Couples created quite a stir when it was published because of its graphic and emancipated treatment of adultery. It was on the best-seller lists for most of a year, and it led to favorable treatments of the author by Time and Life magazines. Despite the book’s apparent sensationalism, the novel exhibits Updike’s serious intent to explore the moral and spiritual consequences of a post-Christian world; the novel asks the question “After Christianity, what?” To Updike, the novel is “about sex as the emergent religion, as the only thing left.” Human sexuality seemed to be liturgy and sacrament of the new religion emerging in America in the 1960’s—another end of innocence in a “post-pill paradise.” The new religion does not truly assuage the anxiety of death, however; it leads instead to self-deception and disillusionment. Indeed, the cultic celebration of sex is the courting of disaster.
Set in the fictitious Massachusetts town of Tarbox, the novel focuses upon ten white, essentially upper-middle-class couples, most of whom have children and professional occupations. The time of the novel is from the spring of 1963 to the spring of 1964—from one season of rebirth to the next—between two pregnancies, one resulting in the birth of a child, the other in an abortion. The religion that the couples have made of one another dissolves into divorce and migration.
The main sexual pilgrim in the novel is Piet Hanema, a thirty-five-year-old building contractor, who is plagued by death anxiety and still attends church. Fearing death without immortal life, Piet finds no consolation in...
(The entire section is 671 words.)