John Updike, Racism and The Doctor’s Wife.


18 years ago, I spent a day at a long, scuffed wooden table in the Barbados Archives.  The table was stacked with baptism records of 11 parishes – a legacy of the island’s Anglican under the Church of England.

My paternal ancestors lived in Barbados for generations and I was on a mission to see how far I could travel back in time. After three hours, I finally found the thread.  A baptism record of my grandfather Henry Francis Baker. Over the years I’ve been able to trace the linage back to 1680.

As the great novelist Robertson Davies might have said, my deep affinity for islands is “what’s bred in the bone.”

But every paradise has its hell and the early history of Barbados is steeped in hardship. Between the reign of Elizabeth I and the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II in 1660, an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 Irish men, women and children were shipped to Barbados as indentured servants.

A statute was created that called for the conscription of “tinkers, jugglers, peddlers, wanderers, idle laborers, beggars, and such as could not give a good account of themselves.”

I’m convinced my ancestors were jugglers.

Hillary Beckles, has written in White Servitude and Black Slavery in Barbados (1627 -1715) that these involuntary indentured servants unfortunately “laid the foundation for African slavery in Barbados.”

The islands of the Caribbean (or more poetically, the Lesser Antilles archipelago) are rich with stories.  Here’s the first in a series of reviews.


As usual, a cartoon graced the cover of the February 11, 1961 issue of the New Yorker.  A matronly woman sits at a small computer console in a room that is filled with a gigantic IBM computer. This tableaux is bathed in a greenish industrial glow.  A small rectangle of paper appears out of a slot and it’s a red heart – a small touch of humanity in the coming electronic apocalypse.

Inside is a story by John Updike called The Doctor’s Wife. Updike had finished the story in late August of the previous year.  The Updikes were vacationing on the island of Anguilla earlier in the year where he had written the story “Pigeon Feathers” in pencil in and old notebook while lounging on an old sofa.

The Doctor’s Wife is story of Ralph and  Eve, a couple vacationing with their children on an unnamed  Caribbean island – a doppelganger of St. Martin.

The story begins with a single question, “Sharks?”

The voice comes from an older British woman, a doctor’s wife — floating in the pristine water next to Ralph.

“Sharks?”  The tip of the doctor’s wife’s freckled nose seems to sharpen in the sparkling air. Her eyes, momentarily rendered colorless by thought, took up the green of the Caribbean, the plane of the water intersected her throat. “Yes, we have some. Big dark fellows, too.”

A few paragraphs later, she continues. “They rarely come in this far. Only in turtle-killing season, when the blood draws them in. We’re fortunate. Our beaches go out shallowly. Over in St. Martin, now, the offshore water is deep and they must be careful.”

The literal and metaphorical shark circles the story and imbues it with a palpable sense of menace.  The buoyant doctor’s wife with her pointed tip of a nose is also a shark – circling her prey with conversation.

From the cool embrace of the water, Ralph looks at the crescent of rugged land around the empty beach.

“The natives used it only as a path. Their homes were set behind the ragged hedge of sea grape that rimmed the sand. Bits of tarpaper, pink-painted cement, corrugated roofing reddening by rust, wooden walls weathered to silver and patched by flattened kerosene tins, shacks on stilts, and unfinished cinderblock shells peeped above the dull, low foliage.”

Updike reveals the unchanging duality of the Caribbean, an island’s luxurious hotels, sun-dappled beaches and heavily-walleted tourists —  and the almost invisible locals living in ramshackle buildings and on meager incomes.

The theme of contradiction one continually revisited by Updike in his short stories. Ralph experiences both the squalor and the rejuvenating  beauty of the island.

“Now it as late afternoon; the tiny tropical sun, not yet swollen into red, patiently poured white brilliance down through the hushed air.  The air was as soft, as kind, as the water; there was no hostility in either. The two elements, as Ralph came out of one into the other, seemed tints of an a single enveloping benevolence.”

This benevolence begins to evaporate under the onslaught of the doctor’s wife’s obvious bigotry.

She reveals herself through such lines as “these are my children,” “they’re simple souls,” “Of course, you in America have lived with the problem so long.  In England, now, they’re just waking up; the blacks are pouring into London,” “You just don’t see how unnatural these people are. If you could see one-tenth of the antics, and then the selfishness, the doctor puts up with.”  “They say your wife as touch of the brush.” It took Ralph a moment to expand “brush” into “tar brush.” And “they say your wife’s being part Negro has kept you out of the hotels on the better islands.”

