In John Updike's short novel Of the Farm the protagonist, Joey Robinson, is a divorced, thirty-five-year-old Manhattan advertising executive. The story takes place during Joey's visit to his mother, Mary's unfarmed farm with his new wife Peggy and his step son Richard. This book examines the complexities of familial relations and the ramifications of divorce as well as the difficulties of dealing with an aging parent. Updike takes on the realities of the life of an uprooted man with a broken marriage and a new wife, whose dealing with the sadness of being separated from his children as well as his relationship with his stepson, and the complex, love / hate equation he shares with his old mother. Joey has pent up resentment against his mother for various reasons; for making his father move to the farm from a life in the suburbs, for refusing to leave the farm, and in his opinion for the failure of his first marriage.
The Relationship between Peggy and Her Mother-in law
During the short visit it appears Joey wants his mother to approve of Peggy. His mother had never approved of his first wife, Joan. However, as the story progresses it becomes obvious this is not going to happen. Updike hints of the trouble to come in this exchange between as Joey and his mother as they discuss his new family.
"The boy," my mother said "seems bright." "Yes, I think he is." "It's interesting," she continued, "because the mother doesn't seem so." This blow was delivered in the darkness like a pillow of warmth against my face. I felt myself at the point at which, years ago, in this same room, I had failed Joan. Yet I respected - was captive within - my mother's sense of truth. My response was weak "Not?" "I'm surprised at you" my mother went on, in a voice whose timbre was deadened by her horizontal position. "At what?" "That you need a stupid woman to give you confidence." (p.31-32).
Eventually, Joey's mother confronts Peggy by questioning her mothering skills and trying to put a wedge between Peggy and her son. When Peggy asks her mother-in-law, "Do you think Richard should be a farmer?" She responds, "I think it would take more imagination than you'll permit him to have." (p.82).
At this point things begin to escalate as Joey's mother says, "I'm sorry Peggy, you're trying hard but so are we all. You should not be jealous of me and this boy [Richard]." (p.82). Updike then reveals where all this animosity is coming from. "She takes my grandchildren from me, she turns my son into a namby-pamby, and now she won't let me show this poor worried child a little affection, which he badly needs." (p. 82).
The Relationship between Joey and his Mother
The relationship between Joey and his mother is complex. Joey perceives that his marriage with Joan was sabotaged by his mother, yet it is obvious that he cares about her very much and that she cares about him as evidenced by this exchange beginning with Joey;
"Truly? You seem a little short of breath, but otherwise -- " "I have what they used to call 'spells.' The last one, I was out on the far field with the dogs and I think they must have dragged me back -- all I remember is crawling upstairs on all fours and taking the pills I could find -- one of each. When I woke up it was the same time of day the next day and Flossie had half chewed through the window sash above the bookcase. They still get up there and look for George to come home." "You should have called me." "You were on your honeymoon. Anyway, Joey, Your father and I had our differences but there was one thing we agreed on and that was we wanted to die cheap. It's hard now, you know. The doctors have these machines that keep you going long enough to empty everybody's bank account." "You can't reduce everything to money." "What would you reduce it to? Sex?" I blushed, and in the space of a breath she took pity, continuing, "Now tell me honestly. Am I a burden?" "No. The money I send you is the least of my problems." (p.26).
During one confrontation with Peggy his mother asserts, "As to Joey and me…I'm the first woman he's ever met who was willing to let him be a man." This caused Joey to reflect that, "This was her secret song, the justification with which she led me to divorce." (p. 83).
Joey's mother asks him, "Do you think you've made a mistake?" Joey responds, "A mistake how?" "By divorcing Joan and marrying Peggy." (p.101).
Further along in the novel Joey asks his mother directly, "Why did you dislike Joan so much? In the end you made me dislike her." His mother tells him, "You imagine that. I liked Joan….It's amazing how much I love her now that she's in Canada." (p. 102-103). She then goes on to say about Peggy, "That woman. She's fierce. She'll have me dead within a year." (p.103).
The Relationship between Joey and Peggy
As the novel begins, Joey and his new family are the on their way to the farm. It is hinted from the beginning that Joey's mother and Peggy, his second wife, are not going to get along as Updike describes their marriage day. On their wedding day after he and Peggy had taken their vows, Joey turns to face the guests at the ceremony and is "confused to discover that my mother's eyes were remote with anger and her check, for all the heat of the day, was cool" (p.9).
The competition between Peggy and Joey's mother manifests itself throughout the novel and causes strife in their relationship. After a disagreement about letting Richard drive the tractor Peggy says to Joey:
"I'm sorry. She got me mad." "Can't be helped. You pulled it off beautifully in the end." "I'm still mad." "Be mad at me." "I am partly." "Why?" "You don't stand up to anything. You let us slug it out and then try to make peace." "I'm on your side." "I didn't feel it." "It wasn't my mother's idea for him to drive the tractor, it was his." "She encouraged it. It's an insane idea." I thought "insane" was a bit excessive. "As she says, the boys around here do it." "Insane." (p.68).
At this point Joey decides to change the direction of the conversation. "Tell me something. Did McCabe sleep with you after the divorce?" (p. 68).
Joey is jealous of McCabe, Peggy's first husband, and harbors feeling of inferiority. Joey reflects that his mother had wanted him to become a poet, or failing that a teacher and in the end he had failed her. However, McCabe is an assistant dean at Yale and "in McCabe I confronted what I might have become" (p.59). They meet and Joey claims he was set to hate him, but confused himself by liking him. Joey learns from Richard that McCabe had slept over after the divorce. "I struggled to dispel the thought, atmospherically encouraged by my mother, that I had been a fool that McCabe's attitude toward me had been pitying and amused. If Peggy had slept with him after their separation, after their divorce, it could only mean she had wanted him back, and in the end he did not come." (p. 60).
Joey's mother and Richard connect in a positive way. She wants him to drive the tractor, but Peggy refuses believing it is unsafe. This causes further conflict between them. Joey is mowing with the tractor and takes a break. His mother begins to…