‘Lifeguard’ by John Updike

Lifeguard by John Updike, 1961

The magic trick:

A narrator who (inadvertently) shows us society’s ills while he thinks he’s explaining them to us

Leave it to Updike to turn a divinity student’s introduction into a sexual consideration of the female gender.

He really turns himself into a cartoon at times with this stuff.

So what we have here, and perhaps it’s by accident, is a very interesting time capsule from 1961. Our narrator is a lifeguard – quite literally perched above the rest of society, looking down, observing. He’s giving us an eloquent summary of how society works and where the problems lie for women – at least as he sees it. But what winds up happening – and this is where I suppose the accident comes in – is that by taking the trademarked Updike view of women as sexual creatures to be admired, pitied, objectified, and generalized, he inadvertently is showing a 21st century audience exactly what is wrong with 1961 society, even as he thinks he’s explaining it to us.

And that’s quite a trick on Updike’s part.

The selection:

Finally come the young. The young matrons bring fat and fussing infants who gobble the sand like sugar, who toddle blissfully into the surf and bring me bolt upright on my throne. My whistle tweets. The mothers rouse. Many of these women are pregnant again, and sluggishly lie in their loose suits like cows tranced in a meadow. They gossip politics, and smoke incessantly, and lift their troubled eyes in wonder as a trio of flat-stomached nymphs parades past. These maidens take all our eyes. The vivacious red-head, freckled and white-footed, pushing against her boy and begging to be ducked; the solemn brunette, transporting the vase of herself with held breath; the dimpled blonde in the bib and diapers of her Bikini, the lambent fuzz of her midriff shimmering like a cat’s belly. Lust stuns me like the sun.

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