Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7189
A writer with John Updike’s versatility and range, whose fiction reveals a virtually symphonic richness and complexity, offers readers a variety of keys or themes with which to explore his work. The growing and already substantial body of criticism that Updike’s work has engendered, therefore, reflects a variety of approaches. Alice and Kenneth Hamilton were among the first critics to give extensive treatment to the religious and theological elements in Updike’s fiction. Rachel Burchard explores Updike’s fiction in terms of its presentations of authentic quests for meaning in our time, for answers to age-old questions about humanity and God, and in terms of its affirmation of human worth and hope despite the social and natural forces threatening defeat of the human enterprise. Considering technique as well as theme, Larry Taylor treats the function of the pastoral and antipastoral in Updike’s fiction and places that treatment within a long tradition in American literature. British critic Tony Tanner discusses Updike’s fiction as depicting the “compromised environment” of New England suburbia—the fear and dread of decay, of death and nothingness, and the dream of escaping from the complications of such a world. Edward Vargo focuses on the recurrence of ritualistic patterns in Updike’s fiction, the struggle to wrest something social from an increasingly secularized culture. Joyce Markle’s thematic study of Updike’s fiction sees a conflict between “Lovers,” or life-givers, and the embodied forces of convention, dehumanizing belief, and death.
In a 1962 memoir titled “The Dogwood Tree: A Boyhood,” Updike discusses his boyhood fascination with what he calls the “Three Great Secret Things: Sex, Religion, and Art.” Critic George W. Hunt contends that “these three secret things also characterize the predominant subject matter, thematic concerns, and central questions found throughout his adult fiction.” Detailing Updike’s reliance on the ideas of Søren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, Hunt’s study is interested in the religious implications of Updike’s work. A more sociological interest informs Philip Vaughan’s study of Updike’s fiction, which, to Vaughan, provides readers with valid depictions of the social conditions—loneliness, isolation, aging, and morality—of today’s world. David Galloway sees Updike’s fiction in existential terms, viewing Updike’sprotagonists as “absurd heroes” seeking meaning in an inhospitable universe. More impressionistic but quite suggestive is Elizabeth Tallant’s short study of the fate of eros in several of Updike’s novels. Believing that a thesis or thematic approach does not do full justice to Updike’s work, Donald J. Greiner examines Updike’s novels more formalistically in order to “discuss the qualities that make Updike a great writer.”
Using a comparative approach, George Searles discusses Philip Roth and Updike as important social realists whose work gives a true sense of life in the last half of the twentieth century. To Searles, Updike’s overriding theme is cultural disintegration—questing but alienated protagonists confronting crises caused by a breakdown of the established order. Jeff Campbell uses Updike’s long poem Midpoint (1969) as a key to an analysis of Updike’s fiction. Seeing Updike as an “ironist of the spiritual life,” Ralph C. Wood discusses Updike’s fiction—along with the fiction of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Peter Peter De Vries—as depicting the “comedy of redemption,” a study deeply indebted to the theology of Barth.
In a compendious study of American fiction since 1940, Frederick R. Karl offers a useful overview of Updike: “Updike’s fiction is founded on a vision of a compromised, tentative, teetering American, living in suburban New England or in rural Pennsylvania; an American who has broken with his more disciplined forebears and drifted free, seeking self-fulfillment but uncertain what it is and how to obtain it.” While this rather global description fairly represents the recurring condition in most of Updike’s novels, it does not do justice to the complex particularities of each work. Nevertheless, it does point to the basic predicament of nearly all of Updike’s protagonists—that sense of doubleness, of the ironic discrepancy of the fallen creature who yet senses, or yearns for, something transcendent. Updike’s people are spiritual amphibians—creatures in concert with two realms, yet not fully at home in either. Updike employs an analogous image in his novel The Centaur—here is a creature that embodies the godly with the bestial, a fitting image of the human predicament in Updike’s fiction. His fiction depicts the ambiguity of the “yes-but” stance toward the world, similar to the paradox of the “already and the not-yet.” In his fine story “The Bulgarian Poetess” (1966), Updike writes: “Actuality is a running impoverishment of possibility.” Again there is a sense of duplicity, of incompleteness. In such a world, problems are not always solved; they are more often endured if not fully understood. Yet even the curtains of actuality occasionally part, unexpectedly, to offer gifts, as Updike avers in his preface to Olinger Stories: A Selection (1964)—such gifts as keep alive a vision of wholeness in an often lost and fragmented world.
