The affluent Maples are getting a divorce, but they cannot decide on the right time to tell their four children. They finally decide to break the news after their eldest, Judith, 19, returns from studying abroad in England. Richard Maple hopes to make an announcement at the dinner table, while Joan prefers to tell the children individually. After bickering, they finally agree that Joan’s way is better.
As one of his final tasks while he still lives in the house, Richard replaces a lock on the porch door. Unaware that anything is wrong, his children happily mill around the house as usual. Judith regales him with stories of her time in England. He sadly reflects that Judith is the only child that he and Joan “endured together” (37) long enough to raise into adulthood. That night, the Maples serve a dinner of lobster and champagne to welcome Judith back from her travels. Richard begins to cry at the table, something his children attempt to ignore.
Eventually John, the second-youngest at 15, asks his mother why Richard is crying. Joan tells the boy the truth, and talk of the separation ripples through the dinner table. It becomes clear that Margaret, 13, the youngest child, somehow figured out that her parents were separating and her fears are now named. John demands to know why Richard and Joan failed to tell their children that they were having problems getting along. Richard tries to explain that they do get along but they don’t love each other, but trails off.
John is drunk from the champagne, and begins playing with matches, holding them close to his mother’s face. He stuffs a cigarette into his mouth ands shows it to Margaret. Judith warns him to act mature. After dinner, Richard and John go on a walk, over which John confides that he is frustrated with his new school as well as the separation. Richard assures John that they will transfer him to a new school, as “life’s too short to be miserable” (39).
Later, Joan reprimands Richard for crying at the table, because it made Joan look like the separation was all her idea. Both parties agree, though, that they are lucky the children didn’t think to ask whether the separation was caused by “a third person.” They realize that they still need to inform their second-oldest child, Dickie, 17, who has been away at a rock concert. Richard will confront him alone, as the boy is most like him.
After sleeping badly, Richard goes to the train station to pick Dickie up after the concert. He dreads telling Dickie about the separation, and happily procrastinates by driving Dickie’s friends home. When he finally reveals the news, Dickie is stunned but takes it stoically. Richard confides that he hates being the bearer of such bad news. On their way home, Richard acknowledges a home on their block that contains a woman he hopes to marry. When they get home, Dickie goes to his room without another word.
Joan and Richard go up to say good night to Dickie. They offer to call him in sick to work, but he declines. As Richard goes to kiss his son good night, Dickie turns and kisses him on the lips as “passionate as a woman” (41). With agony, he asks “Why?” Richard realizes that after living with the decision for such a long time, he has forgotten why he is separating from his wife.
The first section of “Separating” focuses closely on Richard’s consciousness. Updike describes his thought processes in great detail, and shows how particular objects and images inspire emotion and recollection. Like “Short Easter,” the initial focus of “Separating” is on the character’s internal world; exposition of plot and setting only comes later.
The effect of this narrative choice is that Richard is irrevocably established as the protagonist. This is important because as the story continues, his passivity and self-absorption make him increasingly difficult to identify with. Updike's decision to reveal Richard's affair only after the majority of the story has passed is an equally shrewd measure. The reader has already made up their minds about these characters until this time, and the potentially unpalatable aspect to the separation almost slips by unnoticed. Through Richard’s behavior, Updike subverts the traditional notions of hero and anti-hero—the protagonist of “Separating” does not fit easily into either archetype. If anything, he is a non-hero, too helplessly absorbed in his own thoughts and emotions to exercise real agency in the world.
Self-interest is the most important driver for the characters of “Separating,” and Updike explores the theme with nuance and complexity. For example, John's upset is directed more toward his experience in school than his parents' split. And Joan is ostensibly more selfish than Richard, insisting on having things her way. However, her decisions also make more sense for her children, and late in the story, it is revealed that Richard is the one having an affair, not Joan.
The strategic timing of this revelation calls attention to Updike’s treatment of gender norms. Although received ideas about 20th-century gender norms suggest that men were more likely to have affairs, Richard’s love for the woman in the house is surprising because in the context of the story, women seem to be the source of the male characters’ problems. Importantly, Updike is unclear about whether Richard has actually consummated the affair, or even if the “third person” is aware that Richard loves her. This adds a level of moral ambiguity to the situation, and complicates its implication that Richard might be an antihero.
Dickie’s kiss at the end of the story, “passionate as a woman[‘s],” demonstrates the broad variety of emotional expression in Updike’s fiction. The kiss is not a gesture of physical affection, but rather an expression of confusion, one that has little to do with Dickie’s relationship to his father. His unorthodox expression of the confusion calls into questions the other gestures of affection in the story, and suggest that similar complexity may underlie the other children’s reactions.
"Separating" is one of 18 stories Updike wrote about the Maple family, considered a loosely autobiographical account of a dissolved marriage that spans over two decades. The similarities between Richard Maple's and John Updike's first marriage are numerous. The Maples reside outside of Boston and have four children whose ages and genders match the progression of Updike's own children with his first wife - the eldest daughter, the older son, younger son and then youngest girl. Details of the Maple children's lives also echo Updike's own children. Elizabeth Updike, for example, studied abroad in England. (De Bellis 462-3) Holding a mirror up to his own life, Updike created a compelling figure through which he could express profound emotional strife.