Jack is exhausted by his domestic routine. Updike begins the story by pronouncing that Jack has been telling his daughter bedtime stories for two years, and that at this point, "his head felt empty" (344). The story is laden with a sense of exhaustion coming from the adults. When Jack returns to the living-room, Updike writes that Jack "with utter weariness watched his wife labor" (349). Updike refers to Jack's internal state as "an ugly middle position" (349) and characterizes Jack's living-room as a cage in which he is stuck with his wife, but despite their proximity, Jack has no desire to interact with her in any tender or even basic way.
There is a sense Jack and Claire cannot hide their displeasure from one another anymore. Jack notices, while telling his story, that his daughter has begun to emulate the face Claire makes at parties when she's pretending to be amused, and this recognition disturbs him. He resents his daughter, at certain points in his storytelling, for not paying total attention to him, and in this attention-seeking way, Jack begins subtly to resemble a child.
When Jack returns to the living-room to assist his wife in the painting, he remarks, "That poor kid" (349), referring to Jo. He doesn't expand on the thought, and it's unclear whether he pities her for having to listen to his story, which Claire comments was especially long that day, or whether his pity is of a more general character, as in, "that poor kid" has to grow up in this domestic cage with us—adults who have begun to fall out of love.
The bored monotony of the idealized, gendered conclusions of the stories Jack tells—describing Roger Creature's father returning home on the train from work, and their family sitting down to dinner—and the fact that he has to break the pattern with this new story by dispensing with the deus ex machina of Wizard's solution, emphasizes how Jack is tired of the same old domestic routine.
Jack laments the fact that his daughter is growing fast, that her feet reach halfway down the bedspread now, and that she is less likely to be lulled into a peaceful nap than before. Her baby brother is fast asleep, and there's another child on the way. Jack and Claire will go through this process of children growing out of the structures of early childhood—naps and bedtime stories, for example—and Jack already feels exhausted by the repetition of it. After two years of telling Jo stories, he's run out of new material, and he's bored by his inventions. On the other hand, Jo is just beginning to question the world around her. The reflective portions of her childhood are just beginning.
Jack's story—around which his, Claire's, and Jo's reality acts as a frame—is also about the harder truths of childhood, such as ostracization and the cost of being one's self. As Updike points out, Jack is "remembering certain trials of his own childhood" (345) in his telling. Later, when he and Jo argue over the conclusion of the story, Updike remarks that Jack "believed, from her expression, that he was defending his own mother to her, or something as odd" (348). Updike demonstrates how childhood is a subject that remains tender long after it falls into the past. Jack is forced to relive these barbed impressions of his childhood and feel the vulnerability of his sustained insecurities at the hands of his own four-year-old daughter.
The simple moral of Jack's attempt at a didactic tale in the story of Roger Skunk and Mommy Skunk is that a person should not try to conform the essence of what makes them themselves to the expectations of their peers. However, the simple conclusion of the story becomes muddled by Jo's eager interrogation of it, especially in light of her staunch rejection of the story's final act. When she asks whether, after Mommy Skunk forced Wizard to make Roger Skunk smell like a skunk again, Roger Skunk's classmates continued to run away from him, Jack stumbles in his answer. 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 immediately asks what eventually means, and Jack offers a short definition—"In a little while" (348). Jack's self-revision of his own one-line epilogue of the story, that the other little creatures did not mind very much, exposes the uncertainty that even adults hold onto—adults who, in the context of this home environment and the relationship between children and adults, are supposed to know what is real and what is make-believe.
It seems that out of Jack's domestic exhaustion springs forth a strongly spiteful disposition. After two years of making up bedtime stories, Jack feels tapped out of originality and spontaneity—at first, Jo's suggestion that Roger take the form of a skunk excites and inspires Jack, who presents Jo with an unusually sad tale about a young skunk who is ostracized from his peers. When Jack introduces the major conflict of the fable, that the other creatures won't play with Roger Skunk because of his odor, "Jo looked at him solemnly" because "she hadn't foreseen this" (345). Jack revels in his ability to surprise and keep his listeners in suspense. Updike writes, "Jack didn't like women when they took anything for granted; he liked them apprehensive, hanging on his words" (346).
So, by Jack's standards, the storytelling is off to a good start. He introduces twists that Jo doesn't expect. However, after the usual elements are introduced—the owl, the wizard—Jo grows comfortable in the expectation that she knows what is going to happen. She starts to not pay attention, or to feign excitement at the plot developments. Updike writes that Jack notes Jo making a face, "an expression in which Jack was startled to recognize his wife feigning pleasure at cocktail parties" (346-47). Though it is not explicitly stated, Updike's framing of Jack's feelings about women neglecting to pay attention to him directly preempt his introduction of the second half of the story in which Mommy Skunk forces the wizard to return Roger's stench. This new, unfamiliar conclusion enrages Jo, and the order of events suggests that Jack inflicted this ending upon her as a punishment for not paying attention to him. Jack, being tired of the dull realities and hardships of his middle-class existence, decides to add a dose of "reality" to his tale about Roger Skunk, which he knows will upset Jo. And as soon as he goes downstairs to join his wife, Claire, she comments on the unusual length of his story, as if perhaps to suggest that he uses the story to avoid the "real" work that needs to be done, i.e. painting the trim in the living room.
Should Wizard Hit Mommy? Questions and Answers
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