John Updike

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John Updike American Literature Analysis

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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...

(This entire section contains 7934 words.)

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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 portrays well the pain of a family on the verge of divorce. The story describes Richard and Joan Maples trying to work out how their children are to be told of their impending separation but opens with detailed descriptions of household chores whose significance readers can only guess at. The final revelations at the dinner table ring painfully true. When the father tells the older son later, the son appears to take the news calmly. Yet when the father kisses him good night, the son asks the virtually unanswerable question: “Why?” Love, so often, is a painful longing for what has been lost, an irretrievable moment, an irrecoverable place.

As seen in both his nonfiction and his fiction, Updike was one of the most theologically sophisticated writers of his generation. He read deeply in Christian theology, especially in the works of such authors as Kierkegaard and Barth. It was Updike’s theological convictions that constituted the basis for his critique of modern men and women and of American society. In an interview conducted in the mid-1960’s, Updike declared that “without the supernatural, the natural is a pit of horror.” In Canto IV to his long poem Midpoint, Updike writes: “An easy Humanism plagues the land;/ I choose to take an otherworldly stand.” His characters seek passage through a decaying world, one whose traditions are disintegrating and dissolving from the pressures of secularity and materialism. Updike’s fiction explores the implications of a world that is essentially post-Christian. To stay the anxiety of death, to fill the emptiness of lost or abandoned belief, Updike’s characters turn to sexuality, but they are frequently disappointed. In his story “The Bulgarian Poetess” (1966), Updike writes: “Actuality is a running impoverishment of possibility.” This captures well Updike’s sense of human incompleteness, of the sense of discrepancy between the actual and the ideal. Problems in such a world are rarely, if ever, solved. Instead, they are endured, if not fully understood, though occasionally there are moments of grace and affirmation.

In his 1962 memoir titled “The Dogwood Tree: A Boyhood,” Updike speaks of his commitment “to transcribe middleness with all its grits, bumps, and anonymities, in its fullness of satisfaction and mystery.” Updike continues to fulfill that commitment in a rich and vital fiction that explores what he calls the “Three Great Secret Things: Sex. Religion, and Art,” subjects that form the substance of much of his fiction, poetry, and essays.

Rabbit, Run

First published: 1960

Type of work: Novel

In the conformity of the 1950’s in the United States, a troubled quester has nowhere to go.

Rabbit, Run, a novel of a former basketball star and his floundering marriage set in the late 1950’s, was the first of what has become a series of four novels about the protagonist and his family; Updike published one of them every ten years from 1960 to 1990. Together the novels form a revealing chronicle of the complex changes occurring in American culture between the 1950’s and the late 1980’s. In Updike’s hero, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the reader sees one of the author’s many lapsed creatures in search of renewal, of regeneration, of something to believe in. The destructiveness of the character’s actions in the first novel reflects Updike’s own intense religious crisis, experienced at the time he was writing the novel.

At twenty-six, Rabbit, who got his nickname from the way he twitches his nose, finds himself in a stultifying life. He has a job selling magic-peelers in a dime store and is married to Janice, a careless and boozy woman who is pregnant with their second child. Coming home with new resolve to change his life after a brief game of basketball with some children in an alley, Rabbit finds the mess of his marital life too much to overcome. Thus begins his series of recoiling actions from the stifling experiences of his present life.

The novel captures well the sense of bottled-up frustration of the 1950’s, a decade during which American society put a premium on conformity and adapting to one’s environment. Hence, like so many of Updike’s protagonists, Rabbit is enmeshed in a highly compromised environment, one committed to the values of the marketplace and lacking in spiritual concerns. Like a latter-day Huck Finn, Rabbit bolts from a civilization that would deny him freedom and a sense of wonder. His movement can be viewed as a kind of spiritual survival tactic.

A quote from Blaise Pascal serves as an epigraph to the novel: “The motions of Grace, the hardness of heart; external circumstances.” Those three things, Updike says, describe human lives. They also describe the basic movements and conflicts in the Rabbit novels, indeed in most of Updike’s fiction. Bewildered and frustrated, Rabbit wonders what has happened to his life. His disgust with his present life is deepened by his memories of when he was “first-rate at something” as a high school basketball star.

