In the Beauty of the Lilies (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
The American writer Henry David Thoreau once observed that most men lead lives of quiet desperation. In many ways, the heroes and heroines of John Updike’s novels are dramatizations of that maxim. Although there are exceptions—the ruler of the African country who emerges as the hero in The Coup comes immediately to mind—the majority of the figures who have populated his fiction are ordinary folk. On occasion, some have extraordinary sensibility, but almost without variation they are much like one’s next-door neighbors. Their range of occupations has been wide; his most famous character, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, makes his living as a car salesman, while others are ministers, teachers, businessmen, artists, or housewives. Only rarely does he introduce larger-than-life figures into his stories; characters such as Darryl Van Horne, the mysterious and diabolical tempter in The Witches of Eastwick, seldom have center stage in any of his tales.
Hence, the challenge of making the everyday interesting is one that Updike accepts repeatedly, and at which he has excelled. In his seventeenth novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, he takes up the gauntlet once again, focusing his attention on the lives of an American family whose only brush with notoriety comes when one of its members leaves her small-town surroundings to become a Hollywood star. Through nearly five hundred pages, Updike tells the story of four generations of the...
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To tell his story of the changing nature of American society during the twentieth century, Updike turns to one of the most popular forms of fiction during that era: the saga or chronicle novel. Updike's imagined history of the Wilmots spans four generations, and although he gives unequal play to the progenitor of the clan, Clarence, he manages to display how the values which prompted Clarence's actions at the turn of the century linger in his great grandson at the end of the period. The modern chronicle novel, usually expansive and filled with details of everyday life, captures readers' attention by presenting generations of everyday people whose stories are both interesting in themselves but also typical of the adventures that many families have faced in their attempts to establish roots and make a good life for themselves.
Updike is a master at creating characters and providing minute details of ordinary life. His descriptions of houses and business establishments, of neighborhoods, and of political and social ceremonies, have a ring of reality so strong that readers find themselves transported imaginatively to these places and events.
Additionally, two leitmotifs characterize In the Beauty of the Lilies. a focus on religious issues and a running commentary on the American cinema. The novel opens with a description of the production of D. W. Griffith's The Call to Arms (1910), which is juxtaposed to scenes from ordinary life in...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Because it shares many characteristics of other novels chronicling the development of the American character, In the Beauty of the Lilies offers great opportunity for discussion of a number of historical, sociological, political, cultural, and moral issues. The changing nature of Americans over the decades of the twentieth century, and the ongoing preoccupation of Americans with religious and moral issues, are two areas which can lead to particularly fruitful debate. The unusually muted treatment of sexual issues makes the novel one of the few by Updike which can be examined without fear that an overemphasis on the physical description of sexual attributes and activities may diminish attention on other matters. The widely divergent lifestyles of the four principal characters also presents opportunities for comparisons of ways Americans have attempted to achieve success and personal fulfillment.
1. The novel opens with a description of Hollywood director D. W. Griffith filming a scene for one of his movies, A Call To Arms. How does Updike use this opening to set a tone for the novel? Griffiths was also the director of one of the most famous silent movies ever made, Birth of a Nation (1915). Do you think Updike wants knowledgeable readers to recall this fact? Why might that add resonance to your understanding of the opening scene?
2. After the Wilmots move from Paterson, New Jersey, to Basingstoke, Delaware, the youngest of...
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In many ways, In the Beauty of the Lilies is the story of American society in the twentieth century. The four principal fictional characters, all members of the Wilmot family, live through these eventful hundred years, witnessing the growth of the United States from an emerging industrial and political leader among nations before World War II through the decades of warfare and internal turmoil that culminate in the country being left as the lone superpower on the planet. Surprisingly, however, little of national or international politics takes center stage in the novel. Instead, Updike focuses on the domestic and personal sides of the Wilmots's lives, intent on examining not the character of a nation but the character of individuals whose collective experiences have shaped the moral fiber of the country.
James Garner, an early reviewer of the novel, links Updike's attempts with those of many of his predecessors and contemporaries. Writing in the National Review, Gardner says that American novelists are obsessed with the desire to "send their characters across the great expanse of this continent to find themselves and discover what it means to be American." What emerges in Updike's version of this journey toward self-discovery is a continual struggle between material wealth and spiritual poverty. As the country becomes more diversified ethnically and economically, and as the standard of living rises for those who manage to take advantage of...
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In the Beauty of the Lilies can best be classified as a chronicle novel, a popular genre in twentieth-century American fiction. Linked to historical events, it depicts the lives of a single family over a number of generations. Like the novels of Kenneth Roberts, John Jakes, and Howard Fast (to name but a few), it relies on real chronology to establish background and setting for the fictionalized accounts of the family whom Updike chooses as his representatives of Americans affected by the changes in technology, politics, culture, and religion over the course of the century. Among the more noted literary figures who have also written works of importance in this genre is John Steinbeck, whose East of Eden (1952) tells the story of three generations of an American family. Like Updike, Steinbeck uses the chronicle novel to explore not only the development of the American character, but also universal issues of human morality and social justice.
Updike is not the only serious novelist to make use of the movies as a leitmotif in his fiction. In his most highly regarded novel, The Moviegoer (1961; see separate entry), the Southern writer Walker Percy also uses the movies as a symbol of modern society's penchant for seeking substitutes for religion as a means of coping with contemporary problems.
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Although no other Updike novel follows a family through four generations, there are a number of parallels between In the Beauty of the Lilies and others by the author. The four fictional works commonly referred to as the Rabbit novels— Rabbit, Run (1960); Rabbit Redux (1971; see separate entry); Rabbit Is Rich (1981); and Rabbit at Rest (1990; see separate entry)—chronicle the life of Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, Updike's modern hero who grows up in modest circumstances and makes a comfortable life for himself despite the many anxieties he faces from adolescence through old age. These novels portray the changing face of America from the late 1950s through the early 1990s. Like a number of the characters in In the Beauty of the Lilies, Rabbit Angstrom struggles with religious doubts and with the lure of material culture. One can also find similarities between Clarence Wilmot and Roger Chillingworth, the hero of Roger's Version (1986) who becomes obsessed with obtaining verifiable proof for the existence of God.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Bloom, Harold, ed. John Updike: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A wide-ranging assortment of essays by important critics assessing various aspects of Updike’s work.
The Christian Century. CXIII, April 24, 1996, p. 452. A review of In the Beauty of the Lilies.
Commentary. CI, April, 1996, p. 64. A review of In the Beauty of the Lilies.
The Economist. CCCXXXVIII, February 24, 1996, p. 89. A review of In the Beauty of the Lilies.
Greiner, Donald J. Adultery in the American Novel: Updike, James, and Hawthorne. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1985. Explores the Updike-Hawthorne connection in regard to the theme of adultery.
Hunt, George W. John Updike and the Three Great Secret Things: Sex, Religion, and Art. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980. Examines the important themes that appear throughout ten of Updike’s novels.
London Review of Books. XVIII, March 21, 1996, p. 23. A review of In the Beauty of the Lilies.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 28, 1996, p. 3. A review of In the Beauty of the Lilies.
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