Sarah Worth, the heroine of Updike’s final novel in the trilogy he has written to retell the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), repeats this aphorism, supposedly the Buddha’s last words, in one of the communiqués she sends to her best friend, Midge Hibbens, from her new “home” in the Arizona desert. Having abandoned her husband of twenty-some years, Sarah has fled to the desert to seek refuge and inner solace as a member of a commune run by the Indian guru Arhat Mindadali. There, she comes in closer touch with the teachings of the Buddha—if one can believe the letters she sends to various correspondents, for this novel is made up exclusively of Sarah’s letters and tapes to those outside the commune. As the reader learns by the end of this novel, however, Sarah has taken the Buddha’s advice to heart all along.
S. follows earlier novels A Month of Sundays (1975) and Roger’s Version (1986) in Updike’s attempt to redo Hawthorne’s classic American tale from the perspectives of the three main characters. S. is Hester Prynne’s side of the story. This Hester, however, is a very modern lady, making her way in the 1980’s with considerably more confidence than her seventeenth century predecessor. The Puritan backdrop gives Updike great opportunity to load his work with allusion and irony, and he seldom misses a chance to bring a smile to the cognoscenti among his readership: the town outside the commune is Forrest (an immediate signal for anyone familiar with Hawthorne’s works); Sarah is descended from the Prynnes; her daughter is named Pearl; she spends time in the Hawthorne airport; one of the contributors to the Arhat’s coffers is a Mrs. Blithedale (from the title of another Hawthorne work); Sarah and her husband had bought their New England home from Mrs. Pyncheon (presumably it has seven gables).
Even those who do not catch these in-jokes will recognize parallels to the early 1980’s incident in Oregon, when real-life guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh established his utopian community in the midst of a politically conservative region of America. S. is clearly intended as a satiric commentary on contemporary American society: the commune runs a glitzy department store; the Arhat is in the T-shirt business and lives in a tacky 1950’s-style ranch house; the world outside the commune is crass, insular, destructive, puerile.
As in his other novels, Updike is often at his ironic best in S. when he examines the reasons that people cannot sustain a marriage. “It’s really not wise for married people (or lovers) to understand each other too well,” Sarah writes to her brother; “communication, I fear, is hideously overrated.” The words seem to come from Updike himself.
The reader, too, may be stymied by communication in this novel. Figuring out what is happening on the most elemental level in S. is a bit of a challenge, as Updike has chosen the epistolary form for his narrative. Reading a character’s letters does allow readers to see the many sides of the fictional self; Sarah’s multiple personalities are evident in the varying tones she uses to address her daughter, her mother, her husband, and the many functionaries to whom she must write in her attempt to make a break from her former life (the dentist, the hair-dresser, her lawyer). The epistolary form, however, always carries the danger that the novelist may be forced into unrealistic situations: letters too long to have been written in a short time, explanations that seem to go beyond what one normally expects to find in casual correspondence. Additionally, it may be difficult to imagine anyone in contemporary America writing so much. Updike solves the problem by having Sarah send tapes to her friend Midge; much of the background necessary for understanding what has happened to drive Sarah to the Arizona desert is revealed on these cassettes, where one expects to encounter garrulous dialogue and idle chitchat. Even with this help, the epistolary style forces the reader to pay close attention to details and to fill in the gaps between letters. Reading such a work makes one almost a detective, looking for clues to both action and motive.
The epistolary form...
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