Analysis of John Updike’s The Persistence of Desire

The Persistence of Desire was first published in the July 11, 1959, issue of the New Yorker, was republished in Olinger Stories: A Selection (1964), and is collected in John Updike, The Early Stories 1953– 1975 (New York: Knopf, 2003).

Middle-aged Clyde Behn sits in the waiting room of his childhood ophthalmologist’s office as nostalgic visions assail him. The awkward distance between his former and present selves, and the inexorable passage of time, are made evident by the new-fangled digital clock and by his chancing upon a statement in a magazine, “Science reveals that the cells of the human body are replaced in toto every seven years.” Into this expectant atmosphere steps Janet, Clyde’s girlfriend from long ago, prompting awkward probing about each other’s spouses and children. In a lull during his eye examination, Clyde slips into the adjacent room and fondles Janet, who resists only ineffectually. Later, back in the waiting room, Janet conspiratorially slips a note into Clyde’s pocket, presumably containing her address or an appointment, but Clyde, eyes dilated by the doctor, cannot decipher it.

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The story crystallizes the intense but thwarted attempts of the heroes of Updike’s early stories to recapture the glory days of youth and to make good on past mistakes. The controlling metaphor, blurred vision, expands into a “tiny speck” under the lid, eyes on “the brink of tears,” a gaze down the front of Janet’s dress, and “a tainted world where things evaded [Clyde’s] focus.” Believing that Janet “would never see the light,” Clyde stays mired in a past in which his future remains unfulfilled, “an always imminent joy.”

In a 1968 interview, Updike proclaimed that “if I had to give anybody one book of me it would be the Vintage Olinger Stories” (Samuels 28). Critics agree that “The Persistence of Desire” is an exemplary Updike story. Mary Allen discusses Clyde Behn’s selfaggrandizing delusions in contrast to Janet’s practicality (76). Arthur Mizener notices the simultaneity of joy and pain in Updike’s early stories and relates them to Wordsworth’s Prelude. Robert Detweiler and Donald J. Greiner offer detailed readings of Updike’s short fiction. D. Quentin Miller, quoting Robert M. Luscher, explains Clyde’s peculiarly unsettled position between fleeing from and fl eeing to the past (16).

Allen, Mary. “John Updike’s Love of ‘Dull Bovine Beauty.’ ” In John Updike, edited by Harold Bloom, 69–96. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Detweiler, Robert. John Updike. Boston: Twayne, 1984.
Greiner, Donald J. The Other John Updike: Poems/Short Stories/Prose/Plays. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1981.
Miller, D. Quentin. “Updike, Middles, and the Spell of ‘Subjective Geography.’ ” In The Cambridge Companion to John Updike, edited by Stacey Olster, 15–28. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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