Study Guide

Buchanan Dying

by John Updike

Buchanan Dying Themes

Themes and Meanings (Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Skilled in the art of diplomacy but inclined politically toward a “doughy middleness”—a trait the author attributes to his Pennsylvania roots—John Updike’s Buchanan was trapped by contradictory impulses that determined his psychological fate. His outward piety and devotion to the Constitution were in conflict with a moral relativism that frequently found its way into his thought processes and resulted in inaction. He preferred compromise to fevers, dullness to high spirits. Politically ambitious, he shirked final commitments. Attracted to earthly pleasures, he feared divine retribution for consummating relationships. “All action . . . partakes of the nature of sin,” he lamented. He was most adept at playing the invalid, at being old and dying, which he compared to dancing and diplomacy: “Legerity and tact are paramount.” No wonder then that when the Union was hanging in the balance, he retreated to the safety of delay and inaction as the one last hope to ward off bloodshed. In the most dramatic dialogue in the play, Buchanan proclaims that “time is the great conservative force,” only to be rebutted by Edwin Stanton, who replies: “Time does not preserve, it destroys. Men preserve!”

The search for redemption in an age of ontological uncertainty is a recurrent theme in Updike’s work, turning up in such outwardly hedonistic characters as Harry Angstrom in Rabbit, Run (1960) and Piet Hanema in Couples (1968). In a long conversation with Anne Coleman, and later in a discourse with the Reverend William Paxton, Buchanan struggles to find a spiritual compass to guide him in the temporal world. Ironically, in view of the calumny he received from political foes, he is much more confident about how he discharged his familial and presidential duties than he is of finding salvation. History will do him justice, he believes. He has not, however, yet had an outward sign that he is of the elect as far as Heaven is concerned.