Study Guide

Seek My Face

by John Updike

Seek My Face Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Throughout his exceptionally active writing life, John Updike has regularly contributed essays to prominent journals focusing on the “visible matter” of artists whose work he finds interesting. The title of his 1972 collection of short fiction, Museums and Women, explicitly states two of his predominant subjects, and in Seek My Face, Updike joins these preoccupations in his conception of the protagonist of the novel, Hope Chafetz, who spends a day at her home in rural Vermont in a protracted interview with an ambitious young journalist from New York City. Born Hope Ouderkirk in a small town in Pennsylvania clearly reminiscent of Updike’s boyhood home in Shillington, Hope is a seventy-eight-year-old woman now living alone after marriages to three men, two of whom were important figures in the mid-twentieth century emergence of American painting as a dominant force in both aesthetic and commercial terms. In a prefatory note, Updike maintains that “This is a work of fiction,” but, with characteristic aplomb, he explains that “it would be vain to deny that a large number of details come from the admirable, exhaustive Jackson Pollock: An American Saga” by Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith (1991).

Hope’s first marriage is to Zach McCoy, and while the “facts” of their life together closely parallel the primary circumstances of Pollock’s marriage to the painter Lee Krasner, Hope is much more than a version of Krasner. McCoy, while obviously echoing Pollock’s dynamic style of painting and extremely volatile personality, has been creatively reimagined as a person whose intense, vivid portrait does justice to the facts of Pollock’s life while probing the psychological conditions which contributed to his extraordinary accomplishments and violent death. Hope subsequently marries Guy Holloway, a successful painter who lacks McCoy’s genius, and, later, Jerry Chafetz, a stockbroker who is not an artist but who is a considerably more congenial companion for Hope than either of her first two husbands. Her life with these men, her connections to the burgeoning art scene in New York after World War II, and her own somewhat thwarted but still impressive career as a painter constitute the substance of the interview. The interviewer, Kathryn D’Angelo, is an intelligent, well- educated young woman whose perceptions are continuously clouded by trendy, shallow, contemporary stances, and while she tries to shape the interview in terms of topics such as Hope’s sexual behavior, Hope keeps expanding the context to include some of the largest questions of art and life that have always been at the core of human existence. Updike, entering his eighth decade, effectively utilizes Hope to express and explore his own carefully considered positions on these vital issues.

The narrative center of the novel is located in Hope’s conscious mind, and after a typically blatant assertion of personality by the interviewer, who wants to control the conversation, Updike retreats from Kathryn’s prying to present Hope from the perspective of her earliest memories. “As a child . . . ” the second paragraph begins, and for several pages, in long sentences that reflect the flow of her thought, Hope is revealed as a keenly observant person whose sense of the world is built on a constant curiosity about what she sees and what it might mean. “As a child she wondered where the reflection went when she walked away,” the omniscient narrator observes, mingling instructive commentary with Hope’s recollections and providing pertinent details about Hope’s home environment, a place where “mirrors hung on the Germantown walls like paintings that kept changing subject.” At various points throughout the novel, Hope’s psychic state is revealed through her vision of the world as a masterful painter’s canvas, as Updike conveys the sensibility which enables her to respond with intelligent enthusiasm to the work of her friends and peers. In a typical passage, Hope sees “scattered white clouds expanding to crowd out the spaces between them, packing themselves together as tightly as gray flagstones,” until “the light seems deeper, more enclosed, having dipped deeper into some darker element, so that the twigs and branches around the bird feeder look blackly wet.” Just as Joyce Cary captured the creative conscious of Gulley Jimson in The Horses’s Mouth (1944), Updike has employed the full range of his capabilities as an acknowledged master of the language to fashion a verbal equivalent for the works of the artists who populate the novel. This is especially important in the presentation of Zach McCoy, the artistic genius who is the great fire source at the heart of the narrative, who Updike calls “the painter of his time, the performer and symbol both” of an age.

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(The entire section is 1972 words.)