Learning the Hard Way: On John Updike’s “The Alligators”

The plot of John Updike’s short story “The Alligators” seems simple enough. Adolescent boy thinks he hates adolescent girl and torments her; boy realizes he’s a social outcast like girl; boy falls in love with girl; boy gets rejected, for he is neither needed nor wanted.

To illustrate, starting with the girl:

Everybody hated her. That month Miss Fritz was reading to them during homeroom about a girl, Emmy, who was badly spoiled and always telling her parents lies about her twin sister Annie; nobody could believe, it was too amazing, how exactly when they were despising Emmy most Joan should come into the school with her show-off clothes and her hair left hanging down the back of her fuzzy sweater instead of being cut or braided and her having the crust to actually argue with teachers. “Well I’m sorry,” she told Miss Fritz, not even rising from her seat, “but I don’t see what the point is of homework. In Baltimore we never had any, and the little kids there knew what’s in these books.”

And now, the boy:

This was the one time Charlie saw Joan cry actual tears. He was as bad as the others: worse, because what the others did because they felt like it, he did out of a plan, to make himself more popular. In the first and second grade he had been liked pretty well, but somewhere since then he had been dropped. There was a gang, boy and girls both, that met Saturdays – you heard them talk about it on Mondays – in Stuart Morrison’s garage, and took hikes and played touch football together, and in winter sledded on Hill Street, and in spring bicycled all over Olinger, and did what else, he couldn’t imagine. Charlie had known the chief members since before kindergarten. But after school there seemed nothing for him to do but go home promptly and do his homework and fiddle with his Central American stamps and go to horror movies alone…. Charlie thought the gang might notice him and take him in if he backed up their policies [i.e. torturing Joan] without being asked.

The plot is deceptively simple; the complications are beginning to show. Charlie’s being a social outcast has something to do with him being a bit geeky, whereas Joan is a primadonna. He likes to do homework. Her marks, from what he can tell, aren’t all that good. Moreover, it isn’t clear that Charlie is terribly aware of sexuality yet. He only really sees Joan differently when she starts looking like the other girls. The center of the story – from where the title comes from – has Charlie saving Joan in a dream from a river full of alligators. It is followed by two statements, one which is expected, “He loved Joan Edison,” and another not so expected:

If he carried her off, did rescue her from the others’ cruelty, he would have defied the gang and made a new one, his own. Just Joan and he at first, then others escaping from meanness and dumbness, until his gang was stronger and Stuart Morrison’s garage was empty every Saturday. Charlie would be a king, with his own touch football game. Everyone would come and plead with him for mercy.

The issue for us is whether Charlie really is in love or thinks he’s in love because he wants power. Of course, Joan’s transformation results in this:

In the afternoon [after walking with Joan a bit] the momentum of the dream wore off somewhat. Now that he kept his eyes always on her, he noticed, with a qualm of his stomach, that in passing the afternoon from Miss Brobst’s to Miss Fritz’s room, Joan was not alone, but chattered with others. In class, too, she whispered. So it was with more shame – such shame that he didn’t believe he could ever face even his parents again – than surprise that from behind the dark pane of the variety store he saw her walk by in the company of the gang…. It came to him that what he had taken for cruelty had been love, that far from hating her everybody had loved her from the beginning, and that even the stupidest knew it weeks before he did. That she was queen of the class and might as well not exist, for all the good he would get out of it.

We obviously have to take the narrator’s notions with a grain of salt, given that he’s relaying to us what Charlie thinks, and Charlie, while a bright 5th grader, is still a 5th grader. What’s interesting to us isn’t how Charlie is misreading the situation. The torments this girl went through were real enough, she was forced to fit in. What I’d like to try and get a grip on is Charlie’s boyish pride, that starts from an “everybody hated her” to a realization that he was alone to a love of the girl when it looked like she was trying to fit in to a disappointment when she actually did fit in. The story moves from pride to shame, and what I want to know is how that relates to the development of reason and love. How exactly do we learn – if we learn – from getting things utterly wrong?

