“He writes beautifully but afterward you can’t remember what about”

The Destabilizing Effect of Metaphor and Adjectival Modifiers in John Updike’s Fiction



























Domenica Vilhotti

ENG 590

Professor Balaban

May 7, 2007

“He writes beautifully but afterward you can’t remember what about”

The Destabilizing Effect of Metaphor and Adjectival Modifiers in John Updike’s Fiction



            The critique in the title comes from Truman Capote in reference to John Updike’s striking – and to some, affected and distracting – use of metaphor, imagery, and elaborate modifiers in his fiction.  Capote was not alone; many critics found Updike’s work self-indulgent and narcissistic, drawing attention to the author’s virtuosity rather than serving any thematic purposes.  Robert McCoy, for instance, echoed Capote, claiming Updike spends “a good deal of descriptive energy on an apparently slight theme” (qtd. in Fleischauer 283).  However, as Philip Stevick points out in his essay “The Full Range of Updike’s Prose,” critics who find Updike’s style problematic miss his purpose because they tend to “cast the matter, again and again, in diagrammatic terms”; rather than analyze the relationship between exterior style and theme, they view the “style [as] of the outside and …question… what, if anything, is inside” (49).  While Updike’s use of certain adjectives such as “bloustrophedonic” could certainly validate a case for self-indulgence, any indictment of ornamentation should first take into account the self-conscious destabilizing effect created by Updike’s complex style.  This paper seeks to investigate the purpose of the intentional ironic distance created by two of Updike’s most notable stylistic features, or “choosable recurrences”:  his highly unusual, multifaceted, almost metaphysical metaphors and his elaborate, multiple, adjectival clauses that often interrupt traditional subject-verb sentence patterns.  The first section, which explores Updike’s use of metaphor, finds they are used for two main purposes: stylistically, his metaphors and conceits serve to unite the flow of his narrative, while thematically, the multiplicity of meanings they suggest assert an ambivalent world-view absent of moral certainty for his protagonists.  The second section, which investigates his use of adjective modifiers, finds they are used to produce three main effects.  Modifiers create an ironic distance within which Updike can hold up elements of his protagonists’ value systems for debate.  By running concurrent to mimetic plot points and dialogue, adjectival clauses undermine the notion of romantic sentimentalism, preferring instead an ambivalent world-view.  Finally, these elaborate, detailed modifiers highlight the periphery of his ordinary protagonists who reside on the periphery itself.  In doing so, Updike lovingly foregrounds the modest, personal, and unexpected triumphs his non-heroes will ever get to realize.  In other words, while Updike’s vocabulary may be intimidating and his details distracting, one cannot rightly accuse him of a style without a purpose.

One definitive marker of Updike’s style is his use of exuberant, surprising, and unerringly precise metaphor.  His “rolling” metaphors and conceits are used to produce two specific effects (Balbert 265).  Structurally, Updike’s conceits function to unify, or concentrate the flow of his narrative.  Thematically, his more disturbing and unusual metaphors serve to affirm a sense of moral ambiguity and uncertainty.  In his influential essay, “John Updike’s Prose Style: Definition at the Periphery of Meaning,” John F. Fleischauer compares Updike’s use of distractingly highbrow adjectives to his use of unifying conceit:  The devices of metaphor and adjective use, “though related, are nonetheless different in their functions as well as their effects.  Updike’s flamboyant adjectives – such as ‘claxon’ or ‘tessellated’ or the unforgivable ‘boustrophedonic’—stop the flow of narrative, whereas his metaphors serve to concentrate the flow” (277). 

