Couples created quite a stir when it was published because of its graphic and emancipated treatment of adultery. It was on the best-seller lists for most of a year, and it led to favorable treatments of the author by Time and Life magazines. Despite the book’s apparent sensationalism, the novel exhibits Updike’s serious intent to explore the moral and spiritual consequences of a post-Christian world; the novel asks the question “After Christianity, what?” To Updike, the novel is “about sex as the emergent religion, as the only thing left.” Human sexuality seemed to be liturgy and sacrament of the new religion emerging in America in the 1960’s—another end of innocence in a “post-pill paradise.” The new religion does not truly assuage the anxiety of death, however; it leads instead to self-deception and disillusionment. Indeed, the cultic celebration of sex is the courting of disaster.
Set in the fictitious Massachusetts town of Tarbox, the novel focuses upon ten white, essentially upper-middle-class couples, most of whom have children and professional occupations. The time of the novel is from the spring of 1963 to the spring of 1964—from one season of rebirth to the next—between two pregnancies, one resulting in the birth of a child, the other in an abortion. The religion that the couples have made of one another dissolves into divorce and migration.
The main sexual pilgrim in the novel is Piet Hanema, a thirty-five-year-old building contractor, who is plagued by death anxiety and still attends church. Fearing death without immortal life, Piet finds no consolation in...
(The entire section is 671 words.)
The story of Couples is relatively simple, but the plot is extraordinarily convoluted and complex. At the beginning of the novel, nine middle-class or upper-middle-class couples, mostly in their thirties, with mortgages, children, pets, and professions, live in an interconnected social world in the fictitious bedroom community of Tarbox, located slightly south of Boston in Plymouth County. The appearance of a young couple who move to Tarbox from Cambridge causes a series of realignments within the group and finally, by the novel’s end, two divorces, and precipitates the action of the story. Ken Whitman and his pregnant wife, Foxy, buy an old beach house and hire Piet Hanema to renovate the property. Piet, already a restless husband and lover, breaks off his current affair and takes up with Foxy, continuing their sexual liaison after her child is born. She becomes pregnant again, only this time by Piet. The lovers arrange an abortion with the aid of the local dentist, Freddy Thorne, who insists that as payment he be allowed to sleep with Piet’s wife, Angela. Georgene, Piet’s former lover and Freddy’s wife, in a fit of jealousy tells Ken Whitman about his wife’s affair and abortion, causing the Whitmans to separate and eventually divorce. Angela and Piet have also separated and divorced, and the novel concludes with Piet and Foxy getting married and starting their lives over again in another community away from Tarbox. This bare-bones sketch of the tale of Couples reduces both the scope and the significance of the novel to a minimum. The fascination of the novel comes from the delicate interworkings or interconnections among the various couples and not from the question of whether Piet and Foxy will run off together to get married.
As Piet and Angela Hanema undress for the nightthey discuss the party they have just attended for the Whitmans, a new couple that has just moved into town. Like most of the other couples in their social group, the Hanemas are middle class, are in their mid-thirties, have several children, and have settled in Tarbox—a quaint village quickly becoming a suburb on the South Shore of Boston—during the previous decade. Brought together by their youth, their recent arrival, their children, and their sense of themselves as representatives of the future rather than the past, these couples became a circle of friends.
Over time, the couples have developed their own social rituals. They gather formally and informally every weekend at planned dinner and cocktail parties, as well as at spontaneous get-togethers after swimming, going to the beach, or playing tennis, basketball, golf, or touch football. They play charades, impressions, and word games; have costume parties and dance to records by Doris Day, Chubby Checker, and Connie Francis; talk about the news, their houses, and their children; drink too much; gossip; and share and hide secrets. According to Freddy Thorne—their unofficial master of revels and resident cynical philosopher—they make a church of one another to hold back the night and replace their parents’ religious and political faiths, which most of them have lost.
In 1963, a “post-pill paradise” that seems to offer sex without consequences, adultery has begun to complicate the circle’s relationships. The previous year, Marcia little-Smith began an affair with Frank Appleby; when Janet Appleby and Harold little-Smith learned about it, they began one of their own. Before long, the couples stopped hiding their relationships from one another and became a foursome. Rumors circulated, Janet and Marcia shared confidences with their women friends, and the couples soon became known as the “Applesmiths.” Piet (pronounced “Pete”) is also having an affair—not his first—with Georgene Thorne, while Bea Guerin is making her own desire to be with him perfectly clear.
Foxy and Ken Whitman join the circle. Like most of the men, Ken is a professional, a Harvard-trained biochemist working in Boston; like most of the women, Foxy is attractive, smart, well-educated, and discontented. They have bought the old Robinson house on the...
(The entire section is 971 words.)