First published in the New Yorker in 1975 and included in Prize Stories 1976: The O. Henry Awards, “Separating” was incorporated with other stories featuring Joan and Richard Maple in Too Far to Go (1979), a short story cycle chronicling a 20-year marriage and its dissolution that John Updike assembled in response to a television version of the Maples stories. Although the Maples continue to appear in the three remaining stories in Too Far to Go, “Separating” provides the inevitable but continually deferred climax toward which the couple has been moving in their prolonged dance toward divorce. In the previous stories, each time the couple decides to separate, Richard’s attraction to Joan paradoxically grows stronger; in “Separating,” however, their resolve to end the marriage becomes a painful reality.
“Separating” poignantly sketches Joan and Richard’s final day together, which Richard begins with last-minute repairs on the house he is leaving. The futility of his attempt to orchestrate an orderly departure from this marriage before he embarks on another with his current mistress, however, is foreshadowed by intimations of the inevitable processes of nature and decay. Similarly, the couple’s orderly plan to reveal the news of their separation to their children at a reunion dinner goes awry when Richard is unable to control his emotions and begins to cry, thus forcing the announcement. Dickie, their eldest son, is out at a concert, and Richard breaks the news to him during their drive home, when they are halfway between the church and the house where Richard’s mistress lives. Yet Dickie’s desperate goodnight kiss and the simple whispered question “Why?” that concludes the story further undo Richard’s artfully constructed defenses, as he is unable to respond to his son’s question.
The story’s drama centers on the Maples’ revelation of their separation to their children, but it plumbs emotional depths and paradoxes far beyond the simple action it depicts. The authenticity and emotional resonance of this and the other Maples stories certainly derive from their autobiographical connection; the Maples children are the same ages as Updike’s own when his first marriage ended. As do the other Maples stories, “Separating” is told from Richard’s point of view, thus eliciting sympathy for a character who, while selfishly engaged in the breakup of his family, nonetheless feels a profound affection for them and suffers intensely for the pain he is inflicting through the separation to which he has finally consented. Alternative readings view Richard with less sympathy precisely because, through his perspective, readers can identify his weakness and selfishness.
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———. “The Trail of Bread Crumbs Motif in Updike’s Maples Stories.” Studies in Short Fiction 25 (1988): 71–73.