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 Wilmots, tracing the histories of Clarence, a minister in Paterson, New Jersey; Teddy, his third child; Esther, Teddy’s daughter; and Clark, Esther’s son. Each is the subject of a major section of the work, and the four divisions read almost like small novellas. Nevertheless, the simple construction belies a complex and compelling rendition of the novelist’s vision of a century of American social history.
The first section of the novel gives Updike space to declaim again upon one of his perennial favorite themes: the disappearance of traditional religious faith in America. Clarence Wilmot is a good man who can no longer accept without question the tenets of received doctrine. Trained in the rigorous historical, “higher criticism” of nineteenth century theology, he finds that he cannot continue preaching from the pulpit a creed he no longer holds in his heart. What readers quickly learn is that the decision has economic as well as personal consequences. The Wilmots are removed from their home at the rectory and forced to find more modest circumstances; sadly, Clarence discovers that a man trained for the clergy is ill-prepared by skill or temperament for the world of commerce, and he spends years eking out a meager living as a salesman. Ultimately, he is overcome by tuberculosis, and the family is forced to subsist on the income of mother and children.
A minor figure in the first section, Clarence’s youngest child Theodore is the subject of the second part of the novel. Forced to move with his mother and sister from Paterson to Basingstoke, Delaware, so the family can save on expenses, Teddy becomes withdrawn and somewhat embittered. While his brother Jared has gone to New York and become involved in the exciting life of the city (including involvement with the city’s gangster population), Teddy remains reclusive even in this backwater community. At every opportunity for advancement, he seems to balk. A brief stint in New York working for his brother Jared and Jared’s shady boss proves unsuccessful. Returning to Basingstoke, Teddy takes up one menial occupation after another. He finally marries a girl whom most others shun, the clubfooted Emily Sifford. The decision proves to be fortuitous, however, since the Siffords have some money, and the newlyweds receive some assistance in setting up house. Nevertheless, even with these new responsibilities, Teddy is hesitant to take risks with his life, instead becoming content as a postal carrier—a job where everyone knows him but no one is close to him. He is certainly not unhappy, but there is a sense that he has traded his chances for commercial success and personal fame for the contentment which comes from having personal and family security.
Teddy and Emily’s daughter Esther—Essie, as she is known in the family—is the subject of the third section of the novel. A beautiful child who grows into a beautiful woman, she is doted on by her parents and her aunt Esther, Teddy’s older sister. Unlike her father, she is adventuresome, and is quick to seize the opportunity to enter the world of modeling and show business. Aided in New York by her cousin Patrick, the son of her Uncle Jared, she makes the connections she needs to land contracts in magazine advertisements, on television, and eventually in films. Her successful career as the starlet Alma DeMott leads to roles opposite all the major male stars of the 1940’s and 1950’s, but she pays a price in her personal life: constant besiegement by fans, a string of lovers and husbands, and demeaning treatment by agents, directors, and producers who want her for her image, not herself. The contrast between the Hollywood life and that of small-town America is brought into sharp relief on the occasions when Updike shows Essie visiting family in Basingstoke....
(The entire section is 2149 words.)