On a Saturday afternoon, Jack sits in his bedroom and prepares to tell yet another story to his daughter, Jo, to help her fall asleep. He's been telling her bedtime and naptime stories for over two years, and the ritual has grown stale in his mind. When he tells the stories, he always sticks to the same formula, which is that some woodland creature named Roger—the type of creature he is changes depending on the day; sometimes he is a fish, sometimes a squirrel, sometimes a chipmunk—runs into a problem. Roger takes his problem to a wise old owl perched in the top of a tree in the thick woodland forest where he lives, and then the owl refers him to Wizard, who uses magic to fix whatever Roger Creature's problem may be. After the problem is solved, Roger plays with the other little woodland creatures and then returns home to his mother, who is preparing dinner ahead of his father's return from work. Daddy Creature works in Boston and commutes by train.
On this particular Saturday afternoon, Jack's four-year-old daughter, Jo, suggests that he tell a story about a Roger Skunk, which is a new creature for them. Jack gets excited, thinking that perhaps a new creature will make today's ritual of storytelling less stale. He wonders where Jo got the idea to hear about a skunk and figures they must be talking about skunks in nursery school.
So, Jack begins his story about Roger Skunk. In the story, Roger smells so bad that none of the other woodland creatures will play with him. When he goes out to play, they all run away and make fun of his powerful odor. The cruelty of the other creatures surprises Jo; Jack's stories are usually not so emotionally fraught. As Jack begins the story, he hears furniture moving from downstairs and is reminded that his wife, Claire, will need his help painting the living room, so he feels pressure to hurry up the story.
Jack pushes forward, telling Jo that Roger Skunk scurries into the woods to consult the wise old owl, who confirms that Roger Skunk smells quite bad. Roger cries at the owl's tree, begging for a solution. Jo interjects and says that Roger needs to see the wizard. Jack tells Jo to lie down and try to be sleepy and let him tell the story. He continues and, sure enough, the owl tells Roger to consult the wizard.
At this point in the story, Jo interjects again and asks if magic spells, like the ones Wizard casts, are real. Updike then explains that Jo had been going through a phase in which she asks her parents whether things are real or not—recently she asked Jack if God was real. Jack tells her that magic spells are "real in stories" (346).
Jack tries again to push forward in the story and describes Roger Skunk's short journey down the "crick" to Wizard's house. Jo interrupts him again to ask what a "crick" is. Jack then starts to imitate Wizard, who he plays as a crotchety old man. Updike comments that Jack felt quite comfortable playing a cranky old man.
Wizard tells Roger Skunk he smells awful, and Roger Skunk says he knows, and that's why he's visiting him. Jack describes Wizard's disheveled house and tells Jo that the wizard doesn't have a cleaning lady. Jo asks why he doesn't have a cleaning lady, and Jack says it's because he's a wizard and he's very old. Then Jo asks whether he will die, and Jack answers that he will not, because wizards don't die, "they just get more and more cranky" (346).
Then, Jack describes the magical spell that Wizard incants, which makes Roger Skunk smell like a bunch of roses. Roger Skunk is jubilant about his new smell. Wizard demands payment in the form of pennies, but Roger Skunk is short a few pennies, so Wizard tells him where he can find the difference. In telling this part of the story, Jack mistakenly calls Roger Skunk Roger Fish, and Jo interrupts to point out the inconsistency. Jack then calls himself "stupid old daddy" (347).
Jack continues with the story, describing Roger Skunk collecting the remaining payment for Wizard and then going to play with the other woodland creatures. At this point in the story, Jo starts to really trail off with her attention, because she is so sure that the story is over already. However, Jack clearly has different plans. Jack doesn't like that his daughter isn't paying attention to him, and he tells her there's more to the story. He assures her that this surprise ending is worth listening to.
Roger Skunk returns home after playing with the other creatures in the woods, who don't run away because he now smells like roses. When he walks into his house, his mother objects to his new smell, calling it "awful" (347). To Jo, this is a shocking development. Roger Skunk explains to his mother that Wizard performed a magic spell to take his smell away. She tells Roger that this is unacceptable and drags him back to Wizard's house to reverse the spell.
When Mommy Skunk gets to Wizard's house, she bonks him over the head with her umbrella and tells her to change her son back. The whole time Jack tells this part of the story, Jo rages against it, insisting that this is not how it happened, but Jack pushes on, insisting on his version of the ending. Jack then explains how even Wizard agrees with Mommy Skunk in the end. Mommy Skunk tells Roger that he smelled exactly how a young skunk should smell, and that it didn't matter if the other kids run away from him. They would simply have to get used to it.
