Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of John Updike’s “Pygmalion”

Read the story.
Or read it in Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories. Robert Shapard and James Thomas, eds. W.W. Norton & Co., 1992.

Pygmalion and Galatea by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Many writers have drawn from classical mythology and John Updike is especially adept at giving those ancient stories a modern-day spin. His short-short story, “Pygmalion,” is particularly interesting because it is so short and yet at the same time so full too. It is a highly condensed story with interesting information about a modern-day couple’s relationship. Updike makes the old story of Pygmalion serve as a form of literary shorthand for his modern story.

The title itself sets up certain reader expectations. The name attracts attention and through the use of the name out of myth Updike sets up his readers to recognize and appreciate the twists he gives Ovid’s ancient piece. Through the use of the name, Updike is also able to reduce background explanation–there isn’t a lot of room for these things in short-short fiction– and is able to jump directly into the modern story. Readers familiar with the old myth have some idea what to expect from this present-day Pygmalion.

The story could have been written if the main character was named “Joe” or some other common modern-day name, but by using the name “Pygmalion” as the title and as a representation of the main character of the story, something more, something even stronger is added to Updike’s piece. The title and character name alerts readers that this is a retelling of an ancient story and a recasting of a problem that has continued to plague human kind from the days of old right up to the present. We have not yet solved this problem of what to do with the “Other.” Pygmalions, whether male or female, are alive and at work even today. The name itself also sets up readers for Updike’s unexpected twist in the end.

Story Structure

The structure Updike uses illustrates some of the problems with human relationships. We often keep reliving the same patterns of trying to change someone else into what we would prefer them to be. We sometimes even change partners and begin the process all over again with each one. Like Pygmalion many of us have the desire to create the "Other" in our own image. Galatea was the creation of old Pygmalion. Updike’s modern Pygmalion recreates the modern woman Gwen into the image of modern-day Marguerite. Updike appears to make use of a Möbius strip structure to tell his complicated and interesting story.

Old Notions About Women:

In his story Updike draws on several old notions about women. For instance, he draws on the old idea that women are more closely connected to "Nature" (he uses the capital ‘N’). He draws on the assumption that it is the man’s job to labor over the woman and turn her into what he conceives as “proper womanliness” just as we have often tried to tame and recreate Nature–to get it to work for us. His notion of “proper womanliness” is “a plastic, alert sensitivity, a susceptible responsiveness” which comes not from herself but because she is “tugged…by the currents of Nature herself”: Nature is also female.

That idea is similar to the old belief that women are connected to the moon (a body that itself gives off no light but receives its reflected light from the sun—most often a male entity). According to modern Pygmalion’s notions, woman is pulled by the tides and is a part of Nature, much more so than men. Nature herself is a thing to be translated and which in turn, through Gwen, translates the world for Pygmalion. He also views women as having "feminine intuition," another old notion. Pygmalion, like his archetype, is not happy with mortal women as they are—they must be worked on, improved, re-created to serve some need he has.

Reversals/ Changes:

Several interesting reversals/changing of places take place in Updike’s story. The beginning shows Marguerite in a sense giving birth to Gwen, bringing into “presence…an absent acquaintance”. She is shown imitating Gwen for Pyg (“if I re-awwy cared about conserwation”–imitating her speech impediment), and Pyg would”laugh and laugh” (an acknowledgement of Gwen’s gifted and humorous mimicking and which also serves as an allusion to the “laughter of the gods”). Pyg plays creator god as he prompts Marguerite to give life to Gwen right in their own bedroom.

Later, Gwen then brings Marguerite to life in their bedroom as Pyg applauds her and watches delightedly as her “pretty features distort themselves into an uncanny, snobbish horsiness.” And he laughs and laughs as her face takes on the image of Ed (“slightly glassy and slack expression of forced benignity”). In her mimicry “she had become perfect for him”–he is most delighted when she impersonates someone else.

Another interesting reversal through repetition: Mid-way in the story Pyg warns seemingly sexually responsive Gwen that it is awfully late and she responds with “Oh, come on.”At the end Gwen points out to Pyg that “it’s awfully late” and that’s when he offers the back rub (which he also gave to Marguerite) and which puts Gwen to sleep–the time when she’s out of reach for him, out of his control, night after night. He is in effect also molding his beautiful sculpture.

Interesting too is the artful way Updike builds up Pyg’s attempts to turn Gwen into Marguerite and the way in which Gwen resists him. When she doesn’t cooperate he tells her of the time Marguerite met the same person and perceived him as "a pompous nitwit." Gwen then asks Pyg what he’s “reawy after?” She initially resists his attempts to get her to parody other people. Then as Gwen becomes more and more someone else, she sheds her “liveliness in bed”–what he valued in her– and becomes Marguerite again as he rubs her back and she falls asleep.

Twist From Ovid’s Story

With the twist ending Updike gives Ovid’s old story, Updike really does his artful work and provides a double twist. Not only does Pyg manage to change Gwen into Marguerite at his “laboring hands, night after night” but he also manages to give a twist to the old story of Pygmalion. Old Pygmalion’s artwork, Galatea, came alive, woke up (through the help of Aphrodite, the goddess of love) but modern-day Pyg does the opposite–he put both of his creations to sleep, gives them a death of sorts. So the double twist/spin Updike gives his story is also memorable, artful, and surprising. Modern Pyg’s works of art lose their animation whereas old Pygmalion’s artwork became animated. This is not a simple retelling of an old story in modern times, which could make an interesting story in its own right. This is instead a retelling of the old myth, setting it in modern times, and giving it a new twist/ spin.

“Pygmalion” is a rich story. It is exceptionally short but contains plenty to understand about the craft of writing and about certain patterns of human nature. With his little story Updike shows how rich a resource an old myth can be to modern fiction writers.


About the writer:
PAMELYN CASTO, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

Image: Pygmalion and Galatea by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904). Oil on canvas. 35 x 27. 1890. Public domain.