Four conceits operant in “A & P” serve as representative examples of metaphor functioning to concentrate the flow of narrative; rather than distract, they reinforce Sammy’s evolving character arc, which in turn, serves as the driving force of the narrative itself.  Specifically, the metaphors Sammy creates to depict the three girls as well as the other supermarket patrons show him to evolve from a reliance on superficial misogynist objectification to an (albeit ambivalent) perception of himself as a hero to a young woman deserving his chivalric intervention.[1] The first category of metaphor establishes Sammy as a lyrical, but typical, teen-age male who nonchalantly objectifies women as either insentient animals or, more creatively, packaged food.   The first bikini-clad girl, “Plaid,” is compared to a literal tin can or alternatively, a can of browned and white crescent rolls: “she was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit at the top of the backs of her legs” (585).  The food and animal metaphors continue: the third girl, “Big Tall Goony Goony” is described as having “one of those chubby berry-faces” (585); the female “houseslaves” are compared to “sheep” and “scared pigs in a chute” (586, 589); and Queenie’s breasts are compared to “the two smoothest scoops of vanilla” (589).   While this first set of metaphors actually compares women to insentient animals and food, men are not similarly objectified.  Food imagery involving men describe their actions rather their bodies.  Note, for instance, that Stokesie himself is not a fruit, but rather that his shaking open a paper bag is done “as gently as a peach” (589).  The second set of metaphors shows Sammy to evolve slightly from superficial and rather misogynistic comparisons to an extended metaphor endowing the girls with a degree of elegance and higher-order thinking.  I refer, of course, to the comparison of Queenie to a “prim” and majestic queen bee, connotatively the leader, seductress, and manipulator of a tribe of males (586).  Note, also the evolution here from the less-enlightened comparison of the female brain to “a little buzz like a bee in a glass jar,” to his later more sensitive observations of her blushing or the quiver of her lip in her attempt to not cry.  The third set of metaphors, discussed by Toni Saldívar in “The Art of ‘A&P,’” establishes a latent comparison of Queenie to Sandro Botticelli’s “ethereal, gorgeous, and sad,” rendition of an indifferent Venus (3).  This “Birth of Venus” imagery serves to depict a Sammy who has grown, albeit problematically, in his objectification of women; specifically, Sammy has evolved from base objectification to romantic idealization.  The fourth set of metaphor concerns the heroic status Sammy needs to defend what he now views as an honorable woman.  Sammy specifically refers to himself as the girls’ “unsuspected hero,” but, as the story is told in retrospect, he notes this with a measured dose of irony.  Further, the door that “heaves itself open” exposing the “sunshine… skating around on the asphalt” is an ironic take on the sun-drenched ending of any heroic narrative, recalling, for instance, final shot of John Ford’s The Searchers (589).  The irony lies partially in Sammy’s reliance on heroic imagery; he refers to the three girls as “my girls,” but notes “they’re gone, of course” (590).  Sammy’s awareness of his disillusion with chivalric love also speaks to his growth as a character.  While much can and has been written on the myriad of implications these metaphors evoke, the point here is that a characteristic marker of Updike’s style is the recurrence of extended metaphors that serve to concentrate, or unite, the flow of his narrative.  While the four sets of metaphor in “A & P” certainly are in dialogue with each other, they perform a primary function of commenting on the evolution of Sammy’s self-awareness.  

The undermining of heroic imagery at the end of “A & P” also speaks to Updike’s characteristic use of metaphor to express the recurrent theme of an ambivalent worldview.  In other words, unexpected metaphors and visual comparisons produce, besides literary irony, “an ambiguity of intent or authorial attitude (hence tone) in [Updike’s] prose,” (Fleischauer 278).  Although Updike is a notoriously pious Protestant who “seem[s] unselfconsciously attached to metaphors that announce the possibility of man’s salvation,” his characters often do not find their ways to redemption namely because of the confusion of meaning, or, as Peter Balbert suggests, his characters cannot “understand the metaphor of which [they] are a part” (266).  Rather, Balbert asserts that Updike’s characteristic metaphors, which simultaneously suggest multiple layers of meaning, convey his controlling theme: “the truths about the twentieth century which [he] wish[es] to express may be inaccessible by any fictional recourse except a language so inflated that it seems to implicate everyone in its resonant arc” (265).  In short, Updike’s “inflated,” images are meant to deny a Modernist, singular “Truth,” and instead seek to use a multiplicity of meanings to represent a multiplicity of interconnected, often contradictory, truths.    