Jack rushes into the conclusion of the story, in which Daddy Skunk arrives back to the woods from a train from Boston and has dinner with Roger and Mommy, but Jo remains wholly unsatisfied with this ending. She demands that the next story be about how Wizard hits Mommy Skunk over the head with his wand. Jack adamantly refuses to agree to that next story, and then Jo calls Mommy Skunk stupid and Jack responds heatedly, insisting on justifying his version of the ending.
When Jo presses him about the practical outcomes of the reversal of Roger Skunk's odor-removal spell, Jack admits that his schoolmates still did ostracize him, but that eventually they more or less got used to him. Jo remains steadfast in her desire for Wizard to hit Mommy in the next story. Jack slinks downstairs, defeated by the whole interaction. When he reaches the living room, he finds his wife painting in a maternity smock and one of his old shirts. She remarks his story went on particularly long that day. Updike ends the story by comparing the living room to a cage, and noting that despite feeling Claire's presence in the cage with him, Jack has no desire "to speak with her, work with her, touch her, anything" (349).
Updike begins "Should Wizard Hit Mommy?" by establishing some basic parameters for Jack's story, which will soon make clear the anomaly or interruption to the rules he has set for Jo's bedtime stories. First, Updike establishes Jack's sense of exhaustion with his domestic life, the feeling that his life has, for years now, been occurring on a loop. He's fallen into a routine, even in the way that he improvises bedtime stories for his now-four-year-old daughter, and the routine has grown unsatisfying. In fact, the only thing that seems to be changing is that his daughter is growing up. Of course, Jo has a younger brother, and his wife, Claire, is pregnant with what will be their third child, so even this process of watching a child grow will eventually become a repetition.
After establishing that Jack's "head felt empty" (344) both in reference to his general life and to his ability to improvise stories for Jo, Updike establishes the rules of Jack's stories. Though improvised, the stories follow a simple formula every time. Roger Creature has a problem, he brings the problem to the wise owl, the wise owl sends him to Wizard, and Wizard says an incantation and, like an act of God, makes the problem go away. Wizard demands payment, Roger Creature doesn't have enough money, Wizard instructs him on where to find the additional funds, and then after completing the payment, Roger Creature goes home and has dinner with his parents, his father returning from his work in Boston via train.
An important element of this structure is the deus ex machina on which Jack has relied for two years thus far of storytelling. The uncomplicated way his stories have thus far resolved is increasingly at odds with Jo's new "reality phase" (345) in which she has begun questioning whether or not the things her parents tell her are real. She questions whether magic spells are real, whether spiders actually eat bugs, and whether there actually exists a God. Two of those questions Jack and Claire can answer with great certainty—yes, spiders do devour bugs, no, there are not magical spells—but one can see how Jo's new investigative nature will quickly thrust Jack and Claire into difficult, existential conversations with their four-year-old.
Jack importantly abandons the deus ex machina resolution in this story of Roger Skunk, but not as a direct response to the fact that it seems Jo is outgrowing it. We'll address Jack's specific motivations for changing the structure of the story later. But to return to Jo, in addition to her "reality phase," Updike demonstrates how she's literally growing up, as in bigger and taller every day. He writes that "the little girl" is "not so little," noting "the bumps her feet made under the covers were halfway down the bed, their big double bed that they let her be in for naps and when she was sick" (344). She's beginning to resemble her mother, Claire, having her blue eyes and emoting with expressions that Jack recognizes as Claire's own expressions.
But Jo's growth—her emotional growth—inflicts direct consequences on Jack's state of exhaustion. Updike writes, "Jo never fell asleep in naps any more, and knowing this made the rite seem futile" (344), "the rite" referring to storytime. So, Jack is day-in and day-out engaging with a task he now views as futile. But the repetition of their storytime tradition is injected with an at-first-welcomed dose of variation: Jo suggests a new type of creature for Roger to be, a skunk. "Having a fresh hero momentarily stirred Jack to creative enthusiasm" (345), Updike writes. An important word is "momentarily," which allows Updike to suggest to his readers that Jack welcomes the variation, but that it still does not completely alleviate his overall sense of fatigue.