The Poorhouse Fair
Updike’s first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, may seem anomalous in comparison with the rest of his work. In fact, the novel depicts a collision of values that runs throughout Updike’s work. As in so much of Updike’s fiction, the novel is concerned with decay, disintegration, a loss or abandonment of vital traditions, of values, of connection to a nurturing past. This opposition is embodied in the two principal characters: ninety-four-year-old John Hook, former teacher and resident of the poorhouse, and Stephen Conner, the poorhouse’s prefect. The novel is set in the future, sometime in the late 1970’s, when want and misery have virtually been eliminated by a kind of humanistic socialism. Such progress has been made at a price: sterility, dehumanization, spiritual emptiness, and regimentation. In a world totally run by the head, the heart dies. Hook tells Conner, in response to the prefect’s avowed atheism: “There is no goodness, without belief.” Conner’s earthly paradise is a false one, destroying what it would save. The former prefect, Mendelssohn, sought, as his name would suggest, to fulfill the old people’s spiritual needs in rituals and hymn singing.
Out of frustration with Conner’s soulless administration, the old people break into a spontaneous “stoning” of Conner in the novel’sclimax. In effect, Conner is a corrupt or perverted martyr to the new “religion” of godless rationalism. The incident symbolizes the inherent desire and need for self-assertion and individualism. Conner’s rationalized system is ultimately entropic. The annual fair is symbolic of an antientropic spirit in its celebration of the fruits of individual self-expression—patchwork quilts and peach-pit sculptures. In its depiction of an older America—its values of individuality, personal dignity, and pride—being swallowed up by material progress and bureaucratic efficiency, the novel is an “old” and somber book for a young author to write. In effect, Updike depicts an America become a spiritual “poorhouse,” though materially rich. It is Hook, one of the last links to that lost America, who struggles at the end for some word to leave with Conner as a kind of testament, but he cannot find it.
In a number of stories and the novels The Centaur and Of the Farm, Updike draws heavily on his experiences growing up in Shillington, Pennsylvania. Both novels—though very different from each other—concern the reckoning of a son with a parent, in the case of The Centaur with his father and in Of the Farm with his mother, before he can proceed with his life. This is emotional and spiritual “homework” necessary for the son’s passage to maturity, to freedom from the past, yet also to a new sense of responsibility. As in all Updike’s fiction, this passage is difficult, complex, and ambiguous in its resolution.
The Centaur is arguably Updike’s most complex novel, involving as it does the complicated interweaving of the myth of Chiron the centaur with the story of an adolescent boy and his father one winter in 1947. Although the novel won the National Book Award, its reception was quite mixed. A number of reviewers thought the use of myth to be pretentious and not fully realized, while others praised the author’s achievement. 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 and/or his past. Operating on different levels, temporally and spatially, the nine chapters of the novel are a virtual collage, quite appropriate for the painter-narrator, nearly thirty, self-described as a “second-rate abstract expressionist,” who is trying to recover from his past some understanding that might clarify and motivate his artistic vocation. Peter Caldwell, the narrator, reminisces to his black mistress in a Manhattan loft about a three-day period in the winter of 1947, fourteen years earlier. On the realistic level, Peter tells the story 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, whose acts of compassion and charity embarrass the boy. On the mythic level, the father is depicted as Chiron the centaur, part man and part stallion, who serves as mentor to the youthful Greek heroes. As such, he suffers for his charges. By moving back and forth between the mythic and the realistic levels, Peter is able to move to an understanding of his father’s life and death and to a clarification of his own vocation.
Just as Chiron sacrifices his immortality—he accepts death—so that Prometheus may be free to live, so too does George give his life for his son. While George is obsessed with death, it is doubtful that his sacrifice takes the form of death. Rather, his sacrifice is his willingness to go on fulfilling his obligations to his family. In reflecting upon this sacrifice by his father, Peter, feeling a failure in his art, asks: “Was it for this that my father gave up his life?” In the harsh reappraisal his memory provides, Peter is learning what he could not know as an adolescent. Love, guilt, and sacrifice are somehow inherent in the very structure of life. It is this that his mythicized father reveals to him in the very act of his narrating the story. For many critics, George Caldwell’s sacrificial act frees the son to resume his artistic vocation with courage. For others, the novel is a mock epic showing in Peter the artist, the son of a scientist father and the grandson of a preacher, a loss of the metaphoric realm that makes great art possible and that leaves Peter diminished by his confinement to the earth alone. However the end is taken, the mythic element of thenarrative richly captures the doubleness of human existence so pervasive in Updike’s fictions.
