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John Updike

John Updike Essay - Critical Essays

John Updike American Literature Analysis

Showing remarkable versatility and range, and meeting with both critical and popular success, Updike’s fiction represents a penetrating realist chronicle of the changing morals and manners of American society. His novels continued the long national debate on American civilization and its discontents, but perhaps what is most significant about his fiction is its depiction of restless and aspiring spirits struggling within the constraints of flesh, of time and gravity, and of changing social conditions, to find something of transcendent value—all of them lovers and battlers. For Updike, as for many other writers, the conditions and possibilities of love are an index of the conditions and possibilities of faith and belief. As Updike writes in an essay: “Not to be in love, the capital N novel whispers to capital W western man, is to be dying.”

Updike’s versatility and range can be seen in terms of both style and subject. His first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, written when he was in his twenties, is cast twenty years into the future and explores the social and spiritual implications of an essentially antihumanistic socialism. The novel captures imaginatively the voices and experiences of octogenarian characters. In The Coup, Updike portrays the speech and sensibility of an American-educated, deposed African leader. In the Bech books, like Bech: A Book and Bech Is Back, Updike creates the persona of an urbane, sophisticated Jewish-American writer in search of his muse. In the Rabbit novels, Updike penetrates the ever-changing world of the former basketball player Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. In such novels as The Witches of Eastwick, S., and Seek My Face, Updike explores the feminine sensibility. Updike continually tried out new subjects and styles, in Brazil, Toward the End of Time, and Gertrude and Claudius.

In A Month of Sundays, Couples, Roger’s Version, and Villages, and in such short-story collections as Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories (1979), Licks of Love, and Problems, and Other Stories, Updike perhaps became the United States’ supreme examiner of marriage and its discontents. Each work has a style commensurate to its subject. Updike had a fine ear for the nuances and cadences of human speech from all levels of social life. In addition, his descriptive passages are unequaled in capturing the detail and texture of modern life. For some critics, however, Updike is more style than substance, with a prose too ornate, even baroque, densely littered with perception. Nevertheless, the richness and variety of his narratives reveal a writer with extraordinary talent.

Although generalizations do not do justice to the particularities of each Updike work, there is a major predicament experienced by nearly all of Updike’s protagonists—a sense of doubleness, of the ironic discrepancy of the fallen creature who yet senses, or yearns for, something transcendent. Updike’s characters are creatures moving between two realms but not fully at home in either. The four novels devoted to Rabbit Angstrom illustrate this fallenness in quest of transcendence; they also portray the substitute of sexuality for religious experience.

Updike wrote short stories since the beginning of his career and published in such magazines as The New Yorker, Esquire, The Atlantic, and Playboy. He produced a number of collections of his stories, from The Same Door; Pigeon Feathers, and Other Stories and Olinger Stories: A Selection (1964), through The Music School; Museums and Women, and Other Stories, and Trust Me, to Licks of Love, The Complete Henry Bech , The Early Stories, 1953-1975 and his final publication My Father’s Tears and Other Stories (2009). Updike’s stories (especially “A & P” and “Separating”) are often anthologized in literature textbooks. His stories are generally concerned with subtle states of mind and small events; seemingly insignificant details assume an importance that is somehow sensed but is difficult to explain.

In “Separating,” for example, Updike portrays well the pain of a family on the verge of divorce. The story describes Richard and Joan Maples trying to work out how their children are to be told of their impending separation but opens with detailed descriptions of household chores whose significance readers can only guess at. The final revelations at the dinner table ring painfully true. When the father tells the older son later, the son appears to take the news calmly. Yet when the father kisses him good night, the son asks the virtually unanswerable question: “Why?” Love, so often, is a painful longing for what has been lost, an irretrievable moment, an irrecoverable place.

