In “Should Wizard Hit Mommy?” the process of crafting a story is as important as the story itself. Indeed, Jack uses the Roger Skunk story to exercise control and decisiveness that he feels like he no longer possesses in his own life, and also to delay helping his pregnant wife, Clare, repaint the living room (and, in the process, delay confronting the fact that his family is about to get bigger). Far from merely a mechanism to get his daughter to sleep, the story becomes a way for Jack to re-contextualize his personal unhappiness, exercising total control over his simple narrative to compensate for a lack of control he feels in life. As a result, Jack is incredibly protective over his story and its hero, Roger Skunk, and views Jo’s attempts to change the structure of his story as more sinister attempts to control him as well.
“Should Wizard Hit Mommy” was written in 1959 when John Updike was married to his first wife Mary Pennington. The couple lived in Oxford, England, and had four children before they ultimately divorced. Their oldest daughter, Elizabeth, was herself four-years-old when the story was written. Therefore, it is easy to see the story as at least partly autobiographical, with “Jack” standing in for his author, John. Like Updike himself, Jack is concerned with crafting a compelling and dynamic story, and takes joy in his narrative ability. Jack is especially proud of certain literary and dramatic flairs within Roger’s story even though they are lost on Jo. For example, Jo’s suggestion that Roger should be a skunk “momentarily stir[s] Jack to creative enthusiasm.” He seems to take genuine joy in the task of crafting a narrative. He also uses words that Jo does not know, like “crick” and “eventually,” to showcase his own gift for language, and is annoyed when Jo interrupts and makes him “miss a beat in his narrative.” He is proud of his ability as a dynamic storyteller. “The wizard’s voice was one of Jack’s own favorite effects,” Updike explains; “he did it by scrunching up his face and somehow whining through his eyes.” This joy shows that, for all his complaining, Jack is enriched by the story he’s telling, embracing the ability to exist in an expansive world of his own creation instead of the cramped and unhappy world of his real life.
Jack takes pride in how he tells the Roger Skunk story because he is able to exert a control over Jo that he feels he no longer has over Clare or their life together. As such, he becomes disproportionately upset when Jo seems to not be engrossed in the tale he is spinning. For example, Jack snaps at Jo every time she attempts to take over telling any part of the story herself. “Now Jo daddy’s telling the story,” he chides her, “do you want to tell daddy the story?” Jack is also immensely pleased when his story causes Jo discomfort or trepidation, seeing it as his job as an author to tell her the truth, even though a father would traditionally seek to comfort his child. As such he stretches the story out, prolonging her suspense. Updike writes, “Jack felt the covers tug as her legs twitched tensely – he was telling her something true, something she must know – and had no wish to hurry on.” Because of his level of personal investment in the story, Jack is also immensely frustrated whenever Jo is not enthralled by his tale, seeing it as a failure both as a storyteller and as a father. “Jo made the crying face again, but this time without a hint of sincerity,” he observes; “this annoyed Jack.” He is also protective of the story because he is personally invested in Roger Skunk. He explains that Roger’s bullying from the other animals reminded him of “certain humiliations of his own childhood.”
Finally, despite griping about how stale the process of the naptime story has become for him, Jack still views this ritual as a chance to escape from his other obligations to Clare and to create a world in which he has complete control of the rules. Despite noting several times that he should be downstairs helping Clare, and Jo’s obvious desire to not fall asleep for her nap, Jack continues to tell Jo the story, even taking opportunities to stretch out the moments of suspense or tension to extend his own creative enjoyment. When Jack finally does finish the story, Clare immediately chides him by telling him “that was a long story.” This observation highlights that the story has been keeping Jack from something he needed to be doing, and that perhaps he has stretched out one of Jo’s stories in a similar way before. When he finally does finish his story, he appears to be too exhausted by the sheer act of telling the story to help Clare with the task she has been waiting for him to complete. In this way, Jack indicates that his story was both as important and as emotionally draining as Clare’s chores have been for her—because it allowed him an escape from his obligations toward his wife, which he must now face.
As Jack becomes further engrossed in his own telling of Roger Skunk’s story, the story morphs into a microcosm of his own life. Roger becomes a stand-in for Jack, who trades ultimate happiness and self-fulfillment for the love and comfort of his family. However, despite Jack’s personal investment in and control over Roger Skunk’s story, the story is unable to capture the attention of its intended audience. Indeed, not only is Jo not calmed by the story, but she rejects its ending and demands a new one. This presents a layered crisis for Jack: not only does it remind him that he is bound by his obligations to his daughter, but it also calls into question his skill and control as a storyteller. However, Jo’s reaction to the story ultimately serves to confront Jack with the very thing he had been hoping to avoid in telling his story—that is, the unhappiness of his family life and the violent animosity he feels toward his wife.
Storytelling and Control ThemeTracker
Storytelling and Control Quotes in Should Wizard Hit Mommy?
Sitting on the bed beside her, Jack felt the covers tug as her legs switched tensely. He was pleased with this moment—he was telling her something true, something she must know—and had no wish to hurry on. But downstairs a chair scraped, and he realized he must get down to help Clare paint the living room woodwork.
“Are magic spells real?” This was a new phase, just this last month, a reality phase. When he told her spiders eat bugs, she turned to her mother and asked, “Do they really?” and when Clare told her God was in the sky and all around them, she turned to her father, and insisted, with a sly yet eager smile, “Is He really?”
The wizard's voice was one of Jack's own favorite effects; he did it by scrunching up his face and somehow whining through his eyes, which felt for the interval rheumy. He felt being an old man suited him.
Jack didn't like women when they took anything for granted; he liked them apprehensive, hanging on his words.
“No,” Jo said, and put her hand out to touch his lips, yet even in her agitation did not quite dare to stop the source of truth.
“That was a stupid mommy.”