As some critics have noted, the novel is the study of a nonhero’s quest for a nonexistent grail. Rabbit initially tries to escape by driving south, goaded by visions of fertility and warmth. After getting hopelessly lost, he returns to his hometown and seeks out Tothero, his old high school coach. Tothero sets Rabbit up with Ruth Leonard, a part-time prostitute, with whom Rabbit begins to live. Pursued by the do-good minister Jack Eccles, Rabbit resists returning to Janice. To Eccles, Rabbit claims that “something out there wants me to find it,” though what that is he cannot say.

When Janice goes into labor, Rabbit returns, feeling contrite and resolving to restore the marriage. For nine days, their life seems to be going well. When Janice refuses Rabbit’s sexual advances, however, he bolts again and looks for Ruth. Feeling abandoned, Janice starts drinking heavily and accidentally drowns the baby. Rabbit returns to Janice again, but at the funeral he outrages the family by his claims of innocence. He runs again, returning to Ruth, who reveals that she is pregnant and demands that Rabbit divorce Janice and marry her. He refuses Ruth, and the novel ends with Rabbit running the streets, resisting all claims upon his commitment.

Rabbit’s back-and-forth actions create much havoc and mark him as selfish and irresponsible in the America of the 1950’s, a world offering little margin for the quest for the transcendent. In place of the old revelations of religion, Rabbit substitutes the ecstasy of sex, the deep mysteries of the woman’s body. Failed by his environment and its various authority figures, Rabbit registers his revolt through movement, through a refusal to stand still and be taken over by the tides of secular culture.

Rabbit Redux

First published: 1971

Type of work: Novel

In 1969 no longer in flight, Rabbit witnesses and experiences the racial and cultural upheavals of the times.

In Rabbit Redux, Rabbit believes that the whole United States is doing what he did ten years earlier. Rabbit appears to have made his peace with the world and has settled down to fulfill his various obligations. He works as a typesetter in the same shop where his father has worked for more than thirty years. (He works at a trade, however, that is soon to be replaced by a new technology.) In this novel, Rabbit is more a passive listener and observer than a searcher. The racial and cultural turmoil that he sees on television literally comes into his home, and Rabbit is forced to be a student of his times. Updike uses this rather feckless working-class man in small-city Pennsylvania as a foil to the upheavals sweeping the United States during the late 1960’s.

The landing of Americans on the moon, which Rabbit, like millions of others, watches on television, is a fitting analogue or metaphor for the cultural shifts of the decade. The astronauts, pioneers of the new technology and exemplars of the centrifugal movement of the West, land on a barren satellite. The implication is that America’s spiritual landscape is as barren as that of the moon. Americans have gone about as far as they can, and they must now return home and make the best of things here. The gravity of Earth cannot be escaped for long.

In Rabbit, Run, Rabbit left Janice for a mistress. In Rabbit Redux, Janice leaves Rabbit to live with her lover, Stavros. Rabbit acquiesces to this affair and stays home to care for his son, Nelson. Through a strange set of circumstances—not wholly probable—Rabbit takes in Jill, a runaway flower child, and Skeeter, a bail-jumping Vietnam War veteran and black radical.

Rabbit’s living room becomes the place for his encounter with the radical attacks upon America’s values and policies. Skeeter’s charismatic critiques of the American way of life challenge Rabbit’s unquestioning patriotism and mesmerize him. As a consequence, Rabbit is helpless when disaster finally comes. His house is set on fire, probably by disgruntled neighbors; Jill is caught inside and dies in the fire. Rabbit helps Skeeter escape. Because of Stavros’s heart condition, Janice gives him up to return home to Rabbit and Nelson. The novel ends with Janice and Rabbit together in a motel room asleep, in a sense rendered homeless by the forces of their time, over which they have little control.

