Sunday, October 14, 2012

Compromise. Pretend… and Succeed?

‘Should Wizard Hit Mommy?’ is a short story by John Updike.  It’s prescribed by CBSE as a lesson for class 12 students.  CBSE’s interpretation of the lesson is as silly as any interpretation can get to. 
The story is about a family.  Jack the father, Clare the mother, and Jo the daughter. Jo is just 4 years old.  Jack tells her the bedtime stories.  He also tells her stories on Saturday afternoons for her nap.
One Saturday afternoon he tells her the story of Roger Skunk whose problem is his stench which keeps other animals away.  He is not able to make friends because of his stench. The wizard solves the problem by transforming the smell into the fragrance of roses.
Jo is happy with the story and would have gone to sleep had it not been for Jack who was unhappy with the resolution of Roger Skunk’s problem.  How can a skunk smell like roses?  He won’t be a skunk.  His identity will be lost.
So Jack continued the story.  Roger Skunk’s mother took her boy back to the wizard, hit the wizard on his head with her umbrella, and demanded the smell to be changed back to a skunk’s.  The old wizard complied.  Jo protested.  Jack explained to her that a skunk had to smell like a skunk and the other animals would eventually understand it and accept him.  The world accepts us as we are.  [Not as what we pretend to be.  Not with all the compromises that we seem too eager to make.] (What’s given in the brackets is my addition and not part of the story.)
No, Jo persisted in her protest. She is too young to understand identity crisis, pretention and compromises. She wants her father to change the ending of the story.  The wizard should hit Mommy on her head and simply refuse to change the smell of roses.  Children love simple solutions, happy endings, easy happiness.
Jack is too weary to explain.  His wife is working hard downstairs.  He tells his daughter he would think of it and goes downstairs to see his wife, six months pregnant with their third child, working hard painting the furniture.  She is annoyed that he took such a long time telling a story to the child instead of coming down earlier to help her with the painting job. 
Jack stands immobilised, caught in “an ugly middle position.”  He does not want to speak to his wife, touch her...
That’s the end of the story.
CBSE’s interpretation as reflected in the “value points” given to examiners: it’s a story about generation gap.  The adult’s thinking is conservative in contrast with the child’s thinking.
My interpretation: it’s a story about pretention and compromises.  There are many places in the story where the author speaks about pretention.  For example, Clare pretending to be happy at cocktail parties.  Jo pretending to be happy with the resolution to Roger Skunk’s problem.  Later Jo again pretends when Roger Skunk does not have enough money to pay to the wizard. 
Pretention is the most common vice among the middle class.  Updike belonged to that class in America.  His character, Roger Skunk, is a representative of that class – indirectly through Jo.  The middle class always pretends.  They always pretend to be something other than what they really are.  They want to be fair, if they are not.  They want to have black hair, even if they have one foot in the grave.  They want to have blue lips, if green lipsticks are in fashion.  They are never happy.  Put them in Paradise, they will go looking for forbidden apples. And they will steal them.  Then they will blame the serpent for the stealing.  And then they will make a religion blaming the serpent.  They will create rituals for appeasing the terrible serpent.  God and serpent will make compromises.  Middle class compromises. 

Well, I really don’t go this far in my classes.  J
But I have seen the middle class thinking succeed with pretentions and compromises.  Always.  In my work arena.  In the “ugly middle position.”
Updike’s story has a title with a question mark.  ‘Should the Wizard Hit Mommy?’ 
Should he?
Who decides?
That’s literature.  It does not give the answer.  It raises the question(s).  It’s only we who can answer.  We, the readers.  Do we want to pretend?  Do we want to make compromises?  Does our success depend on those pretentions and compromises?  ...


  1. literature has been and always will be instrumental in raising the question. it is up to us to correctly interpret its nuances and find a solution. we are honoured to have found you on the WWW, sir. :)

    1. I'm even more pleasantly surprised, Chinmoy. Nice to see you here.

  2. This is definitely not about generation gap. It is about growing up and accepting yourself and adjusting in this world.
    What a cute story and sad how schools are interpreting it :(

    1. The superficiality of life today has gripped teaching too. We (teachers) tend to make everything too easy for students - even interpretations.

    2. Matheical sir! An honour. One idea sparks another, its wonderful how our text book lessons now seem a kid, score would always eclipse ones rationale. Thrilled to learn more from your blog sir..- devi vaibhav (11th std. 2005 batch)

  3. Vaibhav, glad to see you here. Most welcome in this space. I'm indeed thrilled to hear from you.

  4. Mr.Matheikal, I feel unable to stay away from commenting on each piece you have written (forbidden apples?)...
    Many pertinent questions, especially for teachers like us who teach languages (literature...):
    - we tend to be enthusiastic about simplifications. Complex understanding or a lack of resolution is a problem!
    - The Board (CBSE) does more disservice than otherwise by providing one single interpretation for lines from a text. For example, here to say the adult's view is "conservative" is... inexplicable!

    I love the way you describe religions here. Some really wow! lines in this piece... poetic! Thanks for the read and please keep writing... I am sharing your blog's link on my facebook page. Cheers!

    1. I'm delighted, Deepesh.

      I always knew you were quite different from most teachers I know. You had very strong views about everything and I admired that strength of character. I'm delighted to see your comment and your sharing my views with your friends.

    2. And for perspective, lots of old Sawanites and my other students really admire your writing, and have asked me to convey it to you... You aren't on Facebook, are you?

    3. I joined Facebook recently, Deepesh. Merely with the intention of getting my writing reach a wider readership especially among my previous students. In fact, quite many students have already responded. Thank you.

  5. In a society where compromise is equated with success, an uncompromising journalist {individual] cannot be successful. - Jayakanthan


    1. Believe me, Raghuram, I quoted this sentence from the Frontline interview in my both Class XII classes while teaching the lesson.


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