A short but distinctly drawn metaphor in “Problems” provides a useful opportunity to explore how Updike expresses his ambivalent tone through a multiplicity of meanings that are evoked from a single comparison.  In a climactic moment, the metal sparks flying from a gun barrel are described as follows: “Tan sparks flew outward to the radius perhaps of a peony” (35).  Fleischauer outlines some of the possible implications, including the allusion to the 1960s contrast between a gun and a flower; the religious transformation theme of a death instrument producing a symbol of life; and a dormancy-to-awareness reading that relates to the rest of the paragraph, which addresses the premonition of a rite of passage (278).  As Fleischauer summarizes, so much is evoked that “its definite meaning as a focus of the story is impossible to determine.  It carries meaning, but that meaning is cluttered; thus attention is called to the image as image” (278).  As the peony metaphor illustrates, Updike presents an indelibly precise, but ultimately “unfulfilling awareness of ambiguous meaning” (Fleischauer 279). 

Similarly, in Rabbit, Run, when Rabbit Angstrom meets his baby daughter in the hospital, he compares her head, arranged beside her newborn peers, to “oranges [that] lie in rows of supermarket baskets, some tilted” (217).  Yet, despite the alarming callousness Rabbit’s metaphor insinuates, only a few lines later, he reacts to the wrinkles and creases in his new daughter’s face with an overwhelming tenderness:

…the tiny stitchless seam of the closed eyelid runs diagonally a great length, as if the eye, when it is opened, will be huge and see everything and know everything… She knows she’s good.  What he never expected, he can feel she’s feminine, feels something both delicate and enduring in the arc of the long pink cranium, furred in bands with black licked swatches. (217)


Indeed, Rabbit’s tenderness is so overwhelming, it is only matched by his reversion to cruel panicked blame at the baby’s funeral: “Don’t look at me… I didn’t kill her…  She’s the one” (293).  Because resolution is denied by such images and their relationship to the narrative, a distance is created between author and reader.  And because the reader is left with the responsibility of, “authorial obligation for moral direction and consistency of stance,” the resulting “literary experience,” or sense of narrative order, can be disconcerting to those who seek such order (Fleischauer 279).  Rabbit, for instance, never directly articulates his eternal ambivalence, but neither does an authoritative narrative voice.  It is a function of Updike’s prose style, however, “to register the multitude of ways, many of them quite startling and unexpected, in which the characters of Rabbit, Run feel variously comfortable, assimilated, at home, or, on the other hand, anxious, rootless, and disconnected” (Stevick 50).  Perhaps Martin Price best summarizes Updike’s tendency to deny resolution through his use of metaphor: the overall effect is “to soften focus and magnify the actual by means of a gentle blur” (133).

While Updike’s use of metaphor serves to affirm a sense of ambivalence on behalf of his protagonists, his use of adjective modifiers similarly serve as a distancing technique.  Specifically, Updike’s recurrent tendency to interrupt the traditional subject-verb sequence with multiple elaborate clauses, focusing peripheral detail into the center of narrative action, produces three main effects.  The use of modifiers produces an ironic distance between the author and protagonist, serving to comment on the value systems of the protagonist (Fleischauer 277).  Secondly, by running concurrent to mimetic plot points and dialogue, adjectival clauses undermine the notion of romantic sentimentalism, preferring instead an ambivalent world-view.  Finally, in narratives in which heroism and triumph are often negated, detailed adjective clauses foreground the modest, partial, or peripheral successes in the face of great losses (Fleischauer 286). 