In Rabbit, Run, Rabbit was a radical of sorts, a seeker for the transcendent in an entropic environment. In Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is a conservative, a defender of the American Dream and the war in Vietnam. He resents all the naysayers, the radicals who want to overthrow everything. He has a flag decal on his car window. In a sense, his patriotism has replaced his old religious quest for the supernatural. It is a shaky religion in a revolutionary time, when all quests are quite this-worldly.

Contrite because of the suffering his earlier quest produced, Rabbit has returned to the old rules precisely at the time most of the culture is repudiating them. Jill flees her upper-class world and seeks to overcome ego and materialism through drugs. Skeeter proclaims a radical black religion to rejuvenate an empty, “dollar-crazy” America. Janice seeks liberation through a lover. The burning of Rabbit’s home represents the failure of all these quests: Jill dies, Skeeter flees, Janice returns home, and Rabbit’s old dream is chastened. Significantly, it is Rabbit’s sister, Mim, a Las Vegas call girl, whose visit home resolves the conflicts of the novel. Her unabashed worldliness and acceptance of an essentially empty world enable her to help the others find a way to live in the new American desert.

The novel sounds an apocalyptic note: What one sows, one reaps. The “external circumstances” become overwhelming. The televised images of flame and violence come home to destroy, perhaps to purify, like an ancient holocaust or offering. Rabbit bears witness to a disintegrating United States, even as it puts a man on the moon. Janice and Rabbit sleep, perhaps to awake to a new sense of maturity and responsibility. At least they may awake to a new beginning, which still lingers as a key element of the American Dream.

Rabbit Is Rich

First published: 1981

Type of work: Novel

In a world “running out of gas,” Rabbit comes into material success, only to see it threatened by his erratic son.

Rabbit Is Rich is a novel about a middle-aged man—a fitting image for the spiritual condition of the United States at the end of the 1970’s. At forty-six, Rabbit is successful, but his expansive waistline reminds him of his declining energies as well as the encroachment of death. Updike updates Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt (1922) about the ever-aspiring businessman George F. Babbitt. The remaining sparks of vitality in Rabbit seek to combat the forces of exhaustion that fill the novel. Indeed, the sense of things running down and images of falling dominate the book.

The novel is set during the summer and fall of 1979 and the first few weeks of 1980. In those last months of the Jimmy Carter administration, Americans face long lines at the gasoline pumps, high inflation rates, and the continuing stalemate over the American hostages in Iran. Rabbit is not worried, however, for he is a co-owner of Brewer’s Toyota agency, since his father-in-law, Fred Springer, died in 1974. He and Janice have been living in the Springer house since their own house was destroyed by fire in 1969. Their son, Nelson, has been going to college at Kent State University. While Rabbit struggles with his son, he is haunted by the ghosts of his past—his dead daughter, his dead mother’s voice, and memories of Jill and Skeeter. Rabbit imagines that they embrace him, sustain him, and cheer him on in the autumn of his life.

In the first two Rabbit novels, Rabbit was out of step with his decade. In the complacent 1950’s, he ran; in the frenetic 1960’s, he watched. In Rabbit Is Rich, he is running again, but this time more in rhythm with the 1970’s. Rabbit jogs, an activity in keeping with the fitness craze that grew in that decade. The novel begins with Rabbit thinking “running out of gas,” a phrase that resonates at several levels. As a middle-aged man, Rabbit knows that his energies are diminishing. Because of the gasoline crisis, he sees America perhaps literally running out of gas.

Spiritually, the phrase suggests a running out of the old dynamism that fed the American Dream. In 1979, the American satellite Skylab was falling out of orbit—another fitting metaphor for the crises facing the Angstroms and America. Rabbit finds that his old desires and wants have shriveled. “Freedom, that he always thought was outward motion, turns out to be this inward dwindling.” When asked if he has seen the film Jaws 2 (1978), Rabbit responds in a way that reinforces the sense of entropy running throughout the novel: “D’you ever get the feeling that everything these days is sequels? . . . Like people are running out of ideas.”

In his new prosperity, Rabbit plays golf at a new country club, goes to Rotary Club lunches, and reads Consumer Reports, the bible of his new status. Consumption is linked with sex as a way to fill the spiritual void of modern life. In a telling scene, Janice and Rabbit make love on top of their newly purchased gold Krugerrands. Ambiguously, sex represents both vitality and the void, the unfillable emptiness that constitutes death.