Jack quickly denies Jo credit for her originality, thinking "they must talk about skunks at nursery school" (344). Using exceedingly spare dialogue on Jo's part, in line with the fact that she's four years old, Updike is able to telegraph her expectations to the reader. When Jack says a part of the story that Jo expects, agrees with, or approves of, she will respond with a simple, "Yes," or "Good" (345), or "Yes. Good" (346). In the beginning of his story, Jack sticks to his preconceived formula, but with an unusually dark twist (dark being a relative term here): Roger Skunk's odor makes him an outcast at school. Updike writes that when Jack reveals the central conflict to Jo, "Jo looked at him solemnly; she hadn't foreseen this" (345).
Jack revels in these small moments of surprising Jo, perhaps because they are testaments to the attention she is paying him, which Updike later reveals to be extremely important to Jack, to feel paid attention to. At this point in Jack's telling of the story, he hears furniture dragging on the floor downstairs and remembers his obligation to help his wife, Claire, paint the living-room. Updike writes that Jack "had no wish to hurry on" (345), and though he recognizes that he needs to hurry on, because his wife is six months pregnant and "shouldn't move heavy things" (347), Jack does exactly the opposite. The story he tells on this occasion is actually longer than any of the stories he's told Claire before, based on his change in the structure.
Jo continues to intermittently interrupt Jack's telling of the story, and Jack rebukes her several times, threatening to stop telling her stories, or suggesting that she tell the story herself, if she feels the need to interrupt him so much. These reactions from Jack to what seems like the perfectly normal hyperactivity and curiosity of a four-year-old reveal him to be deeply insecure about the level of attention paid to him. Updike returns to this insecurity later in the story.
When Jack introduces Wizard to the story of Roger Skunk, Jo asks—as she tends to do lately—whether magic spells are real or not, returning us to the theme of growing up and starting to assess abstract concepts and identify that which is unknowable. Updike's personal faith—he was a practicing Christian for most of his life until his death—figures into this story insofar as Jack and Claire suggest that God is "in the sky and all around them" and Jo asks, "Is He really?" (346) Though Updike doesn't include their answer, we are left to surmise that they express their faith to their child the best way they know how, given that faith is something that even many adults struggle to understand for themselves.
When Jack reaches the point in the narrative when he impersonates Wizard, Updike notes that "the wizard's voice was one of Jack's own favorite effects; he did it by scrunching up his face and somehow whining through his eyes .... He felt being an old man suited him." When Jo asks Jack whether or not the wizard would die, since he is old, Jack responds, "No. Wizards don't die. They just get more and more cranky" (346). This notion of wizards becoming increasingly cranky fits with the way Updike renders Jack as being a man who is growing more and more discontent with his life in the suburbs. Playing the wizard is an outlet for Jack to embody the total crank that he feels himself becoming. If "being an old man suit[s] him," (346) perhaps it's because he fantasizes about a time in his life when his toddler, infant, and unborn child are all grown and out of the house.
When Jack completes the incantation as Wizard, he pauses to let the especially theatrical moment sink in, to receive what he expects will be some form of audience approval from his daughter, and at first, it seems that his expectation will be fulfilled. "He paused as a rapt expression widened out from his daughter's nostril wings, forcing her eyebrows up and her lower lip down in an expression of mute exclamation," Updike writes, but then continues, "an expression in which Jack was startled to recognize his wife feigning pleasure at cocktail parties" (346-47).
This recognition of his wife in the expression his daughter makes, and his consequent projection of disapproval and disaffection onto his daughter—who, again, is four years old—reveals Jack's insecurity with his status as an authority figure, and on a more basic level simply as someone worth paying attention to. His being "startled" suggests that the expression is something he finds distasteful in his wife, a form of deceit, and that he's certainly unhappy to see the expression on his daughter's face. This moment, along with the moment in which Updike notes Jo's eyes being the same blue as Claire's, communicates to the reader that Jack is beginning to interpret Jo, as she grows into a personality, as a miniature of his wife, Claire, who he has clearly begun to resent.
This tendency of Jack's to equate Jo with Claire emerges most clearly further a bit later in the story, when Jo's attention wanders from his story as she "fuss[es] with her hands and look[s] out of the window, at the crack of daylight that showed under the shade." This division of her attention really annoys Jack, and Updike writes, "Jack didn't like women when they took anything for granted; he liked them apprehensive, hanging on his words" (347). Updike's use of the word "women" here is quite striking, given that it suggests Jack is including his four-year-old daughter in that category. This moment serves as perhaps the strongest evidence in the story of Jack's insecurity when it comes to people paying attention to him and caring about what he has to say. It also cements his perception of his daughter as simply a miniature or future Claire.