            While many “neo-realist” authors are markedly detached, Updike is unique for the specific process he uses to detach from his protagonists.  Specifically, his detachment is largely due to his abundance of distracting adjectival, prepositional, or adverbial clauses.  Updike’s dispassionate stance is not mere affectation; rather, he describes his own purpose as having “moral debates with the reader” (Picked-Up Pieces 483).  Updike accomplishes an ironic distance between author and protagonist through the commentary and nuanced characterization found in modifying clauses.  Because Updike’s ironic stance lies in his modifiers rather than in the sentences “predictive syntactic structures,” such as nouns and verbs, the story remains intact (Fleischauer 278).  Nevertheless, within the modifiers’ distracting elements, Updike “implie[s a] distrust of motives or goals,” (Fleischauer 278).  In short, this ironic distance is used to produce two effects: undermine romantic sentimentalism and hold up for open judgment—or debate—the value systems of his protagonists.  Although Updike’s use of interrupting modifiers of considerable length becomes a syntactic marker most noticeably in his mid-career works, such as Couples and Witches of Eastwick, this pattern is still certainly observable in his earlier story “A & P.”  Consider the following examples of multiple, colorful modifiers used to describe single subjects.[2]  Within each modifying clause, note also recurrent elements of Sammy’s character Updike is holding up for “moral debate”: 

—there was this one, with one of those chubby berry-faces, the lips all bunched together under her nose, this one, and a tall one, with black hair that hadn’t quite frizzed right, and one of those sunburns right across the eyes, and a chin that was too long—you know, the kind of girl other girls think is very ‘striking’ and ‘attractive’ but never quite makes it, as they very well know, which is why they like her so much – and then the third one, that wasn’t quite so tall. (585) 

[Without Updike’s modifiers, the sentence would roughly read, “There was this one, and a tall one, and then the third one.”]


“And anyway there are usually women with six children and varicose veins mapping their legs and nobody, including them, could care less” (587).


“Her voice kind of startled me, the way voices do you see the people first, coming out so flat and dumb yet kind of tony, too, the way it ticked over ‘pick up’ and ‘snacks’” (588).


“Queenie’s blush is no sunburn now, and the plump one in plaid, that I liked better from the back – a really sweet can – pipes up…”


“I uncrease the bill, tenderly as you may imagine, it just having come from between the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known were there, and pass a half and a penny into her narrow pink palm, and nestle the herrings in a bag and twist its neck and hand it over, all the time thinking” (589).


What’s going on in the non-narrative (subversively so, because it’s in Sammy’s point of view, after all) commentary should by now be quite obvious: Updike is highlighting Sammy’s misogyny—or at least his objectification of women—as a topic of debate.  In Updike and the Patriarchal Dilemma: Masculinity in the Rabbit Novels, Mary O’Connell devotes an entire book to an examination of exactly how Updike manages to write with such misogyny and yet simultaneously create such likable, identifiable characters, even to female readers.  Her conclusions are rather surprising.  Rather than indict a patriarchal society, she realizes that Updike establishes a comfortable space for sensitive readers because he manages to create the ironic distance discussed above.  Although she began her investigation of the Rabbit tetrology feeling “that a woman reader was being asked to identify with a protagonist whose behavior toward women was sometimes clearly abusive,” O’Connell “unexpectedly…accumulated evidence, including structural evidence, suggesting that Updike was not just portraying Rabbit as a stereotypical male; he was scrutinizing masculine gender identity” (x).  In other words, Updike creates “interrogative texts” which invite the reader “to reexamine cultural assumptions by bringing ‘points of view into unresolved collision’” (O’Connell xi).  Updike’s modifiers are pivotal points of self-conscious irony, which provide “an opportunity for detachment by challenging within the fictive structure itself the legitimacy of conventional social goals such as those sought by his protagonists” (Fleischauer 277).  For Sammy, the conventional social goal being investigated is his ambiguous place as a rightful hero in both a world in which heroic structures are barely applicable, and the “flat and dumb”-voiced maiden is problematically idealized or conspicuously objectified.

It is important to note, however, that Updike never aims to satirize his characters through his commentary within the modifier.  In his interview in The Paris Review, Updike is specific about his absence of a satiric strain, answering, “You can’t be satirical at the expense of fictional characters, because they’re your creatures.  You must only love them,” and once setting his protagonist in motion, Updike explains he does, “to the best of [his] ability try to love him and let his mind and heart beat” (qtd. in Stevick 37).  These modifiers serve to “scrutinize” and question rather than judge.  Sammy, for instance, exhibits many admirable traits.  In reacting to Queenie’s embarrassment by quitting, he does momentarily believe he is taking a real stance and acting the hero.  The use of the modifier, then, serves to undermine a romantic sentimentalism, namely Sammy’s chivalry.  Like Updike’s use of metaphor, the reader is left with ambivalence, producing an ironic perspective at a climactic moment (Fleischauer 277).  Sammy is partly a hero, but he is also an unwitting misogynist.  At the same time, similar to how even Sammy notes about the girls not meaning to be so sexually provocative, Updike manages to evoke for his protagonists the same sentiment from us: “Poor kids,” we begin “to feel sorry for them, they couldn’t help it” (587).