Rabbit lusts after Cindy, the lovely young wife of one of their new country-club friends. Janice tells Rabbit: “You always want what you don’t have instead of what you do.” In a wife-swapping episode during the three couples’ brief Caribbean holiday, however, Rabbit must take Thelma Harrison instead of Cindy and is introduced to anal sex (arguably an appropriate image of the sense of worthlessness pervading American culture in the 1970’s).

Nelson’s return home is like the visit of a nightmare, of something neglected or repressed that cannot be avoided any longer. He wreaks havoc within the family’s affluent complacency. Like his father, but lacking Rabbit’s grace and conscience, Nelson’s quest for attention and for love leads him to wreck practically everything he touches. Nelson also brings home a young woman, Pru, pregnant with his child. Their marriage is arranged, and in January of 1980, Rabbit receives a granddaughter, placed in his lap on the night of the Super Bowl. Perhaps, at last, Rabbit has the daughter he has longed for ever since Becky drowned and Jill died in his house in previous novels. He accepts his granddaughter—“fortune’s hostage, heart’s desire”—who represents both the hope for his future and a reminder of his mortality.

Abandoning Pru, Nelson begins the cycle of irresponsibility and bad luck that plagued his parents twenty years earlier. At one point, Rabbit tells Nelson: “Maybe I haven’t done everything right in my life. I know I haven’t. But I haven’t committed the greatest sin. I haven’t laid down and died.” The statement is a good summary of the character of Rabbit throughout the novels—a man of vitality, a lover of life, an embodiment of forces running counter to entropy and death.

Rabbit at Rest

First published: 1990

Type of work: Novel

The final volume in the Rabbit tetralogy concludes the story of Harry Angstrom and continues Updike’s remarkable delineation of American social and sexual mores in the last half of the twentieth century.

Rabbit at Rest ends the saga Updike began in 1960 in Rabbit, Run but brilliantly continues the history that Updike has been writing through the four volumes. Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom is fifty-five when the novel opens in 1989, and as the Reagan years are winding down, so is Harry. He has ballooned to 230 pounds, and his addiction to junk food foreshadows his final demise. Harry’s problems are also the problems of America, for Updike is telling two complex histories here at once. In fact, readers see more of America in this final volume, for the first and last sections of the three-part novel take place in Florida, where Harry and his wife Janice live half the year in their condo.

Harry is followed from the first pages by a “sense of doom” that will trail him to his end. Harry and his son are estranged, and when Nelson arrives with his family for a Florida holiday, Harry suffers his first heart attack. Things are not much better when Harry returns to Beaver, Pennsylvania. He has had angioplasty (to avoid the bypass surgery his doctors recommend), but his recovery is slow and not aided by his eating habits or his family. Nelson has been stealing from the Toyota dealership he manages (and which Janice owns) to feed a cocaine habit, and when finally confronted he reluctantly enters drug rehabilitation, and Rabbit has to return to the showroom floor. The Japanese soon take away the Toyota agency, and when Janice starts working nights on a real estate license, the drifting Rabbit ends up sleeping with his daughter-in-law, Pru. Janice finds out about the episode, and Rabbit runs again—as he did in the first volume of the tetralogy—back to Florida.

Harry senses that he has “walked through my entire life in a daze,” and the self-assessment is not inaccurate. He feels betrayed by America, by his unfulfilled dreams. For all his financial success and sexual conquests, Harry is neither happy nor satisfied. Something is gnawing at this former high school basketball star. He reads history to understand his country at the same time he is trying to understand himself, but he fails in the end to penetrate either mystery. All Harry knows is that things in America have changed since he was a boy, and now they are both “drowning in debt.” When he suffers another heart attack—and in another sense of closure, in a pickup basketball game in Florida—readers feel both pity and terror. Updike has written a fitting final chapter for Rabbit Angstrom and another chapter in his continuing saga of American history.

The Centaur

First published: 1963

Type of work: Novel

Through the creative blending of memory and myth, an artist-protagonist recovers the meaning of his father’s life as a means to recovering his own vocation.

