The short story "Should Wizard Hit Mommy" by John Updike (a short five-to-ten-minute read) is on my curriculum; it involves a father who tells a nap-time story to his daughter.

It appears to be a story the father is telling her to teach her values, but I couldn't understand what really the author wanted to tell us. What was the real moral of the story?

In the middle he says that he has to finish the story quickly to help his 6-month pregnant wife, but in the last paragraph he says that he feels like being in a cage, and doesn't want to speak or touch her!?

“The poor kid,” he answered, and with utter weariness watched his wife labour. The woodwork, a cage of moldings and rails and baseboards all around them, was half old tan and half new ivory and he felt caught in an ugly middle position, and though he as well felt his wife’s presence in the cage with him, he did not want to speak with her, work with her, touch her , anything.

Also why does he call his daughter a "poor kid"? What exactly is the author conveying here?

1 Answer 1


Jo’s suggestion that the story’s hero should be a skunk results in Jack, without initially intending to do so, basing the story on his own childhood. The choice of a skunk suggests to Jack that Roger might be bullied by the other animals because of his smell, and this causes Jack to remember “certain humiliations of his own childhood”. We deduce that Jack too had been bullied as a child, perhaps due to a noticeable difference between him and the other children in his school or neighbourhood, a difference that he might have wished could have been removed by a wizard’s magic spell.

What was this difference? Updike does not say, but maybe we can guess it from the reaction of Roger’s mother in Jack’s story. We are all but told that Roger’s mother corresponds to Jack’s mother, for when Joanne says that Mommy Skunk was stupid,

“It was not,” he said with rare emphasis, and believed, from her expression, that she realised he was defending his own mother to her

So if Mommy Skunk objects to Roger wishing away his smell, what did Jack’s mother object to Jack wishing away? Perhaps Jack belonged to a visible racial minority in a predominately white neighbourhood. It would then be likely for Jack to be racially bullied, to wish that he could be white, and for his mother to object to her son wishing away his own identity. (It is perhaps significant that the wizard lives in a “little white house”.) This would explain Jack’s feeling of being ‘caught in an ugly middle’ in the story’s final paragraph:

The woodwork, a cage of moldings and rails and baseboards all around them, was half old tan and half new ivory and he felt caught in an ugly middle position

(My emphasis.) There are a couple of other clues to Jack’s origins. His stories always involve a lack of pennies, perhaps indicating that he grew up poor. He pronounces “creek” like “crick”, a U.S. dialect variation indicating a rural Southern upbringing.

Under this interpretation, when Jack says, “poor kid”, he is simultaneously referring to himself as a child suffering racial bullying, and to his fears that his daughter Jo (who is coming up to school age) will have to go through something similar.

As for the question of why Jack “did not want to speak with her [Clare], work with her, touch her, anything” in the final paragraph, telling the story of Roger Skunk has brought up powerful emotions for Jack, and the narrative has repeatedly suggested that Jack has trouble managing his emotions:

Jack answered curtly. She had made him miss a beat in the narrative.

Jo made the crying face again, but this time without a trace of sincerity. This annoyed Jack.

Jack didn’t like women when they took anything for granted; he liked them apprehensive, hanging on his words.

“Joanne! Shall I come up there and spank you?”

If Clare were white, as suggested by the way he links her with cocktail parties (a stereotypically WASP-ish activity) then that would be another reason why Jack feels that he can’t share his emotions with her.

  • 3
    Wow , that was so so helpful. Thank you so much !!! Aug 5, 2019 at 7:33
  • 4
    "half old tan and half new ivory and he felt caught in an ugly middle position". Tan is black (or at least dark) and ivory is white. To me this indicates that Jack is neither black nor white but mixed race, and thus fits into neither black nor white society. Also skunks are not just smelly but half black and half white. Feb 9, 2021 at 15:26

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