An Analysis of the Character Descriptions in Separation, a Short Story by John Updike

Last Updated: 22 Nov 2022
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The short story "Separation," by John Updike, presents many unique and diverse character reactions. It is about the separation of a married couple breaking the news of their split to their children, and their children's reactions to this news. The parents are very different from one another, as are the children. Many emotions are presented in this short story and it is certainly an insightful view into how this might play out in real life. The parents, Richard and Joan, are both worried to tell their children and are not quite sure how to go about telling them or even when they should do it. Once they do decide to provide their children with this news, they definitely could not have predicted the reactions that they would receive. The separation of parents takes a toll on each individual in a specifically different way. The different ways in which they approach how they deal with these emotions varies between each individual.

In "Separation," the father, Richard, seems to be taking the decision of separation extremely hard. Richard is going through many emotions such as sadness, regret, guilt, and hesitation about the separation. He seems to be really sad about the whole situation, and it is presented that he is dreading having to tell his children about the decision. In the beginning of the story Joan, his wife, and Richard start to discuss when they are going to tell their children about the decision that has been made, and end up agreeing that they would wait until the four children were together. After deciding this the narrator says, "So he drudged away, in love, in dread, repairing screens, getting the mowers sharpened, rolling and patching their new tennis court" (Updike 800). This shows how Richard feels somewhat guilty about the decision to separate because he is using his ability to fix things around the house as a way to make up for the dreaded news he is about to break to his children. It also is a good representation of how Richard feels saddened by the whole situation.

When it is said that he “drudged away, in love, in dread” it shows his regret and sadness due to the fact that his marriage has come to a point where it may end and that he must now tell his children of this decision. Richard, throughout the story, does not want to admit that this was partly his decision, but that could be due to his regret of the decision. In the beginning of the story Richard is doing chores around the house, and Updike says of Richard, "In his sealed heart he hoped the day would never come" (Updike 800). Though this quote is about how he is worried to tell the children, it presents his worries as to what might become of the separation. This quote is also good at representing his hesitation about the whole situation. By telling the children that this separation is happening, it has become all the more real and final.

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Richard tries to put it off for as long as possible because that way he will not have to face the reality of his decisions. Richard's guilt is shown very well when Richard tells his son, John, "We'll think about getting you transferred" (Updike 804). Richard has used this offer as a bribe in order to try and placate John and keep him from being too upset by the situation. By offering this, Richard hopes that it will help lessen the effects of the news and alleviate the drastic toll this news may have on his son. Richard has many emotions going through him, and these emotions cause him to react a certain way throughout this separation and what has been caused by it. Joan, the mother and wife in the short story “Separation,” takes a different approach to the emotions that she feels about the separation than her husband, or soon to be ex-husband, and children. Joan tends to put her children's feelings and arrangements before her own. When she and Richard are debating about when to break the news to the children she makes the point that they should wait for the children to be finished with all exams and ceremonies, so that their summer would have officially started and they wouldn't have this upsetting news on their brain.

She is the one her puts her children first. This shows when she tells Richard, "I think just making an announcement is a cop-out. They'll start quarrelling and play to each other instead of focusing. They're individuals, you know, not just some corporate obstacle to your freedom" (Updike 801). When she says this she is insinuating that Richard looks at the children in a less personal way than she does and puts the way he feels ahead of the way his children feel. Joan treats the each of the children as their own individual and respects each of them and their opinions. She wants to talk to the children in a way that they will be able to discuss the situation seriously rather than just make it into a joke and blow it off. Whereas, Richard wants it to be short and simple without any genuine feelings involved. Her approach is also different from Richard when she decides to take control of the situation and take responsibility for what is about to happen.

When Updike says, “meaning he had no better plan, and agreed to hers, though to him it showed an edge of false order, a hidden plea for control" (Updike 801) it shows how she takes control of the situation. Instead of allowing him to attempt to somehow get around telling the children, she told him how it was going to happen. She wanted everything to go smoothly for the children, and wasn't so much concerned about how it went for her specifically. Unlike Richard, Joan is past the stage of being upset by the separation, she even says to Richard, “I couldn't cry I guess because I cried so much all spring" (Updike 804). Joan admits that she has moved past being upset, and accepted the situation for what it was, and now it was time for her to worry about the children, and give Richard what he asked for, a separation. Joan takes the approach of the responsible one in the situation and puts the children first.