The Centaur draws heavily upon Updike’s experiences growing up in Shillington, Pennsylvania, and pays homage to his father. In many ways, the novel is Updike’s most complex work, involving an interweaving of the myth of Chiron the centaur with the story of an adolescent boy and his father in the winter of 1947. The novel is part Bildungsroman, a novel of moral education, and part Künstlerroman, a novel of an artist seeking his identity in conflict with society or with his past. The nine chapters of the novel emerge as a collage, a narrative appropriate for the painter-narrator. Nearly thirty, Peter Caldwell, the artist-protagonist, is seeking to recover from his past some insight or understanding that might clarify and rejuvenate his artistic vocation. He reminisces to his black mistress in a Manhattan loft about a three-day period during the winter of 1947, fourteen years earlier.

Peter tells of his self-conscious adolescence, growing up an only child, living on a farm with his parents and Pop Kramer, his grandfather. His father is the high school biology teacher and swim coach, and his acts of compassion and charity embarrass the boy. On a mythic level, the father is depicted as Chiron the centaur, part man and part stallion, who serves as mentor to youthful Greek heroes. Chiron’s life is sacrificial—he suffers for his charges, just as Peter’s father suffered for (and often from) his students. Peter is eventually able to arrive at an understanding of his father’s life and death, and he finds a clarification of his own lost vocation.

In the myth, Chiron sacrifices his immortality so that Prometheus may be free to live and to create. Peter interprets his father’s life in the same sacrificial terms—his father, George, in effect gives his life for Peter. While the character of George seems obsessed with death, it is doubtful that he really dies. Rather, his sacrifice is his willingness to go on fulfilling his obligation to his family. Seeing his father’s life in novel, sacrificial terms, Peter, despairing over his failure to fulfill his artistic talent, asks: “Was it for this that my father gave up his life?” In this harsh reappraisal, Peter learns what he could not know as an adolescent about sacrificial love. He comes to see that love, guilt, and sacrifice are somehow inherent in the very structure of life. Telling the story and mythologizing his father’s ordinariness reveal some truths about love to Peter. Such fatherly love liberates the son to resume his artistic vocation with courage.

The figure of the centaur captures the recurring predicament of Updike’s protagonists. The centaur embodies both the godly and the bestial; he is a creature conversant with both heaven and earth, yet not fully at home in either realm. Such a figure points to faith as the way to live with courage and hope.


First published: 1968

Type of work: Novel

In a secular, post-Christian culture, affluent couples in a Massachusetts suburb turn to sex and adultery as the new religion.

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 Witches of Eastwick

First published: 1984

Type of work: Novel

In the tumult of the late 1960’s, three divorcees find a witchlike power in their friendship, encounter evil both outside and inside themselves, and end up remarried.

The Witches of Eastwick is a diabolical comedy—a novel that explores the uses and abuses of power in its diverse forms in an age of moral and social confusion and that resolves itself in marriage. Like Rabbit Redux, the novel is set during the first year or so of the Richard Nixon presidency, an era of protest, discontent, and polarization. The setting is a small town in Rhode Island called Eastwick. In Rabbit Redux, Updike portrays a rather powerless Rabbit as witness to cultural disintegration and moonlike spiritual barrenness in the context of the late 1960’s. In The Witches of Eastwick, though he wrote the book in the early 1980’s, Updike goes back to the same polarized period but explores the female perspective and the emerging new feminist synthesis. As the power of patriarchy “wastes” itself in yet another war—this time the seemingly endless war in Vietnam—women are rediscovering the old goddesses, the old sources of unity, integration, and power. Yet, like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Updike shows that power unmindful of history and exploitative of nature constitutes an evil that produces death and guilt.

The “witches” of the title refer to three divorcees, Alexandra Spofford, Jane Smart, and Sukie Rougemont, who have become close friends, meeting each Thursday and speaking often over the telephone, and who have discovered the power of sisterhood as well as some ancient feminine powers. The term “witch” is meant to refer to free women and to imply the discovery of neopagan powers—an inner direction, a sense of nature as sacred, a rejection of such dualisms as body and soul and of various political hierarchies. This hypothesis, represented by the three women, is challenged by the demonic figure of Darryl Van Horne, who takes them all as lovers and proves later to be a confidence man.