Of the Farm
A short novel, Of the Farm is another tale of the intricacy of love, guilt, sacrifice, and betrayal. In The Centaur, Peter Caldwell, stalled and failing in his artistic vocation, goes home through a creative act of the memory and imagination to recover his lost vision, a basis to continue his work. Peter can fulfill his Promethean charge because his father was Chiron. In contrast, Of the Farm’s Joey Robinson goes home to get his mother’s blessing on his recent remarriage. Joey seeks forgiveness of the guilt he bears for the acts of betrayal that have constituted his life. He betrays his poetic aspirations by becoming an advertising executive and betrays his marriage to Joan and his three children through adultery and divorce. Bringing home for his domineering mother’s approval his sensuous new wife, Peggy, sets the stage for more betrayals and recriminations. As the weekend progresses, Peggy and Joey’s mother vie for Joey’s soul. Joey cannot please both women or heal the wounds of his past betrayals. For Joey, Peggy is the “farm” he wishes to husband. At the end, failing to win his mother’s blessing, Joey and Peggy return to their lives in the city, leaving Joey’s mother to die amid the memorials of her own unrealized dreams. If the novel is an exploration of human freedom, as the epigraph from Jean-Paul Sartre would suggest, the reader sees that freedom escapes all the characters, bound as they are by conflicting desires, guilt, and obligation.
In 1960, when Updike published Rabbit, Run, a story of an ex-basketball player and his floundering marriage set in the late 1950’s, he had no intention of writing a sequel, but he returned to Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom once every ten years for four novels—Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990)—as a kind of gauge of the changes occurring in American culture. This series of novels is among the most popular of his work.
For Rabbit, Run, Updike uses a quote from Blaise Pascal for an epigraph: “The motions of Grace, the hardness of heart; external circumstances.” Updike later commented that those three things describe our lives. In a real sense, those things also describe the basic movements and conflicts in the Rabbit novels. From Rabbit, Run to Rabbit at Rest, as the titles themselves suggest, Rabbit’s life is characterized by a series of zigzag movements and resistances and yearnings, colliding, often ineffectually, with the external circumstances of a fast-paced and changing world.
Rabbit, Run takes place in the late 1950’s, when Harry Angstrom, a former high school basketball great nicknamed Rabbit, at twenty-six finds himself in a dead-end life: with a job selling items in a dime store and a marriage to a careless and boozy woman. Wounded by the stifling boredom of everyday life and the cloying pressures of conforming and adapting to his environment, so characteristic of the 1950’s, Harry wonders, confusingly, what has happened to his life. The disgust he feels about his present life is aggravated by his memories of when he was “first-rate at something” as a high school basketball great. Out of frustration, Rabbit bolts from his life-stifling existence, feeling that something out there wants him to find it.
The novel is the study of this nonhero’s quest for a nonexistent grail. Rabbit’s zigzagging or boomeranging movements from wife Janice to mistress Ruth, the part-time prostitute, wreaks havoc: Janice accidentally drowns the baby; Ruth is impregnated and seeks an abortion. Pursued by the weak-faithed, do-gooder minister Eccles and failed by his old coach Tothero, Rabbit has no one to whom he can turn for help. Rabbit, like so many of Updike’s protagonists, is enmeshed in the highly compromised environment of America, locked in the horizontal dimension yet yearning for something transcendent, the recovery of the vertical dimension. For Rabbit, the closest he can come to that missing feeling is sex, the deep mysteries of a woman’s body replacing the old revelations of religion. Rabbit, though irresponsible, registers his refusal to succumb to such a world through movement, his running replacing the lost territories of innocent escape.
Ten years later, in Rabbit Redux, Rabbit has stopped running. He is back home with Janice and works as a typesetter. It is the end of the 1960’s, and Rabbit watches the Moon landing on television as well as the upheavals of the Civil Rights movement, campus demonstrations, and the Vietnam War. Rabbit feels that the whole country is doing what he did ten years earlier. As Janice moves out to live with her lover Stavros, Rabbit and his son Nelson end up as hosts to Jill, a runaway flower-child, and a bail-jumping Vietnam veteran and black radical named Skeeter. This unlikely combination allows Updike to explore the major cultural and political clashes of the 1960’s. This time Rabbit is more a passive listener-observer than an activist searcher.
Skeeter’s charismatic critiques of the American way of life challenge Rabbit’s unquestioning patriotism and mesmerize him. As a result, Rabbit is helpless when disaster comes—his house is set on fire and Jill dies inside. Rabbit helps Skeeter escape. Fearing for her lover’s heart, Janice returns to Rabbit. Unlike the restless figure of the first novel, Rabbit now seems to have capitulated or resigned himself to those powerful “external circumstances” from which he once sought escape. Rabbit bears witness, numbingly, to a disintegrating America, even as it puts a man on the Moon. America’s spiritual landscape is as barren as that on the Moon. The novel ends with Rabbit and Janice asleep together. Perhaps they can awake to a new maturity and sense of responsibility for what they do in the world.
