Commentary by Karen Bernardo
John Updike’s “Wife Wooing” deals with the subject of a husband who does not understand the complexities of his wife.
The story’s framework is simple: the protagonist/narrator has gone to a diner and gotten take-out hamburgers and fries for his wife and children; now they are at home, seated in front of the fire, eating. The narrator looks at his wife and realizes that even after seven years and three small children, he still loves his wife and finds her sexually exciting, despite the fact she has put on a considerable amount of weight and might not even be particularly attractive by contemporary standards of beauty. He observes, also, that there is something different about wooing a woman that one is married to, as opposed to courting a relative stranger, and yet wives still have to be wooed to keep one’s marriage alive: he notes that “wife” is “a knife of a word that for all its final bite did not end the wooing. To my wonderment.”
The story follows our narrator as he goes to bed with his wife; although he does not verbalize this to her, he would be interested in having sex, but she wants to read a book on Richard Nixon. As soon as she settles in, however, she is sound asleep. In the morning her husband looks at her and does not find her sexually attractive at all; he still loves her, but the mood of the previous night is broken. He goes to work and returns, with “a technicality it would take weeks to explain to you snag[ged] in my brain”—engrossed in the nagging problem he brought home from work, he is surprised when his wife comes in to him, obviously with romantic intent, “with a kiss of toothpaste moist and girlish and quick.” He leaves his rehashing of his work problems to enjoy her love.
Despite the fact that this is a story about two people—five if one includes the children, but they are essentially interlopers in the tale—Updike vividly creates a setting in which the principal players are completely isolated from one another’s thoughts, dreams, interior lives. The narrator does not pretend to know what his wife is thinking in the opening scene, when they sit in front of the fire eating their take-out dinner. He is indulging tongue-in-cheek male fantasies about bringing home the dinner as men have done for millennia: “We eat meat, meat I wrested warm from the raw hands of the hamburger girl in a diner a mile away, a ferocious place, slick with savagery, wild with chrome; young predators snarling dirty jokes menaced me, old men reached for me with coffee-warmed paws; I wielded my wallet, and won my way back.” Much of the sureness of what it means to be male has been lost in the transition from a primal hunting society to one composed of diners and shopping malls.
Ironically, however, he is absolutely sure of what it means to be female. “What soul took thought and knew that adding ‘wo’ to man would make a woman? The difference exactly. The wide w, the receptive o. Womb.” The irony here, of course, is that he only knows what it means to be female from a man’s point of view. That is, his wife to him is a symbol of her own flesh. He talks about her in terms of her flesh, always, and yet there is indisputably a mind encased in that “wide warm woman, white-thighed.”
She reads books about contemporary politics, and grows angry and indignant at them: “In bed you read. About Richard Nixon. He fascinates you; you hate him. You know how he defeated Jerry Voorhis, martyred Mrs. Douglas, how he played poker in the Navy despite being a Quaker, every fiendish trick, every low adaptation. Oh my Lord. Let’s let the poor man go to bed.” Nixon is what fascinates the narrator’s wife on this chilly evening; bed is what fascinates the narrator. Sadly, this obviously intelligent man, married to an obviously intelligent woman, is only able to see his wife in terms of her sexuality.
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