Updike’s focus on peripheral detail reflects his interest in illuminating the lives of those living on the periphery --the downtrodden rather than the heroic.  As Fleischauer notes, the fulfillment of conventional social goals are categorically negated in Updike’s fiction; his characters, rather, are typically failures at love, work, and independence.  What makes his fiction effective, then, is his method of focusing on detail over action.  His lyrical detail is further purposeful because in the striking description of the mundane, he brings to the fore the small triumphs that are the only ones accessible to his protagonists.  Updike specifically privileges the lyric over the mimetic by rendering “scenes more important than actions” and “space… more important than time” Fleischauer 286).  His focus on detail over action is found particularly within his elevated diction; he uses adjectives (which illuminate things and thoughts) more frequently than he does adverbs (which highlight actions).  Although the verbs he does use are colorful, they are “abnormally intransitive” and therefore indicate a lack of progress from his protagonists (Fleischauer 286).  Updike’s focus on his anti-heroes trapped in the commonplace is reflected by his linguistic “shift to the edges of described scenes for significance”; consequently, “his sympathy is attached to the unaware character trying to make sense of his lot” (Fleischauer 286).  Updike detracts from mimetic plot points with increasingly tangential adjectival modifiers, often bringing them to the center of traditional noun-verb sentences.  Within the peripheral detail, Updike plants an image or thought suggesting metaphysical significance: “The childish mystery—the mystery of ‘anyplace,’ prelude to the ultimate, ‘Why am I me?’—Ignites panic in his heart” (284).

            Updike has been compared to authors in the “modern Jewish school” such as Saul Bellow or Bernard Malamud, who depict sensitive narrators falling prey to their own failures to play by the rules of a garish, rough society.  A reinvestigation of Updike’s subordinate adjectival modifiers and images, however, reveal a stylistic difference.  As Joyce Carol Oats has demonstrated, Updike is not tragic, but rather comic.  The “gifts” Updike refers to in his stories are the little ways in which the anti-hero learns “he is nevertheless rewarded for his persistence, in spite of failure or partial failure to achieve those successes urged upon him by a crass society” (Fleischauer 286).  The imagery that runs counter to the dialogue and narrative elements at the end of “A & P” provide representative examples of Updike’s lyric “assertion of success or forgiveness as opposed to a rationalization of loss” (Fleischauer 286).  Although the mimetic action dictates that Sammy is a failure because the girls never acknowledge his actions and he realizes “how hard the world was going to be to [him] hereafter,” the imagery he remembers—and the reader remembers—more resonantly speaks otherwise.  As soon as Sammy announces his decision to quit, he has differentiated himself from the insentient world in which customers “knock against each other, like scared pigs in a chute” (589).  Although Lengel reminds him that “’You’ll feel this for the rest of your life,’” and although Sammy acknowledges it’s true, he ends the sentence showing allegiance to a gut-level reaction to display honor in the small way he can: “but remembering how he made that pretty girl blush makes me so scrunchy inside” (589).  Ultimately, however, it is the imagery of Sammy having jumped the fence of commonplaces, of stacked peat moss and aluminum lawn furniture, to view the dying patriarchal figure he would invariably have become had he stayed, that undermines the apparent revelation of the story’s final sentence.  

Looking back in the windows, over the bags of peat moss and aluminum lawn furniture stacked on the pavement, I could see Lengel in my place in the slot, checking the sheep through.  His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’d just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter. (590)



Works Cited

Balbert, Peter. "A Panoply of Metaphor: Exuberances of Style in Pynchon and Updike." Studies in the Novel 15: 265-76.