The novel is divided into three parts, “The Coven,” “Malefica,” and “Guilt,” which suggest a progression from the women’s newly found power and independence through an encounter with the demoniac to a rediscovery of responsibility. In “The Coven,” the portrayal of the three women shows their neopagan, feminist convictions, their various loves and work. Alexandra calls forth a storm that clears a beach. The women tend to speak of men in ways that infantilize them. Eastwick has ecology-conscious industry, “clean” technology, and marshes where egrets rest. Male dominance is characterized as constituted of science and technology, of machine systems. Alone and free, the women have found new powers, natural powers. This gender split raises the question of whether evil is the result of technology or of nature.

“Malefica” deals with the effects of Darryl Van Horne’s presence on the women and the community. Reminiscent of some of Hawthorne’s scientist characters, Van Horne comes in proclaiming to be a technologist doing research in polymers and solar energy. Taking over the old Lenox mansion, he fills in some of the fragile wetlands for his tennis court, adds an immense hot tub, and installs fancy stereo equipment. He argues with the liberal, antiwar Unitarian minister, Ed Parsley, who later elopes with Dawn Polanski, a teenage war protester, to join the antiwar movement. Ironically, Ed Parsley blows himself up with a bomb he planned to use to bring about peace—another instance of the misunderstanding of power. The social do-gooder Felicia Gabriel, upon whom the women placed a minor curse, is killed by her frustrated husband, Clyde, who in turn commits suicide. At this point, the three witches remain caught in the solipsism of their philosophy, unable or unwilling to see or make connections between external, historical events and local events.

Like Updike’s many male protagonists, the three women must come to grips with the reality of death before they can reconstitute a meaningful life. Falling for Van Horne’s clumsy charms, the women develop a jealous rage when Van Horne chooses the young Jennifer Gabriel for his wife. The women use their powers to put a curse on Jennifer. When Jennifer dies, the women feel a terrible guilt, even though it is not clear that their curse caused the young woman’s cancer. The women begin to sense their participation in an evil act of creation, one that cannot be reversed by a simple change of course or inner state. Jennifer’s death provides the occasion for Van Horne to give a sermon on the evilness of creation, in which he excoriates a cosmos saturated with invisible parasites plaguing human life. He then leaves town with Jennifer’s brother, Christopher, suggesting Van Horne’s possible homosexuality.

The three women are left with the need to reflect upon all that has occurred and their responsibility for it. They move to a sense of reality that includes both the external and the internal, to an awareness of evil that is both technological and natural. The women find their ways into appropriate marriages, acts that are not meant to be seen as a capitulation to patriarchal tradition but rather as acknowledgments of their responsible connection with historical existence. In much of Updike’s fiction, women and nature are associated (some of his male protagonists feel guilt because “women and nature forget”). The Witches of Eastwick complicates that formula by showing how guilt in the three women functions to open memory to full human responsibility.

“Pigeon Feathers”

First published: 1961 (collected in Pigeon Feathers, and Other Stories, 1962)

Type of work: Short story

David Kern finds in the perfect design of the feathers of the pigeons he has killed a temporary assurance that he will not die.

“Pigeon Feathers” showcases early several of Updike’s continuing strengths, for the story wrestles with ontological issues in a prose that is stately and powerful. David is a young boy who has moved with his parents to the rural Pennsylvania farm where his mother grew up, and the move has been disturbing. He is used to his parents’ bickering and his senile grandmother’s nervous habits, but when he stumbles upon H. G. Wells’s account of Jesus in The Outline of History (1920) that denies his divinity, “a stone that for weeks and even years had been gathering weight in the web of David’s nerves snapped them and plunged through the page. . . . ” The vague “terror” of his discovery of his mortality, “an exact vision of death,” follows him everywhere, and neither his mother (who senses that something is wrong) nor Reverend Dobson (his Lutheran catechism teacher) can help him. David has experienced his first loss of faith, and the “horror” does not leave him in the next difficult months.