There are several narratives underneath the surface. One narrative is the politics of adulthood and childhood. Miss Fritz cried once when a child spilled paint on the floor. Charlie noticed that she was afraid to death of the school board. That same dynamic of fear and torment is used by Miss Fritz to keep order in the classroom when Joan starts up – this school isn’t your old school, fit in now. Getting a response from others is usually perceived to be power, especially if the response isn’t positive. Charlie’s left out as a wannabe: the gang is purposely capricious, and if it weren’t, it wouldn’t be any fun to be a part of.

What’s interesting is what Joan initially represents, before she “changes.” Her character doesn’t change, there’s just a threshold of abuse that everyone has to learn to take. She does represent something exotic, as flower imagery accompanies her all throughout the narrative. When Charlie walks with her and notices her much more closely, it is raining, and she’s wearing perfume. She is something alien, a sexuality that is not more adult as much as it is pushing others to adulthood.

But the ones last to catch on aren’t always dumb or behind. Sometimes they’re like Charlie: the situation is just too complex for an outside adult observer to read, let alone a 5th grader. For example, Charlie’s lament lends strong credence to the idea that students put on an act for teachers and teachers put on an act for their bosses, etc. And the problem with that narrative, of course, is that putting on an act is hard work. It requires an awareness that many don’t have to do consistently. But is it happening? Sure – I remember grade school. I was relatively innocent and still knew a bunch of things I shouldn’t have known. The kids that were less innocent and less bright knew far, far too much, and it did catch up with them. When you can’t pay attention in class because everything is about sex, getting “blitzed,” and power at 13 or 14, you’re not going to pay attention when you’re 21 or 30 or whenever.

At the same time, innocence is not a prerequisite to learning. Experiences that one can work with – experiences that encourage one to think – are. It is no surprise, then, that the Platonic dialogues encourage us to think of philosophy as an art in the sense that cooking or household management are arts. Charlie has those experiences. He likes to draw, and Joan is someone he looks at carefully:

She had a thin face with something of a grownup’s tired expression and long black eyelashes like a doll’s.

…on his tablet where she could easily see over his shoulder he once in a while drew a picture titled “Joan the Dope:” the profile of a girl with a lean nose and sad mincemouth, the lashes of her lowered eye as black as the pencil could make them and the hair falling, in ridiculous hooks, row after row, down through the sea-blue cross-lines clear off the bottom edge of the tablet.

The haircut had brought out her forehead and exposed her neck and made her chin pointier and her eyes larger.

Another peculiar thing was the tan beneath her skin; he had noticed before, though not as closely, how when she colored it came up a gentle dull brown more than red.

We move, in Charlie’s vision, from the colorless to caricatures to the appropriate color. We could sit here and try to think up alternative readings of what Charlie missed or didn’t miss. Perhaps his being in love with Joan, and everyone knowing it, helped earn her the respect of others. Perhaps Charlie isn’t as bright as he thinks he is, and the gang is really a step ahead of him and he’s left out for good reason. But Charlie’s eye for detail really is the key to the puzzle. The other kids have grown up quickly because they have a caricature of what being a grown-up is, and they’re going to stick to the plan. The short story – Charlie’s story – is centered around a river/rain metaphor; he saves her from a river full of alligators, when he walks with her the weather is wet. Alligators grow up in crude, stupid ways too – the trick is to realize when you’re one of them or not.

8 Comments

  1. “How exactly do we learn – if we learn – from getting things utterly wrong?”

    Good question. : ) We all see people (and things) differently thus, the observation, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Reminds me of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s famous children’s novel, The Little Prince…He valued his rose, until he realized there were millions of roses…but then the fox taught him–when we love someone it is from the time we have invested in learning how they are unique “in all the world.” ??? or when we invest in “saving them from the alligators.”

  2. This is a good analysis of a seemingly simple story. Charlie’s story has many layers and this analysis shows that. I love the last part of your post: “Alligators grow up in crude, stupid ways too – the trick is to realize when you’re one of them or not.” How very true.

  3. This seems like a great story. Certainly something i have taken a great deal away from. The breakdown of the various layers to this story are just amasing. I think my favour part has to be: “But Charlie’s eye for detail really is the key to the puzzle” – What a great point made.
    If attention to detail is made you can always be sure you are making the right moves and decisions.

    Some great information and a great post.
    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Why is it that Charlie is feels to such shame that he didn’t believe he could ever face even his parents again?

    and what is the signifigance of this quote? That she was queen of the class and might as well not exist, for all the good he would get out of it.

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