One of John Updike’s strengths is his ability to create fully rounded characters who also symbolize larger ideas. The symbolism, however, never overshadows character development, and most readers will not feel as if Updike is using his characters to pursue purely didactic aims. The characters in this novel are fully rounded, but they also represent their eras in American history, particularly as regards the prevailing religious tenor of the times.
Clarence’s loss of faith is partially the result of pressures created by his times; by 1910, it becomes difficult for an educated person to reconcile religious faith with rapid scientific advances and social changes. Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution have made traditional religious accounts of the origin of human beings appear doubtful. Karl Marx’s economic and social theories have argued that religion has historically been used to oppress the working class. Telegraph wires quickly bring news of famines, natural disasters, and armies poised to attack. Clarence finds it difficult to reconcile the idea of a loving God with so much human suffering. The final blow to Clarence’s faith is the rapid proliferation of American popular culture, specifically the developing film industry. As the religious stories and heroes of the past are replaced by inexpensively procured narratives and larger-than-life heroes whose magic is so intoxicatingly present, religious faith for Clarence, as for American society generally, undergoes trauma.
Clarence’s loss of faith, rooted in history, shapes the identity of his descendants. Teddy, in reaction to his father’s emotional and intellectual upheaval, chooses a life of...
(The entire section is 692 words.)