Saturday, 20 September 2014

Should Wizard hit Mommy - John Updike What are the moral issues in the lesson?

The lesson, Should Wizard hit Mommy addresses important moral issues through a story that a father tells his daughter. The story is supposed to deliver a specific message to the daughter, namely that parents know what is best for their children because parents love their children the most. One should not look for instant solutions to the problems in life, one should wait patiently for acceptance from friends, and just because friends run away from you initially because you stink does not mean that  you change your essential character because after some time they will  get used to the way you are. Acceptance or the lack of it from friends should not mean that you change the way Nature has intended you to be. If Roger Skunk smelled of roses, he would no longer be a skunk, he would gain a few friends but lose his entire family. In this story, John Updike addresses common issues found in most families, issues related to generation gap, learning to respect each other, parents not accepting the fact that their children are growing up and that they have individual identities, children  not appreciating  the fact that their parents love them and often know what is best for them. Children don't respect their parents' wisdom while parents don't appreciate their children's point of view. both children and parents need to learn to be inclusive, appreciating diversity and creativity, and not imposing ideas on each other and building up a culture of mutual respect, and tolerance.
This doesn't mean in any case that Jack is free from blame. One of the important moral issues in the lesson stems from the fact that while Jo is not able to appreciate Jack's point of view, so also is Jack, her father. He needs to appreciate the fact that his daughter is growing up and that she is bound to have her own  individual ideas, and thus he shouldn't impose his world view on her. A lot happens during the story that makes Jo feel terrified; this happens when she sees the story taking up a turn in the wrong direction (for her at least). She interrupts Jack frequently and he scolds her with words like, "Now, Jo. Daddy's telling the story. Do you want to tell Daddy the story?" Jack apparently "didn't like women when they took anything for granted; he liked them apprehensive, hanging on to his words." It is easy to blame Jack for not being tolerant enough towards his daughter. His irritation and curt attitude towards his daughter is an important moral issue. So, how then do you treat a little girl of four who seems to be a rebel and doesn't accept  her father's version of the story?  Is growing up and  thinking differently a crime? Was it perhaps that her father was treating her (paradoxically) as a grown up not realizing that her level of maturity did not allow her to understand his side of the story? Could  he have told the story in a different way? Was he being forceful in making her accept his point of view?
It is clear from the questions in the above paragraph that perhaps the moral issues need to be addressed by developing a better understanding of children who are growing up, and then treating them accordingly, appreciating their points of view and then gently explaining what the deficiencies might be. It could also be about parents becoming like children themselves while conversing with their children, sharing their children's perspective, looking through their eyes, and appreciating and encouraging divergent thinking in them.
The main conflict of ideas stems from Joanne's belief that it is all right  for the Wizard to change the smell of Roger Skunk to that of roses while Jack  believes that changing the skunk's smell to that of roses was not right, it was not the right solution. He wants to tell her how greatly parents love their children, and how they know what is best for their children! Roger Skunk's mother knew that with the passing of time, Roger Skunk's friends would accept him as he was, thus doing away with the need to go to the wizard. It was not right for Roger Skunk to smell of roses, because that was not how nature wanted him to be he would lose the identity that he had as a skunk, his mother would not recognize him as her own son, and of course his friends wouldn't be with him all the time.  What mattered most was to have friends and at the same time retain the love and affection of his mother (without losing the identity that nature had given him).
The moral issues that are raised in this story are linked to the man versus nature debate which has a number of questions regarding whether it is right for the Wizard to play God and change the essential characteristic of a skunk. Do we have the right to interfere with nature? A similar question of the moral ethics of scientific research is raised in the novel Invisible Man where the very process turning cats and human beings invisible is put under the lens. The message in both cases is that you can’t and should not play with nature. The lesson, The Tiger King raises similar issues related to man playing with nature leading to Divine Retribution – you simply cannot go on shooting tigers and yet not expect any kind of consequence at all. In all these lessons the common message is that you cannot and should not play with nature!
Although Joanna wants  Jack to tell her a story which justifies altering the way Nature has made roger Skunk  to be, Jack reminds her how, even after Roger Skunk continued to smell awful, the other children became used to it and became his friends, and Roger’s mother told him that he “smelled like her little baby skunk again and she loved him very much.” A happy ending according to Jack, but a not so happy ending for Joanne. What Jack wanted his daughter to understand was that, “the little skunk loved his mommy more than he loved all the other little animals and she knew what was right.” He wants to tell her that it is not right for the Wizard to hit Mommy, it is not right to play with Nature, it is not morally right to look for instant coffee solutions for our problems in life and that often magical solutions are not the best solutions that one can look for. Roger’s mother knew what was best for him and that Roger did love his mother more than he loved his friends. Her wisdom prevailed in the end and Roger Skunk stayed a skunk.
