The Persistence of Desire

Updike, John

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony
  • Date of entry: May-05-2005


Middle-aged Clyde Behn has been bothered by a twitching eyelid for two months. His doctor in Massachusetts diagnoses the disorder as minor and transient. While visiting his mother in the town in Pennsylvania where he grew up, Clyde seeks advice from his former eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist. Dr. Pennypacker examines Clyde but is less concerned with the twitch than a possible fungus problem of Clyde's eyelashes. The ENT specialist eventually decides the tic is the result of muscle fatigue.

While at Pennypacker's office, Clyde encounters a former girlfriend, Janet. Although both are now married, Clyde is still attracted to her and asks to see her again. Janet slips a handwritten note into Clyde's shirt pocket and then leaves. Because his eyes have been dilated by Pennypacker, Clyde is unable to read the note. Even so, he exits the doctor's office buoyed by the familiarity of his hometown and the promise of recapturing a bit of his youth.


The mixed feelings that patients may have for their doctors are clearly on display in this short story. Clyde trusts and respects the ENT physician yet the doctor is depicted as being aloof and having an air of restrained annoyance. At one point, Pennypacker is likened to a dungeon-keeper. The description of the doctor's office and waiting room are pertinent. Clyde is comfortable in this setting. It connects him with his youth.

The story addresses both the peril and comfort of memory. It also hints of the many ways people sometimes torture themselves. If Clyde is a paradigm for adulthood in modern times, then perhaps happiness is overrated and the threat of unfaithfulness is ever present. Clyde's fuzzy vision seems to have started long before the instillation of dilating eye drops and likely will continue long after he exits the doctor's office: "Thus Clyde was dismissed into a tainted world where things evaded his focus" (89).


The story was first published in The New Yorker.

Primary Source

The Early Stories: 1953-1975



Place Published

New York



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