But the doctor’s wife isn’t the only antagonist.  The cottage that Ralph and Eve are renting comes with Hannah, a warm and gracious cook. “The children, at first timid of her color, adored her, and listened with eyes rounded by delight when she held- up a two-toned foreigner and told them to be good.  Goodness had never before been presented to them seriously.”

In conversation with the doctor’s wife, Eve says, “She’s lovely.  I think they’re all lovely. They’ve all been lovely to us.”

Few writers navigate the surprising contours interior landscape as well as Updike.  Both Eve and Ralph are clearly delighted and embarrassed by having a “servant.”

The other antagonist is a lingering guilt in all its various forms.

By avoiding confrontation with the doctor’s wife’s thinly-veiled accusations of Eve’s heritage, Ralph is gnawed by guilt.

“Abruptly, he felt guilty in relation to his wife. He had betrayed her, his defensiveness had been unworthy of her.  She would have wanted him to say something  like yes, her great grandfather picked cotton in Alabama…but he saw, like something living glimpsed in a liquid volume that, that his  imaginary scenarios depended on and could only live within, a vast  unconscious white pride; he and the doctor’s wife were in this together.  There was no bottom to his guilt, its intricacy was as dense as a liquid mass.”

Ralph returns to the water and something touches the his calf.  “He trashed, and peered down, but saw nothing.  He was afraid of the sharks, and he was afraid of the doctor’s wife, so he hung there between them, bleeding shame.”

The challenge of reading The Doctor’s Wife 50 years later, is that it lives in the context of the early 60’s.  The Civil Rights Act  wasn’t signed by President Johnson until 1964 – four years after this story was written.

In the year that Updike wrote the Doctor’s Wife, four black students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College began a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter. Although they were refused service, they are allowed to stay at the counter.

The 60’s were a decade of volcanic shifts in how America thought, wrote and lived with questions of race.  Updike has written that through the passage of time, the use of the word “Negro” is suspect but did not change it to the less culturally charged black – “fiction is allowed the language of its time.  And verbal correctness in this arena is so particularly volatile that “black,” which is inaccurate may some day be suspect in turn.”

Accurateness is critically important to Updike.  A year before he died, Updike talked with Sam Tanenhaus of the New York Times about his writing.

“I don’t think of myself as writing stylishly, I think of myself as trying to write with precision, what my mind’s eye conjures up.  So if out of this, the sentences become shapely and vivid, that’s great, but I’m mostly concerned with trying to deliver to the reader, my images, and my sense of human behavior and landscape.”

This is one of those stories that invites discussion.  It is significant that the doctor’s wife doesn’t have a name.  She is, rather, a relationship.  And she is so stereotypically bigoted that she becomes caricature.

In a 1968  interview with Charles Samuels from Writers At Work, Updike says, “You can’t be  satirical at the expense of characters because they are your creatures.  You must only love them.” Samuels asks, “Isn’t The Doctor’s Wife an exception to your statement that you never satirize one of your characters?”

Updike responds, “You  think I’m satirizing the doctor’s wife?  I’m criticizing the doctor’s wife.  Yes, I do feel that in some way she is racist, but I don’t think I’m trying to make her funny because she is a racist.”

Would the story have been more compelling if the doctor’s wife were more nuanced?  Or has the passage of 50 years since publication rendered tipped our perception of her character?  The question that has always intrigued me is whether the reality of a character (Many of us have met people like the doctor’s wife) makes a good fictional character?

Does her mono dimensionality diminish or enhance the value of this story?  I believe that a more mature Updike (He was 28-years old when he wrote The Doctor’s Wife) would have handled it differently. I think there would have been more creative nuance – the kind of multi-layered characters found in his later stories and more specifically in Brazil and The Coup.

I have never felt that The Doctor’s Wife rises to the level of Updike’s best stories.  The problem, as I see it, begins with the characters.  The doctor’s wife – the personification of bigotry. Eve, the perpetually loving, liberal wife. Hannah, the happy, hymn-singing symbol of good.  And Ralph, the prototypical white suburban male – not needing or wishing to stir up the waters.

They are good characters and perhaps they are real to their time, but like the beryl waves on the surface they do not indicate the depth of what’s below.

This is contrary to Updike’s own stated rules of literary criticism, “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”  (Picked Up Pieces).

But Updike also believes that once in print, the story belongs to the reader.  The Doctor’s Wife is elegantly  written and reflects the growing consciousness of the ugliness of racism.

I do not think Updike set out to create a hero. If there is nuance in the story, it is the gift Ralph receives in finally recognizing his own guilt.  The shark in all its incarnations circles and stalks his conscience and ultimately the consciousness of a collective inhumanity.