Blodgett, Harriet. "Updike's 'A & P'." Explicator 61: 236-7.

Fleischauer, John F. "John Updike's Prose Style: Definition at the Periphery of Meaning." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 30: 277-90.

O'connell, Mary. Updike an Dthe Patriarchal Dilemma: Masculinity in the Rabbit Novels. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1996. ix-268. 


Price, Martin. “A Note on Character in The Centaur.”  Yale Review 52 (1963); rpt. In Thornburn and Eiland.  132-133.

Saldívar, Toni. "The Art of John Updike's 'A & P'." Studies in Short Fiction 34: 215-25.

Stevick, Philip. "The Full Range of Updike's Prose." New Essays on Rabbit, Run. Ed. Stanley Trachtenberg. New York: Cambridge UP, 1993. 31-52. 

Thompson, Corey Evan. "Updike's 'A & P'." Explicator 59: 215-6.

Updike, John. "A & P." The Modern Tradition. Ed. Daniel F. Howard. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972. 585-590. 

Updike, John.  “Problems.” Problems and Other Stories, New York: Knopf, 1979.


Updike, John.  Picked-Up Pieces.  New York: Fawcett, 1966.

Updike, John. Rabbit, Run. 4th ed. New York: Alfred a. Knopf, 1961. 3-307.

Wells, Walter. "John Updike's 'A & P': A Return Visit to Araby." Studies in Short Fiction 30: 127-33.


Works Consulted

Cording, Sue. "Teaching 'A & P' in AP English." Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction 4: 53-7.

Dessner, Lawrence Jay. "Irony and Innocence in John Updike's 'A & P'." Studies in Short Fiction 25: 315-7.

Detweiler, Robert. "Updike's A Month of Sundays and the Language of the Unconscious." Journal of the American Academy of Religion 47 (1979): 609-25.

Emmett, Paul J. "A Slip that shows Updike's 'A&P'." Notes on Contemporary Literature 15 (1985): 9-11.

Goss, Marjorie Hill. "Widening Perceptions in Updike's 'A&P'." Notes on Contemporary Literature 14 (1984): 8-.

Luscher, Robert M. "Teaching Updike's 'A & P': Shopping for Significance." Eureka Studies in Teaching Short Fiction 4: 37-52.

Hamilton, Alice, and Kenneth Hamilton. "Rabbit, Run." Elements of John Updike. William B. Eerdmans, 1970. 137-155. 

McFarland, Ronald E. "Updike and the Critics: Reflections on 'A & P'." Studies in Short Fiction 20.2: 95-100.

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Overmyer, Janet. "Courtly Love in the A&P." Notes on Contemporary Literature 2 (1972): 4-5.

Petry, Alice Hall. "The Dress Code in Updike's 'A&P'." Notes on Contemporary Literature 16 (1986): 8-10.

Powers, Peter Kerry. "Scribbling for a Life: Masculinity, Doctrine, and Style in the Work of John Updike." Christianity and Literature 43.3: 329-46.

Rupp, Richard R. "John Updike: Style in Search of a Center." John Updike. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 15-28. 

Ward, J. A. "John Updike's Fiction." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 5 (1962): 27-40.

Zverev, Aleksei. "Nabokov, Updike, and American Literature." The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov. Ed. Vladimir E. Alexandrov. New York: Garland, Inc., 1995. 536-547. 



[1] Much critical debate has been devoted to Sammy’s status as a hero as well as his self-perception as such.  For more, see Harriet Blodgett’s “Updike’s ‘A&P,’” Corey Evan Thompson’s “Updike’s ‘A&P,’” Walter Wells’ “John Updike’s ‘A&P’: A Return Visit to Araby,” and Toni Saldívar “The Art of John Updike’s ‘A&P.’”  For the more defined purposes of establishing metaphor as a unifying device, I will employ Saldívar’s critical stance that Sammy emerges as a modern, ambivalent hero, “both triumphant and sad, both winner and loser” (1).

[2] For the reader’s convenience, I have underlined the modifying adjectival, adverbial, or prepositional clauses.