In times when relations between children and their parents become strained as a result of difference of perspectives, the writer brings out the need to develop respect for each other. Jack would have been able to impress upon his daughter the moral validity of his story if he had been more tactful and flexible while telling his story. He could have listened to Joanne’s perspective and then could have explained to her the moral basis of his ending the story with Mommy hitting the Wizard rather than the other way round. Jack would have done a better job if he had learned to accept and respect the fact that Joanne was growing up, and that she was learning to think with a mind of her own. She had every right to have a different perspective from her father, and he should have taken this into account while getting across his message. On the other hand, Joanne too should have learned to respect her father’s point of view, and  that her parents knew what was best for her – not just her friends. The core issue here is whether it is morally right for a child to think so badly about one’s mother, one’s elder that she wants wizard to hit her. Is it morally right to be so vindictive of Roger Skunk’s mother that Jo argues with her father and reiterates her demand in the following words, “No. Tomorrow you say he hit that mommy. Do it.” The choice of words, “that mommy “ suggests an intentional distancing from Roger Skunk’s mother on Joanne’s part. She was that Mommy, a bad Mommy who dared to hit the Wizard for changing Roger Skunk’s smell to that of roses. How dare Mommy force the Wizard to change the smell of roses to the smell of a Skunk? Joanne needs to learn is that it is morally wrong to play with nature and change the way God has made us to be for fickle reason that all children run away from us. Moreover, there are no magical solutions to problems in life. In fact some of the magical solutions often instant solutions might not be the best solutions after all.
Besides propounding the moral theme of not playing wantonly with nature, Should Wizard Hit Mommy also presents before us the contrast between the Instant Coffee attitude and the Bread making attitude. In today’s world of commercialization and instant gratification, people expect instant solutions to various problems in life. In many cases this is because people have become so busy in life what with catching up with an ever growing workload, and the pressure to maintain a high standard of living that they don’t have time to wait for solutions that take a long time to fructify. In many cases, solutions made in haste can lead to more harm than good! The bread making attitude represented by Jack’s story and his conclusion suggests that one should take time to look for a solution. Ultimately in Jack’s story, Roger Skunk regained his friends, they became used to his friends. This was the best solution because Roger Skunk who smelled bad was in the end able to preserve his identity as a skunk, enjoy his mother’s love and have lots of friends. Joanne’s Roger Skunk would have alienated himself with his mother, he would have lost his dignity and identity as a Skunk, but he would have had lots of friends.
As an afterthought, the reader might wonder if it is morally right for a person to depend on a stranger for solutions in life. The skunk went to the wizard so that he could solve the problem of the bad smell. The question is, should the skunk have trusted the wizard, a total stranger more than his mother whom he had known ever since he was born? At a more subtle level, one might ask if it was morally correct for a girl like Joe to go to the wizard, a total stranger with her problems? Strangely enough, she just wouldn't listen to  her father's version of the story and she even goes on to suggest that, "that was a stupid mommy." What Jack wanted to impress upon his daughter was "that the little skunk loved his mommy more than he loved all the other little animals and she knew what was right." Whom would you choose to solve your problems, a mother who has known you for ages, or a cranky old wizard whom you don't know? In an age where little children are cautioned to be careful and alert with strangers, it could be asking for trouble to go to a total stranger for solutions. It is probably with this in mind that the mother exclaims, "of all the nerve,...we're going right back to that very awful wizard." The wizard, according to Jack is "awful" - he dares to take liberties to change the way nature has made Roger Skunk to be.


  1. Hey, hi... I wanted to ask you for opinion about the last paragraph of the story.
    "He felt caught in......touch her, anything."
    Could you throw some light on it ? Thanks! :)

    1. Being a typical male, he finds it difficult to understand why his daughter doesn't accept his version of the story, and his wife remarks, "That was a long story " meaning that he probably was deliberately not coming downstairs to help her. He felt therefore caught in an ugly middle position because he was confused, things weren't going the way he wanted them to. He was caught between a daughter who wouldn't accept his version of the story and a wife who things he was procrastinating.

  2. Thank you for your explanation of the story. When I was taught the lesson, the teacher in question was, in a way reminisce of Jack, in that she was sure her way of looking at it was the only way. So thank you!