And this is the moment where Jack's story, the framed narrative, deviates from the previously established parameters. When Roger returns home to his mother after paying the wizard and playing with the other woodland creatures, who now accept him because he smells like roses, his mother rejects his new scent. Her rejection has a cascading effect on the frame narrative—that is, the story of Jo, Jack, and Claire.
First, Mommy Skunk's rejection of Roger Skunk's recourse to a magical solution to his problem shocks Jo, who for all intents and purposes assumed the story was over. The change in the structure of the story makes it so that now Jack has Jo's full and undivided attention, which leaves room for the reader to perhaps conclude that this structural change to the bedtime story is a clever improvisation by Jack to recapture his daughter's attention, to prove to her that she can't predict everything he will tell her, and that he retains the ability to surprise, delight, and, if he so chooses, infuriate (which is what he does).
The second effect of his changing the structure of the story is that Jack is able to prolong his avoidance of domestic obligations like painting with and interacting with his wife. All of a sudden, Jo is no longer longingly looking at the sliver of daylight peeking in from under the blinds, reminding her that it is still very much Saturday afternoon, and that perhaps she simply isn't tired and would rather be playing outside. This moment of longingly looking at the daylight is another subtle reminder that Jo is growing older and out of old traditions, like naptime.
So, Jack prolongs the story, adding an unforeseen fourth act in which Mommy Skunk drags Roger back to the wizard's house, strikes Wizard on the head with her umbrella, and demands that he change Roger back to a stinky skunk. Jo does not like this development. She first begs Jack to have Roger remind his mother that the other kids would always run away from him because of his smell. Jack complies, but then has Mommy Skunk tell Roger she doesn't care because he "smelled the way a little skunk should have" (348).
After Jack reports that Roger's mother bonks Wizard over the head with her umbrella, Jo interjects, "Then the wizard hit her on the head and did not change that little skunk back" (348). Jack rejects Jo's suggestion and moves on. It is significant that Jack is the one who first proposes violence in the narrative. Jo doesn't invent the violence of hitting someone over the head, because Jack has Mommy Skunk do it to Wizard first. If anything, Jo's suggestion on behalf of Wizard is retaliatory. This is an instance in real-time of Jo absorbing the lessons and notions of the adults raising her.
Despite Jo's persistent interruptions and objections, Jack pushes through to the usual end of the narrative, when Daddy Skunk returns home from work and they all eat dinner together. This is an attempt of Jack's to restabilize the narrative and cement his own version of the conclusion. But Jo refuses to let this slide. She says, "Then did the other little ani-mals run away?" and Jack responds with uncertainty. He says, "No, because eventually they got used to the way he was and did not mind it at all. Or did not mind it very much" (348). Jo asks for the meaning of the word "eventually" and Jack explains that it means "in a little while." Here are two concessions that Jo's questioning immediately forces Jack to make after concluding his story—first, that the other kids still did mind his smell, and second, that it takes them a while to get used to it, thus revealing the practical consequences of what Jack hoped would be a neat moral to his daring new story format in which he abandons the simple deus ex machina resolution.
Jo's success in undercutting Jack's conclusion also serves to undercut the other conclusions of his story, like the assumed gendered division of responsibilities between mothers and fathers, and the total lack of agency granted to children in making choices about how to present themselves. When Jack goes downstairs to his real, human wife, he finds her painting the trim in their living room, wearing one of his old shirts. He's exhausted, fatigued by his obligations, and the shirt is a reminder that these people, his family, are him; they are a part of him, inseparable, and he can't escape it. Claire immediately remarks, "That was a long story" (349), and its placement suggests that she is suggesting that Jack's prolonging the story is an obvious ploy to avoid painting.
Updike ends by comparing the trim and banisters of the living room, which Jack and his wife are painting, to a cage. Jack feels an insurmountable distance between himself and his wife, despite the claustrophobia of their shared domesticity. They are painting their own cage, attempting to pretty it up, but after the paint dries, it will remain a cage. This is the despondent note on which Updike ends "Should Wizard Hit Mommy?", a story deceivingly upbeat in its language, which borrows from fairy tales and nursery rhymes, but is ultimately used to reach a depressing conclusion about the challenges of raising a family.