John Updike American Literature Analysis
Showing remarkable versatility and range, and meeting with both critical and popular success, Updike’s fiction represents a penetrating realist chronicle of the changing morals and manners of American society. His novels continued the long national debate on American civilization and its discontents, but perhaps what is most significant about his fiction is its depiction of restless and aspiring spirits struggling within the constraints of flesh, of time and gravity, and of changing social conditions, to find something of transcendent value—all of them lovers and battlers. For Updike, as for many other writers, the conditions and possibilities of love are an index of the conditions and possibilities of faith and belief. As Updike writes in an essay: “Not to be in love, the capital N novel whispers to capital W western man, is to be dying.”
Updike’s versatility and range can be seen in terms of both style and subject. His first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, written when he was in his twenties, is cast twenty years into the future and explores the social and spiritual implications of an essentially antihumanistic socialism. The novel captures imaginatively the voices and experiences of octogenarian characters. In The Coup, Updike portrays the speech and sensibility of an American-educated, deposed African leader. In the Bech books, like Bech: A Book and Bech Is Back, Updike creates the persona of an urbane, sophisticated Jewish-American writer in search of his muse. In the Rabbit novels, Updike penetrates the ever-changing world of the former basketball player Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. In such novels as The Witches of Eastwick, S., and Seek My Face, Updike explores the feminine sensibility. Updike continually tried out new subjects and styles, in Brazil, Toward the End of Time, and Gertrude and Claudius.
In A Month of Sundays, Couples, Roger’s Version, and Villages, and in such short-story collections as Too Far to Go: The Maples Stories (1979), Licks of Love, and Problems, and Other Stories, Updike perhaps became the United States’ supreme examiner of marriage and its discontents. Each work has a style commensurate to its subject. Updike had a fine ear for the nuances and cadences of human speech from all levels of social life. In addition, his descriptive passages are unequaled in capturing the detail and texture of modern life. For some critics, however, Updike is more style than substance, with a prose too ornate, even baroque, densely littered with perception. Nevertheless, the richness and variety of his narratives reveal a writer with extraordinary talent.
Although generalizations do not do justice to the particularities of each Updike work, there is a major predicament experienced by nearly all of Updike’s protagonists—a sense of doubleness, of the ironic discrepancy of the fallen creature who yet senses, or yearns for, something transcendent. Updike’s characters are creatures moving between two realms but not fully at home in either. The four novels devoted to Rabbit Angstrom illustrate this fallenness in quest of transcendence; they also portray the substitute of sexuality for religious experience.
Updike wrote short stories since the beginning of his career and published in such magazines as The New Yorker, Esquire, The Atlantic, and Playboy. He produced a number of collections of his stories, from The Same Door; Pigeon Feathers, and Other Stories and Olinger Stories: A Selection (1964), through The Music School; Museums and Women, and Other Stories, and Trust Me, to Licks of Love, The Complete Henry Bech , The Early Stories, 1953-1975 and his final publication My Father’s Tears and Other Stories (2009). Updike’s stories (especially “A & P” and “Separating”) are often anthologized in literature textbooks. His stories are generally concerned with subtle states of mind and small events; seemingly insignificant details assume an importance that is somehow sensed but is difficult to explain.
In “Separating,” for example, Updike...
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