Relief comes for David only when his mother asks him to rid the barn of pigeons, and he takes the Remington .22 he has received for his fifteenth birthday and kills half a dozen of the birds. In burying them, he studies their feathers and “a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides as the feathers now broadened and stiffened to make an edge for flight, now softened and constricted to cup warmth around the mute flesh.” The discovery somehow renews David’s faith in the divine design of the world, and he feels “robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole creation by refusing to let David live forever.”

Throughout his career, Updike has studied what humans substitute in a post-Christian world, at a time when religion no longer seems to provide the answers. In several key works—such as the Rabbit tetralogy and Couples—sex is the answer, but it proves at best unsatisfying. In “Pigeon Feathers,” Updike poses the dilemma and finds in the fearful mind of an adolescent boy a temporary answer. In killing the birds, David plays God, taking life almost casually, but the discovery of the perfect design of the feathers allows him to rest, if only briefly, in a renewed faith in the world and his own immortality. What awaits him in a few years, later readers of Updike suspect, is certain uncertainty. For now, Updike has captured critical moments in a young boy’s life, and in a language that is almost exquisite.

“A & P”

First published: 1962 (collected in Pigeon Feathers, and Other Stories, 1962)

Type of work: Short story

A young protagonist’s heroic gesture catapults him into the harsh reality of adult life.

“A & P” is a classic initiation story in which the young protagonist acts spontaneously and then learns something about the consequences of his actions. Sammy’s conversational, comic voice is perfectly appropriate for his nineteen years and is even a little ungrammatical in its first-person narration: “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits,” the story abruptly begins. Little else happens: Sammy follows the three with his eyes as they wander the store to arrive at his cash register with their “Fancy Herring Snacks.” The store’s middle-aged manager finally notices the girls and reminds them of the store’s clothing policy, and Sammy, their sudden and “unsuspected hero,” defends them by quitting his job. The immature Sammy believes that “once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it,” and although Lengel warns Sammy of the consequences of his act, Sammy walks out anyway. When he gets to the parking lot, the girls are gone, and Sammy suddenly realizes “how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.”

Short as it is, the story has a number of classical overtones. Like the hero of some Arthurian legend, Sammy is on a romantic quest: In the name of chivalry, he acts to save “Queenie” (and her two consorts) from the ogre Lengel. On a more Homeric level, the hero is tempted by the three Sirens (from the wealthy “summer colony out on the Point”) and rejects his mentor to follow them. Such mythical possibilities point up the underlying richness of Updike’s prose, but there are sociopsychological implications in this initiation story as well. Although Sammy defends the three girls against the provincial morality of his small town, he is the only one holding his outmoded romantic code; the three girls ignore him. Sammy, in other words, is a working-class hero defending a privileged upper class which does not even acknowledge his existence, and Sammy loses his job because of romantic notions to which only working-class characters, apparently, still subscribe. On another level, the story points to a generation gap in which Sammy acts to protect the young women from the world of adults, only to end up in some limbo between the two worlds himself. With a series of binary oppositions, Updike has shown readers the complex world that adults inhabit and the compromise that is needed to navigate that world. The story’s many reprintings demonstrate its universal appeal.

“The Music School”

First published: 1964 (collected in The Music School, 1966)

Type of work: Short story

A straightforward recital of events opens into a series of Chinese boxes revealing a disintegrating marriage.

“The Music School” is a short story encompassing all the materials of a novel, for what starts out as a simple first-person narration soon becomes a confession of marital infidelity. The story features themes and techniques Updike often uses, in particular complex metaphor and the tension between materiality and spirituality.

