled. The vision destroyed, his heart overflowed. . . ."
Perhaps the very best story of this type in the group at hand is "Unstuck." The story can be easily summarized: A married man wakes up to find that a heavy snowfall has occured overnight. He goes outside to dig his car out from under a snow bank that has hemmed it in. Unable to do so, he enlists his wife to help him. They succeed. The story begins by telling us of the husband and wife that "They had made love last night and again she had failed to have her climax." Later: "She wanted to make a holiday of it. And she wanted, he thought, to bury the aftertaste of last night." In the story's conclusion, the wife has navigated the car out of its snowbank: "[The car's] driver, silhouetted with her nose tipped up, looked much too frail to have managed so big a thing. . .Mark shouted 'Great!' and leaped over the shattered ridge, brandishing the shovel. . .He walked to his car and opened the door and got in beside his wife. The heater had come on; the interior was warm. He repeated, 'You were great.' He was still panting. She rosily smiled and said, 'So were you.'" The not-so-subtle humor of the sexual suggestions here are nicely balanced, at least in my reading of the story, by the authentic generosity of the wife's words, making the story itself the most generous vision of the rewards of marriage in this section of the book.
This generosity toward her husband is shared by Joan Maple, wife of Richard, the two of whom are featured in a series of stories from the 1960s and 1970s chronicling the break-up of their marriage. Five of these stories are featured in "Married Life": "Snowing in Greenwich Village," which introduces the couple, and the four concluding stories in this section, "Giving Blood," "Twin Beds in Rome," "Marching Through Boston," and "Nakedness." Taken individually, these are not necessarily the best stories in part III of The Early Stories, but collectively they are probably the most significant of these fictions when considering the development of Updike's career as a whole. They clearly serve a dual purpose: to give an account of the difficulties of marriage in America, but also to register the social cultural changes in postwar life that contributed to these difficulties.
It is a good thing for Richard and Joan Maple's marriage that Joan exhibits some generosity of spirit, some forebearance and acceptance, since Richard Maple doesn't himself possess many such characteristics. The stories, although told in the third-person, are deflected through Richard's central consciousness, and while this technique almost always creates some initial bond between character and reader, it isn't long before this bond is frayed and Richard comes to seem a frightened and insecure man with some very unpleasant habits and assumptions. He's inclined to be patronizing toward his wife, mostly because he's the man and she's the woman, but he also comes to be envious of her, almost afraid. Joan takes the social changes of the 1960s in stride, attempting to accomodate herself to them, but Richard does so with great reluctance, sometimes out of jealousy that Joan's increased activism is taking her away from him, and frequently lashing out because of it. His racial attitudes and his contempt for "liberals" like his wife come to seem unsavory indeed. Some readers might be inclined to think that Richard's attitudes are given too much prominence, suggesting they might be shared by the author himself, but Updike elsewhere, particularly in the Rabbit books, has demonstrated his ability to explore the mindset of characters whose views he himself does not share, and the portrait of Richard Maples that emerges from these stories finally comes off, to this reader, at least, as an honest attempt to present such a character from the inside, so to speak, to depict Richard Maples the middle-class American male of this period as authentically as possible.
"Snowing in Greenwich Village" shows Richard already, early in the marriage, not entirely comfortable in the role of young husband, as in this story he escorts a dinner guest back home, going up to her apartment and at story's end obviously tempted to take things further. "Giving Blood" begins "The Maples had been married nine years, which is almost too long," and shows the marriage to be indeed quite fragile. "Twin Beds in Rome" begins this way: "The Maples had talked and thought about separation so long it seemed it would never come. For their conversations, increasingly ambivalent and ruthless as accusation, retraction, blow, and caress alternated and cancelled, had the final effect of knitting them together in a painful, helpless, degrading intimacy." The couple's vacation in Rome perhaps momentarily revivifies the marriage, but Richard's bad faith (in a noxious alliance with his genuine love for his wife) is sufficient to guarantee that this reprieve won't last long. "Marching Through Boston" and "Nakedness" most directly chronicle the Maple marriage in conflict with social change, in the former case the civil rights movement and in the latter the sexual revolution. "Marching Through Boston" casts Richard in an especially ugly light, as his latent bigotry is exposed quite explicitly, although some of his vilest words are clearly enough spoken in his own protest against the changes taking place in his relationship with his wife. (The story literally narrates Richard's participation with Joan in a civil rights march in Boston. It only drives them farther apart.)
What these Maple stories most memorably offer is a representation in fiction of the way in which the neuronal threads constituting the male psyche, perhaps reinforced by that patriarchal cultural climate of the 1950s, began to unravel during the 1960s and 1070s. This unsettling of gender roles and perspectives is further reflected in such stories as "Sunday Teasing" and "Should Wizard Hit Mommy?" (A parallel kind of turmoil in racial perspectives can be seen in the story "A Gift from the City," perhaps the most direct confrontation with these kinds of changes.) The male characters in these stories are not completely aware of the way in which their assumptions are being overturned, and perhaps Updike himself could not have entirely recognized the long-term consequences of those social forces causing the marital tension he was attempting to depict in these stories. Perhaps all of this makes the fiction collected in "Married Life" at least as interesting for sociological as for aesthetic reasons. But in all of the ways I have indicated, most of the stories as well show Updike's talent for writing poetically insightful short fiction coming to be confirmed, the WASP-y, middle-class focus on marital matters notwithstanding.