As seen in both his nonfiction and his fiction, Updike was one of the most theologically sophisticated writers of his generation. He read deeply in Christian theology, especially in the works of such authors as Kierkegaard and Barth. It was Updike’s theological convictions that constituted the basis for his critique of modern men and women and of American society. In an interview conducted in the mid-1960’s, Updike declared that “without the supernatural, the natural is a pit of horror.” In Canto IV to his long poem Midpoint, Updike writes: “An easy Humanism plagues the land;/ I choose to take an otherworldly stand.” His characters seek passage through a decaying world, one whose traditions are disintegrating and dissolving from the pressures of secularity and materialism. Updike’s fiction explores the implications of a world that is essentially post-Christian. To stay the anxiety of death, to fill the emptiness of lost or abandoned belief, Updike’s characters turn to sexuality, but they are frequently disappointed. In his story “The Bulgarian Poetess” (1966), Updike writes: “Actuality is a running impoverishment of possibility.” This captures well Updike’s sense of human incompleteness, of the sense of discrepancy between the actual and the ideal. Problems in such a world are rarely, if ever, solved. Instead, they are endured, if not fully understood, though occasionally there are moments of grace and affirmation.

In his 1962 memoir titled “The Dogwood Tree: A Boyhood,” Updike speaks of his commitment “to transcribe middleness with all its grits, bumps, and anonymities, in its fullness of satisfaction and mystery.” Updike continues to fulfill that commitment in a rich and vital fiction that explores what he calls the “Three Great Secret Things: Sex. Religion, and Art,” subjects that form the substance of much of his fiction, poetry, and essays.

Rabbit, Run

First published: 1960

Type of work: Novel

In the conformity of the 1950’s in the United States, a troubled quester has nowhere to go.

Rabbit, Run, a novel of a former basketball star and his floundering marriage set in the late 1950’s, was the first of what has become a series of four novels about the protagonist and his family; Updike published one of them every ten years from 1960 to 1990. Together the novels form a revealing chronicle of the complex changes occurring in American culture between the 1950’s and the late 1980’s. In Updike’s hero, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the reader sees one of the author’s many lapsed creatures in search of renewal, of regeneration, of something to believe in. The destructiveness of the character’s actions in the first novel reflects Updike’s own intense religious crisis, experienced at the time he was writing the novel.

At twenty-six, Rabbit, who got his nickname from the way he twitches his nose, finds himself in a stultifying life. He has a job selling magic-peelers in a dime store and is married to Janice, a careless and boozy woman who is pregnant with their second child. Coming home with new resolve to change his life after a brief game of basketball with some children in an alley, Rabbit finds the mess of his marital life too much to overcome. Thus begins his series of recoiling actions from the stifling experiences of his present life.

The novel captures well the sense of bottled-up frustration of the 1950’s, a decade during which American society put a premium on conformity and adapting to one’s environment. Hence, like so many of Updike’s protagonists, Rabbit is enmeshed in a highly compromised environment, one committed to the values of the marketplace and lacking in spiritual concerns. Like a latter-day Huck Finn, Rabbit bolts from a civilization that would deny him freedom and a sense of wonder. His movement can be viewed as a kind of spiritual survival tactic.

A quote from Blaise Pascal serves as an epigraph to the novel: “The motions of Grace, the hardness of heart; external circumstances.” Those three things, Updike says, describe human lives. They also describe the basic movements and conflicts in the Rabbit novels, indeed in most of Updike’s fiction. Bewildered and frustrated, Rabbit wonders what has happened to his life. His disgust with his present life is deepened by his memories of when he was “first-rate at something” as a high school basketball star.

As some critics have noted, the novel is the study of a nonhero’s quest for a nonexistent grail. Rabbit initially tries to escape by driving south, goaded by visions of fertility and warmth. After getting hopelessly lost, he returns to his hometown and seeks out Tothero, his old high school coach. Tothero sets Rabbit up with Ruth Leonard, a part-time prostitute, with whom Rabbit begins to live. Pursued by the do-good minister Jack Eccles, Rabbit resists returning to Janice. To Eccles, Rabbit claims that “something out there wants me to find it,” though what that is he cannot say.

