July 30, 2016
Updike in Great Form
An Analysis of John Updike’s “The Other”
John Updike was in his heyday in the Fifties. When we think of Updike we may think of
a man who came of age in the 1950’s and had high ideals for intellectual atmospheres and
academic arenas, and an advocacy for classic middle-class America, and for the traditional
imagery associated with all that from the mid-twentieth century. The friendly trees of Harvard
Yard at that time, the tweed and patch professors, mustard notebooks and crimson scarves,
brown-framed, warm and still art, necking and footballs, latticed windows and blustery days with
dancing leaves, the charm of wild weather and weathered things, and the spires with pealing
bells. Or the beatnik, horn-rimmed glasses in the City by the Bay, and white sneakers in Santa
Monica, steel-clad malts and shiny fries, and the sailor bell-bottoms in San Diego. In this short
story by Updike “The Other”, we are shown an encompassment of about thirty years of the
dichotomies between classic and still east coast principles and the windy styles of the west. In
this short story, there is a fine panorama of the elements and disparities in American life from
essentially the mid-points of the last century. The author employs masterful observations of the
constituents of this time, and masterfully uses literary elements to convey them.
The essential story line is of a young man and woman meeting in their college days back
in the fifties, engaging in innocent foreplay, but without copulation, as was the tendency of those
that would stay true to the mores of the time; she merely ‘parades’ naked under his admiring eye.
Then a revelation that the love of the man has a twin sister. The young couple get married, and
the unmarried other twin sister attends, and it begins to become apparent that the man develops a
strange and ambiguous fascination with the Other. There is foreshadowing of tension that may
come. He was raised poor and his new wife rich. Updike presents here the aspects they share
and do not share in common. At the consummation of the wedding, from the champagne
delirium, the other twin is there, and urges on the man, while the original twin peals in pain. The
other twin, called Susan, also marries, and resides in California. Both couples have three
children, but when the gender composition of the offspring differs, the procreation stops. The
couples visit each other over some years and the differences in their cultures becomes more and
more apparent. The obsession of the man with the twins grows. As the years go by and the
children adolesce, and the couples grow older, the evolving characteristics of everyone are
revealed. The California sister begins to have marital problems with her Mexican husband of the
flabby belly and unfounded optimism. She visits the eastern couple with some of her children
and now appears frazzled and thin. The man’s obsession on her expands. The man goes along
on a day trip with his sister-in-law and children. But the California twin simply returns to the
west. Then the bad times hit; a recession and desperate illegalities take their toll, and the western
couple divorce, while the man of the east begins to argue more and more with his wife twin. He
has lost his law job and after several verbal jabs the eastern couple divorce as well. He relocates
to Westwood, CA and takes a low law job and an apartment. The man runs into a niece from the
California twin and he gets the address of the twin. Some letter writing commences and he goes
to Berkeley to visit her. This sister is now into ceramics and skinniness. At dinner they share
reminiscences and grievances from over the years. They feel the eastern sister, the other sister, is
just an empty cavern surrounding their talk. They both begin to tire, a shared tiredness form over
the years. They are an odd couple and an old couple of in-laws, come together over the choppy
terrain of all the years and travails. They acknowledge the complicated vibrations that have been
between them all the years. They are considering of course making love, but she is hesitant as to
her role in that, and he simply allows her to just “parade” chastely, as the other sister (his ex-
wife) once did at the beginning. A full circle of irony.
As with LeGuin, Updike has a style that offers themes of a dichotomic nature, where
authority and the decadence of conformity conflict with or are compared to the subordinate and
the sweet nobility of rebellion. The title, “The Other” seems quite appropriate in that the
dichotomies represented, such as the style differences between west and east regions of the
United States, the relationships between male narrator and the twin sisters, one being his wife,
and the other being her twin, the comparisons of their children, and of the narrator and the other
twins husband, and the turmoil and conflicts of principles that the main characters feel, reflect an
idea of ‘another thing’, the other side of a coin.
In order to fulfill an encompassing view of life and the lives of those in the tale, Updike
employs the third-person omniscient point of view and narration style. A first person usage may
have been acceptable, but probably not as effective. The concentration from just one perspective
would not be as valuable as a mature, detached viewpoint that sees all the nuances and subtleties
that no one character on the stage can see reliably. Each of the prominent characters in the story
have their own unique issues and colorful points of view. Updike’s clever perceptions of
characteristics in the American citizens of our middle class culture are nicely framed in this
sociological song of life.