Two of the children, John and Judith, each have different approaches as to the news that their parents broke to them. John and Judith were the first two children to be told the news and had somewhat different reactions. Though neither John nor Judith were happy about the news of the separation, they approached how they handled it differently. For instance, when the news of the separation was told to Judith she responded by somewhat mocking her mother's tone saying, "I think it's silly. You should either live together or get divorced" (Updike 803). Judith seemed to be upset with the idea of it being just a separation rather than a full on divorce. She seems to think that a couple should either be together one hundred percent or not at all, to her there is no in between. Basically, to her way of thinking, you either love someone and you want to be with them, or you do not.

Rather than being upset by the actual separation, Judith is annoyed about how they are in between two decisions. Whereas John, Judith's brother, takes the news in a different and more dramatic way. I think that this upsets her because she is a bit older than John, and has somewhat moved on with her life. She isn't as upset by it because she seems to feel that it does not directly affect her and her everyday life. When the news was broken, John's first reaction was to say, "What do you care about us" (Updike 803). This just goes to show how John took the news on a more personal level than Judith did. John took the news as meaning that his parents didn't care about him, or his siblings. Not only did John take it personally, but he also took it so hard that he chose to act out because of it. He used it as a tool to put the attention on him.

For instance, when the narrator says, "Feeling bound to keep the center of the stage, John took a cigarette from Judith's pack, poked it in his mouth, let it hang from his lower lip, and squinted like a gangster" (Updike 803), this shows how he acts out in order to put the attention on him, in hopes that it will keep his parents together. Many children try this approach because they think that if their parents see what it is doing to him or her that they will stay together in order to keep the family together because it is what is best for the child. John also uses the announcement of his parents' separation as a tool to get what he wants from Richard. An example of this is when John said to Richard, "It's not just the separation, it's the whole crummy year, I hate school, you can't make any friends, the history teacher's a scud” (Updike 804), this shows how he uses the news to his advantage.

He uses his father's guilt to get his father to agree to allow him to change schools, which he probably would not have been allowed to do otherwise, or it would have at the least been more difficult to get him to agree. The difference between John and Judith's approach to the news of the separation is that John took it more personal than Judith. This illustrates just how differently two people in the same position can approach the same situation. Another approach that we can look at would be the differing points of view from Joan and Richard as a couple and how they deal with this decision within their relationship, rather than thinking about how it affects everyone else. By deciding to become separated and the upcoming announcement of their decision to their children, both Joan and Richard have realized the reality of their decision is quickly approaching. Richard slowly begins to realize that he is still in love with Joan, and the family life that he has.

He also admits that he still feels that he and Joan are completely together and does not feel that they are truly separated, he still feels emotionally connected to Joan. Richard's feelings are brought to life when the narrator says, "Guiltily, he realized he did not feel separated" (Updike 805), about Richard. Richard clearly regrets his decision of wanting a separation, yet he has not said anything to change the course of what is about to happen. As a consequence of this whole situation: from Richard saying that he wants a separation to telling the children, and Richard making it seem as if Joan was the one to come to this decision; Joan has become somewhat 'over' the whole situation.

This is brought to light when she tells Richard, "You didn't want to. You loved it. You were having your way, making a general announcement" (Updike 804). This passage shows how she is finished with the entire situation and the pain and frustration that it has caused her. She gives the impression that she would prefer to just move on with her life and the decision that she has come to be okay with, that Richard decided for them both. Joan makes it pretty obvious that she has passed the stage of being upset by the situation and has moved to the stage of being okay with the decision, and having Richard move out like he suggested. Although Joan and Richard are technically a couple, they have very different approaches towards the situation of the separation. Richard wishes that he had never said that he wanted to be separated, whereas Joan has become comfortable with the decision and wants to move forward.

Overall, each family member deals with the news differently from one another, but the one thing that they do have in common is that each of them are hurt. When it comes to a situation like a separation it takes a different toll on each individual, as well as each individual having a different approach to how to deal with the situation. Joan and Richard go through the process of deciding when to tell their children about the separation, and finally come to a mutual agreement. But when it comes to the process of actually telling their children about the separation, while Richard dreads it, Joan is prepared to deal with the situation responsibly. Joan and Richard are very different from one another, and the way they view and approach the situation varies from one another as well. "Separation" is a story with very diverse reactions about the separation of Joan and Richard, from the couples own reactions to how and when to share the news with their children, their children's reactions to their parents separation, to Joan and Richard's reactions within their relationship.

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An Analysis of the Character Descriptions in Separation, a Short Story by John Updike. (2022, Nov 22). Retrieved from

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