The story revolves around three brief incidents. The narrator, who identifies himself only as Alfred Schweigen, a writer, tells readers that the night before he heard a priest describe a change in “his Church’s attitude toward the Eucharistic wafer,” that what was only allowed to melt in the mouth during Communion was now to be chewed and swallowed. This anecdote is immediately followed by another, the discovery in the paper this morning that an acquaintance, a computer expert, has been murdered, shot through a window in his home as he sat at dinner with his family. The focus has already shifted, and the story is becoming increasingly confessional, as the narrator admits that he is sitting in a music school this afternoon, waiting for his eight-year-old daughter to finish her piano lesson. He loves taking her and waiting for her, he says, but he only does it “because today my wife visits her psychiatrist. She visits a psychiatrist because I am unfaithful to her,” and he admits that he is also seeing a psychiatrist, who wonders “why I need to humiliate myself. It is a habit, I suppose, of confession.” He goes on to describe the country church he attended as a child where every two months there was a public confession—which is what the story itself is becoming. He knew the man who was shot because he had once thought of writing a novel about a computer programmer that would develop into a story of love, guilt, and death, into what, in short, his own marriage is becoming. He watches his daughter coming from her lesson and her “pleased smile . . . pierces my heart, and I die (I think) at her feet.”

The story epitomizes the technique Updike uses (as in his later story “Separating”) of relating mundane events while, just beneath the surface, larger changes are going on. The writer is fixated on his daughter, not as any father might be, but in order to keep himself from thinking about the changes ahead. Like a number of Updike stories, “The Music School” is ultimately about sex and religion or, rather, how contemporary sexuality has replaced more traditional spiritual life. The two opening incidents involve “a common element of nourishment, of eating transfigured by a strange irruption,” but they also involve transubstantiation, the process by which the spiritual becomes material, through the Communion wafer and through the bullet carrying “a maniac hatred.”

This metaphorical complexity works throughout the story. The priest was playing the guitar at the party the night before, the music school is like a church, and for the daughter “the lesson has been a meal.” Music carries its meaning as the spiritual is transcribed into notes on a score or fingers on an instrument. The Communion wafer, like the daughter’s music lesson, carries nourishment, as the narrator’s marriage is, in contrast, losing its spiritual meaning through the narrator’s own material, sexual needs.

“My Father on the Verge of Disgrace”

First published: 1997 (collected in Licks of Love: Short Stories and a Sequel, “Rabbit Remembered,” 2000)

Type of work: Short story

A boy learns that to be human means to live on the edge of disgrace.

“My Father on the Verge of Disgrace,” like other Updike works (for example, The Centaur, “Pigeon Feathers”), is an initiation story set in rural Pennsylvania before and just after World War II and typically carries a heavier weight than its slight appearance. The story is almost anecdotal in its first-person narration: A young boy living in a large house with his parents and his maternal grandparents during the Depression worries that his father will “fall from his precarious ledge of respectability.” His father lost his job as a china salesman the year the boy was born, and it was three years before he found a position as a high-school chemistry teacher. The house they live in—purchased by the grandfather during better times—is too large for the family, and they have to economize. Two incidents epitomize to the boy his father’s precarious position, one involving his father’s relationship to a fellow teacher courting a student, the other the fact that the father sometimes has to borrow from the high-school sports receipts to cover household expenses. Although the boy is proud of his father’s position in town, he shares his mother’s anxiety about him.

During World War II, things ease, and the father finds summer work, but when the boy enters the high school, he discovers more to worry about. The father is “the faculty clown,” the boy discovers, confirmed in the annual faculty-assembly program when the father plays Thisbe in a scene from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to the delight of students. “This had to be ruinous, I thought. This was worse than any of my dreams.” After the war, the family moves to a smaller house in the country, and the boy and his father become “a kind of team, partners in peril, fellow-sufferers on the edge of disaster” driving to and from school every day. The boy survives adolescence and its fears, he concludes, and “By the time I went off to college I no longer feared—I no longer dreamed—that my father would be savaged by society.” The boy has learned an important lesson for adulthood, that “part of being human is being on the verge of disgrace.”

The story was selected for the Best American Stories, 1998, and it is easy to see why. Updike’s prose carries readers through a recital of some of childhood’s pitfalls and sketches out the Oedipal conflict, all in a style that is at once elegant and amazingly physical. The details of Updike’s fiction just nail down even more forcefully the significance of this story of the uneasy journey to adulthood.


John Updike Short Fiction Analysis