Updike was known to often present characters who were in response to conflicts
regarding religion, family, and marriage. He has been described as having, “shrewd insight into
the sorrows, frustrations, and banality of American life”. (Hunter) The two twin sisters were
encouraged to be, and seen as different, and yet the perceptions of them turned out wrong. The
eastern twin was once perceived as the more artistic one, while the western twin as more
practical and scientific. This before their coast-to-coast gap. However, as it turns out it is just
the opposite in essence. This misperception of the girls is a nice example of the complexities of
people’s characteristics, and Updike is showing how easy it can be to misunderstand people’s
The man, who is called Rob, seems to be of a kind that as a youth developed some
conflicting attitudes and doubts for the belief system he was born into. He has a traumatic
experience at a baptism, and this is somewhat of a contributor to his maturing dilemma towards
his inherent puritan proclivities. His motives often seem to be towards making up something,
and so possibly towards achieving a sense of accurate perception of the apparent world and the
ideal world. His wife, Priscilla, has come more from an affluent family, and has the privilege
and pomp that suits her rather vapid verities. This exotic other twin, mysterious at first, comes
into our minds as possibly the more majestic and dominant one, blowing in breezily from the far
reaches of the wild, wild, west. But blowing in from the wind she is as a feather in the wind, and
later in her life, as the ravages of a reckoning life have taken a toll, any dominance she may have
had becomes gaunt and feebler, although her majesty may remain.
Updike’s tone for this story seems to be one of reserved respect for protestant principles
and their lofty ideals, but it also suggests an understanding of the raw and alluring attraction of a
grittier life and a respect for the more mundane. Even Updike himself had once said that his
style is an attempt, “to give the mundane its beautiful due”. (Updike) The tone is also one of
smooth and clear observation of common events in average, middle-class Americans lives.
There is no distinct slant from the omniscient narrator towards any attitude that fanatically
promotes a principle. There is just simple awareness and conveyance of delicious details and the
delicate dilemmas that life often delivers. The mood throughout the story is of a gentle and
sympathetic relay from the narrator regarding the joy of bringing the common into the
uncommon. It is of the sheer joy the author feels in having a chance to tell his friends the readers
all of the delicacies of imagery that are in life.
It is apparent that Updike loves the use of imagery, and he does it as a master, and
gracefully. This penchant towards visual construction can be traced to his days of youth, when
his own mother as an aspiring author, impressed him with her efforts and the equipment she
used. As he describes, “One of my earliest memories", he later recalled, "is of seeing her at her
desk. I admired the writer's equipment, the typewriter eraser, the boxes of clean paper. And I
remember the brown envelopes that stories would go off in—and come back in.” (Barrett). He
also was an aspiring cartoonist early on. (Heer) Evidence of keen observation and accurate
imagery can be seen when the wedding occurs in the story, and the sisters in their dresses are
described as ‘majestic in white tulle, and rather mousy in mauve taffeta’. It is also interesting
here in how Updike does not identify the sisters in this passage, but nevertheless, because of the
impression he has already given of them, we can still discern who is who. The majestic one is
the California girl, and the mousy one is the East Coast girl (his wife). Later on, there is also
nice description of the Mexican husband for Susan, as a builder of ‘million dollar homes’, jovial
and bearded, full of life, and a mysterious ancestry. He is unabashed and has a pendulous belly,
and he “descends to them like a hairy Neptune”(Updike 499) as he enters the hot tub with them,
and then his manhood drifts under Rob’s eyes like a “lead-colored fish swimming
nowhere”.(Updike 499) In a later part of the story, when the western sister is visiting, and is in
the throes of marital trouble, she is nicely described in her challenged state. Updike helps me see
her as a vision of chastity, frazzled, and with drooping hair, and eating a desperately gaunt
breakfast of granola and grapefruit. Later, the author has a nice passage where he refers to
“golden slashed hills interwoven with ocean and lagoons”, and then a very cogent expression
towards the difference between Northern California and Southern, where it is claimed that the
north is an enchanted land of eternal spring, and the south, where the man lives now, one of
blander and perpetual summer.
Updike has also been known for his occasional bold and daring language usage. In the
story towards the end he is describing Susan’s ceramics as “oddly lovely things”.(Updike 505),
the association of an adverb with an adjective of similar style.
John Updike’s personal style for writing was surely formed from his emergent days into
adulthood. These days of the now old-fashioned and quaint 1950’s, were his initial inspiration.
Apparently born to be a writer, he slipped into these times with their hush-puppy loafers and the
Harvard-Yale leather pads, with charred brick factories, great stone churches, Dutch elms and
sweet sweatered girls, and with the valedictorian’s roadster, as it was then in New England.
Anybody from all that might want to be a writer. This story of “The Other”, reflects a changing
time in our history, a time of many changes; that of the middle 20th Century. A tale of a man
affected by these changing times. A man and also two provocative twin sisters, intertwined in
their pursuits of the real and the ideal. Here at the end then, the man reasons that despite the
complexity between them all before, things can just be simple, and to essentially just take it easy
(the Eagles-like take it easy, California style) an apparent defiance to the Plato doctrine that the
apparent world is illusory and that ideas are the absolute.
Barrett, Andrea (14 January 1990). "Nibbled at By Neighbors". The New York Times. Retrieved
7 May 2010.
Heer, Jeet (March 20, 2004), "John Updike's animated ambitions", The Guardian.
"John Updike - Introduction" Contemporary Literary Criticism Ed. Jeffrey W. Hunter. Vol. 139.
Gale Cengage 2001 eNotes.com 30 Jul, 2016
Updike, John (2004), The Early Stories: 1953–1975, Ballantine Books.
Updike, John. "The Other." The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Literature. Ed. R. V. Cassil.
2nd ed. N.p.: W.W. Norton &, 1998. 493-507. Print.