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 his marriage to the lovely Angela, who accepts death as a natural part of the cycles of life. Piet’s many infidelities stem, in large part, from his inner desperation for some sort of certainty. Piet’s foil is dentist Freddy Thorne, who casts himself as the priest of the new hedonism, of sensuality. To Freddy, the body is all that there is and, hence, should be celebrated and indulged.
The novel is filled with scenes of the couples’ weekly gatherings at picnics, parties, and games. In the backdrop of their continuous fun and games are the growing crises in national and international affairs, but the couples have little interest in the news. Even on the night of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, they gather at Freddy’s for a party. When it comes out that the assassin is a left-winger, one of the group comments, “He wasn’t one of us.”
The suspense of Piet’s adulterous activity is broken by the arrival of a new couple: Ken Whitman, a research biologist, and his pregnant wife, Foxy. Hired to redo their house, Piet is drawn to the very sensual Foxy, who shares his religious concerns. In Foxy, Piet finds what he lacks in Angela. After Foxy’s baby is born, she gets pregnant by Piet, who goes to Freddy Thorne to arrange an abortion. For payment for the favor, Freddy asks for a night with Angela. When he gets Angela in bed, however, Freddy cannot perform; the priest of sex is impotent before the earthy and ethereal Angela.
Both men, in getting what they think they most desire, lose something vital to their identities. The loss of Angela causes Piet’s fall into the earthly, to the mortal flesh. In effect, eros, physical love, defeats agape, spiritual love. Piet’s church is destroyed by a fire, which Piet construes as a divine judgment upon them all. Piet and Foxy marry and move to another suburb, where they become simply another couple.
Couples shows that a certain light has gone out in the American landscape; death and decay haunt the imagination and spirit. Piet, as do the others, fails in the quest to find in the flesh what has been lost in the spirit. The church, given over to secularity and worldliness, fails them. The religion of sensuality leads to trivial and empty lives, a kind of death. Disappointment and disillusionment are the results of the failure of the new religion.
The story of Couples is relatively simple, but the...
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