When Janice goes into labor, Rabbit returns, feeling contrite and resolving to restore the marriage. For nine days, their life seems to be going well. When Janice refuses Rabbit’s sexual advances, however, he bolts again and looks for Ruth. Feeling abandoned, Janice starts drinking heavily and accidentally drowns the baby. Rabbit returns to Janice again, but at the funeral he outrages the family by his claims of innocence. He runs again, returning to Ruth, who reveals that she is pregnant and demands that Rabbit divorce Janice and marry her. He refuses Ruth, and the novel ends with Rabbit running the streets, resisting all claims upon his commitment.

Rabbit’s back-and-forth actions create much havoc and mark him as selfish and irresponsible in the America of the 1950’s, a world offering little margin for the quest for the transcendent. In place of the old revelations of religion, Rabbit substitutes the ecstasy of sex, the deep mysteries of the woman’s body. Failed by his environment and its various authority figures, Rabbit registers his revolt through movement, through a refusal to stand still and be taken over by the tides of secular culture.

Rabbit Redux

First published: 1971

Type of work: Novel

In 1969 no longer in flight, Rabbit witnesses and experiences the racial and cultural upheavals of the times.

In Rabbit Redux, Rabbit believes that the whole United States is doing what he did ten years earlier. Rabbit appears to have made his peace with the world and has settled down to fulfill his various obligations. He works as a typesetter in the same shop where his father has worked for more than thirty years. (He works at a trade, however, that is soon to be replaced by a new technology.) In this novel, Rabbit is more a passive listener and observer than a searcher. The racial and cultural turmoil that he sees on television literally comes into his home, and Rabbit is forced to be a student of his times. Updike uses this rather feckless working-class man in small-city Pennsylvania as a foil to the upheavals sweeping the United States during the late 1960’s.

The landing of Americans on the moon, which Rabbit, like millions of others, watches on television, is a fitting analogue or metaphor for the cultural shifts of the decade. The astronauts, pioneers of the new technology and exemplars of the centrifugal movement of the West, land on a barren satellite. The implication is that America’s spiritual landscape is as barren as that of the moon. Americans have gone about as far as they can, and they must now return home and make the best of things here. The gravity of Earth cannot be escaped for long.

In Rabbit, Run, Rabbit left Janice for a mistress. In Rabbit Redux, Janice leaves Rabbit to live with her lover, Stavros. Rabbit acquiesces to this affair and stays home to care for his son, Nelson. Through a strange set of circumstances—not wholly probable—Rabbit takes in Jill, a runaway flower child, and Skeeter, a bail-jumping Vietnam War veteran and black radical.

Rabbit’s living room becomes the place for his encounter with the radical attacks upon America’s values and policies. Skeeter’s charismatic critiques of the American way of life challenge Rabbit’s unquestioning patriotism and mesmerize him. As a consequence, Rabbit is helpless when disaster finally comes. His house is set on fire, probably by disgruntled neighbors; Jill is caught inside and dies in the fire. Rabbit helps Skeeter escape. Because of Stavros’s heart condition, Janice gives him up to return home to Rabbit and Nelson. The novel ends with Janice and Rabbit together in a motel room asleep, in a sense rendered homeless by the forces of their time, over which they have little control.

In Rabbit, Run, Rabbit was a radical of sorts, a seeker for the transcendent in an entropic environment. In Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is a conservative, a defender of the American Dream and the war in Vietnam. He resents all the naysayers, the radicals who want to overthrow everything. He has a flag decal on his car window. In a sense, his patriotism has replaced his old religious quest for the supernatural. It is a shaky religion in a revolutionary time, when all quests are quite this-worldly.

Contrite because of the suffering his earlier quest produced, Rabbit has returned to the old rules precisely at the time most of the culture is repudiating them. Jill flees her upper-class world and seeks to overcome ego and materialism through drugs. Skeeter proclaims a radical black religion to rejuvenate an empty, “dollar-crazy” America. Janice seeks liberation through a lover. The burning of Rabbit’s home represents the failure of all these quests: Jill dies, Skeeter flees, Janice returns home, and Rabbit’s old dream is chastened. Significantly, it is Rabbit’s sister, Mim, a Las Vegas call girl, whose visit home resolves the conflicts of the novel. Her unabashed worldliness and acceptance of an essentially empty world enable her to help the others find a way to live in the new American desert.

