Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Throughout his prolific career, especially in A Month of Sundays (1975), Roger’s Version (1986), and S. (1988), Updike has revisited issues surrounding America’s Puritan, Protestant heritage posed over a century earlier by Nathaniel Hawthorne. If Hawthorne recognized the human suffering that Puritanism wrought as a defining characteristic of the American experience, Updike too sees the history of religious faith in America as inextricably interwoven with the nation’s destiny. The Hawthorne parallels in this novel are unmistakable, and the reader will note Updike’s use of the name Esther, echoing Hester from The Scarlet Letter (1850), and also that Clarence’s middle name is Arthur, recalling Arthur Dimmesdale from the same novel.

The literary context of this novel is no more important than the historical. In the spring of 1993, in Waco, Texas, federal authorities stormed the compound of the Branch Davidians, a religious sect led by David Koresh. The deaths of members and their children touched a nerve in America’s conscience. Updike echoes the events in Waco in the novel’s final chapter, leading the reader to wonder to what degree a kind of Puritanical religious intolerance might have been responsible for the tragedy in Waco. In a nation under a constitution guaranteeing religious freedom, but in a nation suspicious of religious heterodoxy, the possibility for such terrifying events, in which the government, the charismatic cult leader, and the culture itself share blame, looms omnipresent.