Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants


"Too Exposed to One Another": The Art of Nudity in John Updike's `Nakedness'"


English Department


College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Date Range



Arts and Humanities


Too Exposed to One Another: The Art of Nudity in John Updikes Nakedness Proposal Avis Hewitt Grand Valley State University Third Biennial John Updike Conference, October 1-4, 2014 The narrative just preceding Separating in Updikes long-term project that delineates the rise and fall of the marriage of Richard and Joan Maple, published first in paperback as Too Far to Go (1979) and then later by Knopf as an Everymans Pocket Classic titled The Maples Stories (2009)unsettles readers as a warm-up act for the powerful trauma of the June day when Richard must confess to each of his four children that he is breaking up the family. While Separating is frequently anthologized and is considered, as James Schiff notes in John Updike Revisited, the rarest gem in a volume made up of Updikes finest work in short fiction (121), the little piece that leads to it is a bit of an enigma. I propose to read that mystery in light of a trail of artful clues which serve as Hansel-Gretel pebbles that Updike has strewn for readers alert to his love of art. The research question in play is how to provide the best interpretation of the closing scene. Joan has performed what Richard considers a strip show for an audience of one as he lies on the bed watching her after an evening they have spent at dinner with friends. But when he rises from the bed to approach her, she looks at him, her eyes blue as a morning sea, and smiles. Then she says ‘No . . . in complacent firm denial, and that causes Richard to feel thrilled, invaded because [t]his nakedness is new to them (173). Why is this nakedness new to them? Robert Luscher sees it as a good. While Richard and Joan cannot emulate the unaffected nudity of the young couple on the beach in the opening scene of the story a couple whose unclothed exposure to the sun has left them newly unsexed visually , they can perhaps move for a moment to a place where the accumulation of infidelities and repulsions retreats behind the smooth pelt of an even tan that minimizes the sexual signs so large in our interior mythology, the breasts and pubic patches, melted to almost nothing in the middle distance, in the sun with [e]ven the young mans penis seem[ing] incidental (165). Interpretation hangs on the tone of Joans no. She may be simply repeating Richards answer when she asks if he has nothing better to do than watch her undress. That approach is an enemy challenge, rather than a lovers come hither. But it is not a rejection of him. Still, Luschers optimism fails to account for Richards rejection of her as Richard remembers her hand close to a naked boys penis as she offer liberal sympathies to the nudists being kicked off the beach, as well as his remembering her sense of being a nincompoop, and worst, his revisiting her physically as one whose heart in the fatty casing of her body plump[s] up (168, 173) when she feels triumphant or smart as his rival. He disdains her. The art and literary allusions are carefully ordered: Hieronymus Bosch, Massacios Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, Noah beheld naked by Ham, Susanna and the elders, Rodins remark re: a woman undressing, Rodins Bathers, Joyces Molly Bloom, Titans Venus, Manets Olympia, Goyas Maja, Chopins Edna Pontellier, Rodins Thinker, the old farmer who had sired eleven children without ever seeing his wifes naked body,the West African port that was the last place where a young woman could walk naked without attracting attention, and Brigitte Bardots Time photo of her from behind, bare from head to toe. The concluding strip show boasts three more allusions: Michelangelos slave, Munchs Madonna, and Ingress urnbearer, the last of which is seen from the front, unbarbered (173). William Feavers 2006 Art News article suggests that all Ingres is erotic, that every drawing Ingres made was an overture, every painting a consummation. Given the erotic subtext of Nakedness not just based on Ingres but on almost all of these allusions--readers are hard-pressed to reconcile its surface estrangements and repulsions. The contemporary radical Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben suggests in Nudities that the unconcealment or absence of veils that marks our nakedness is a form of inoperativity that is, the cessation of work. Our nakedness moves us from doing into being. My hypothesis is that Richards disdain is for Joans doing: her swelling to show pride in the relevance of [her] humanistic education and her willingness to call the golden-mustached young policeman a pig (168, 166. Her liberalism disgusts him. Yet these acts somehow do not taint in that night moment his desire for her being. If, like Robert Luscher, I am unduly optimistic in this interpretation, the proof should lie in providing context for these EIGHTEEN allusions to art and literature which offer an obvious and rich, but heretofore unpacked, context for this small gem in its own right of a warm-up act for Separating. Updikes own considerable propensity for nude art in Just Looking (1989) and Still Looking (2005) will also serve as a necessary element of this interpretive effort. Word Count: 871

Conference Name

3rd Biennial John Updike Society Conference

Conference Location

Abraham Lincoln Hotel, Reading, PA

This document is currently not available here.