The novel sounds an apocalyptic note: What one sows, one reaps. The “external circumstances” become overwhelming. The televised images of flame and violence come home to destroy, perhaps to purify, like an ancient holocaust or offering. Rabbit bears witness to a disintegrating United States, even as it puts a man on the moon. Janice and Rabbit sleep, perhaps to awake to a new sense of maturity and responsibility. At least they may awake to a new beginning, which still lingers as a key element of the American Dream.

Rabbit Is Rich

First published: 1981

Type of work: Novel

In a world “running out of gas,” Rabbit comes into material success, only to see it threatened by his erratic son.

Rabbit Is Rich is a novel about a middle-aged man—a fitting image for the spiritual condition of the United States at the end of the 1970’s. At forty-six, Rabbit is successful, but his expansive waistline reminds him of his declining energies as well as the encroachment of death. Updike updates Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt (1922) about the ever-aspiring businessman George F. Babbitt. The remaining sparks of vitality in Rabbit seek to combat the forces of exhaustion that fill the novel. Indeed, the sense of things running down and images of falling dominate the book.

The novel is set during the summer and fall of 1979 and the first few weeks of 1980. In those last months of the Jimmy Carter administration, Americans face long lines at the gasoline pumps, high inflation rates, and the continuing stalemate over the American hostages in Iran. Rabbit is not worried, however, for he is a co-owner of Brewer’s Toyota agency, since his father-in-law, Fred Springer, died in 1974. He and Janice have been living in the Springer house since their own house was destroyed by fire in 1969. Their son, Nelson, has been going to college at Kent State University. While Rabbit struggles with his son, he is haunted by the ghosts of his past—his dead daughter, his dead mother’s voice, and memories of Jill and Skeeter. Rabbit imagines that they embrace him, sustain him, and cheer him on in the autumn of his life.

In the first two Rabbit novels, Rabbit was out of step with his decade. In the complacent 1950’s, he ran; in the frenetic 1960’s, he watched. In Rabbit Is Rich, he is running again, but this time more in rhythm with the 1970’s. Rabbit jogs, an activity in keeping with the fitness craze that grew in that decade. The novel begins with Rabbit thinking “running out of gas,” a phrase that resonates at several levels. As a middle-aged man, Rabbit knows that his energies are diminishing. Because of the gasoline crisis, he sees America perhaps literally running out of gas.

Spiritually, the phrase suggests a running out of the old dynamism that fed the American Dream. In 1979, the American satellite Skylab was falling out of orbit—another fitting metaphor for the crises facing the Angstroms and America. Rabbit finds that his old desires and wants have shriveled. “Freedom, that he always thought was outward motion, turns out to be this inward dwindling.” When asked if he has seen the film Jaws 2 (1978), Rabbit responds in a way that reinforces the sense of entropy running throughout the novel: “D’you ever get the feeling that everything these days is sequels? . . . Like people are running out of ideas.”

In his new prosperity, Rabbit plays golf at a new country club, goes to Rotary Club lunches, and reads Consumer Reports, the bible of his new status. Consumption is linked with sex as a way to fill the spiritual void of modern life. In a telling scene, Janice and Rabbit make love on top of their newly purchased gold Krugerrands. Ambiguously, sex represents both vitality and the void, the unfillable emptiness that constitutes death.

Rabbit lusts after Cindy, the lovely young wife of one of their new country-club friends. Janice tells Rabbit: “You always want what you don’t have instead of what you do.” In a wife-swapping episode during the three couples’ brief Caribbean holiday, however, Rabbit must take Thelma Harrison instead of Cindy and is introduced to anal sex (arguably an...

(The entire section is 7934 words.)