Rabbit Is Rich
In the first two Rabbit novels, Rabbit was out of step with the times—running in the placid 1950’s, sitting in the frenetic 1960’s. In Rabbit Is Rich, he is running again, but this time in tune with the rhythms of the 1970’s. Rabbit now jogs, which is in keeping with the fitness craze that began in the 1970’s. He and Janice are prospering during the decade of inflation and energy crises. They own a Toyota agency and are members of a country club. Rabbit plays golf and goes to Rotary Club lunches. Instead of newspapers, as in Rabbit Redux, he reads Consumer Reports, the bible of his new status. The ghosts of his past haunt him, however: the drowned baby, the child he did or did not have with Ruth, memories of Jill and Skeeter. The chief reminder of the sins of his past is his son Nelson, returning home, like something repressed, to wreak havoc on the family’s new affluent complacency.
Like his father of old but lacking Rabbit’s conscience and vision, Nelson has a quest for attention that practically wrecks everything that he touches: his father’s cars, his relationships. Rabbit can see himself in Nelson’s behavior and tries to help him avoid making the same kinds of mistakes, but communication is difficult between them. With Skylab falling and America held hostage by Iranians, the present is uneasy and anxious, the future uncertain. Characteristically, Rabbit turns to sex to fill the spiritual void. He and Janice make love on top of their gold Krugerrands. Rabbit lusts for the lovely Cindy, but in the wife-swapping escapade during their Caribbean holiday, Rabbit gets Thelma Harrison instead and is introduced to anal sex—for Updike a fitting image of the sense of nothingness pervading American culture at the end of the “Me Decade.” Updike does not end there. He leaves Rabbit holding his granddaughter, “another nail in his coffin” but also another chance for renewal, perhaps even a motion of grace, a richness unearned.
Rabbit at Rest
The sense of exhaustion—of a world “running out of gas” in so many ways—that pervades Rabbit Is Rich becomes more serious, even terminal, in Rabbit at Rest. The fuzzy emptiness and mindlessness of the 1980’s pervade the novel, even as so much is described in such vivid detail. Rabbit and Janice now winter in Florida, and Nelson runs the car dealership. Rabbit sustains himself on junk food and endless television viewing, images of the emptiness of American life under Ronald Reagan. He suffers a heart attack and undergoes an angioplasty procedure. His son’s cocaine addiction and embezzlement of $200,000 from the business shock the family. Yet this often coarse and unsympathetic man continues to compel the reader’s interest. He wonders about the Dalai Lama, who is then in the news. As the Cold War dissipates, Rabbit asks: “If there’s no Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?”
The man called “Mr. Death” in Rabbit, Run now must face death in his own overblown body and contemplate it in relation to a world he has always known but that now is no more. Can such a man find peace, an acceptance and understanding of a life lived in such struggle and perplexity? In Rabbit Is Rich, Harry confesses to Janice the paradox of their lives: “Too much of it and not enough. The fear that it will end some day, and the fear that tomorrow will be the same as yesterday.” In a hospital intensive care unit in Florida, at the end of Rabbit at Rest, Rabbit says, “Enough.” Is this the realization and acceptance of life’s sufficiency or of its surplus? A confession of his own excesses and indulgences, or a command of sorts that he has had enough? These are only a few of the questions raised by the Rabbit novels.
Many critics have praised Updike as the premier American novelist of marriage. Nearly all of his fiction displays the mysterious as well as commonplace but ineluctable complexities and conflicts of marriage. It is one of Updike’s major concerns to explore the conditions of love in the present-day world. His fiction is his updating and reworking of the Tristan and Isolde myth, about which Updike commented in his review of Denis de Rougement’s book Love in the Western World(1956)—lovers whose passion is enhanced by the obstacles needed to be overcome to fulfill it; the quest for an ideal lover who will assuage the fear of death and the longing for the infinite; the confusions of eros and the death wish. Many of Updike’s male protagonists are aspects of both Tristan and Don Juan in their quests for life-enhancing or death-denying passion. Such are the ingredients in the novels Couples, Marry Me, and The Witches of Eastwick.
All these novels are set in the 1960’s—the spring of 1962 to the spring of 1963 in Marry Me, the spring of 1963 to the spring of 1964 in Couples, and probably 1969 for The Witches of Eastwick. In their various ways, all try to answer the question, “After Christianity, what?” Human sexuality is liturgy and sacrament of the new religion emerging in the United States in the 1960’s—a new end of innocence in a “post-pill paradise.” The three novels make an interesting grouping because all deal with marriages in various states of deterioration, and all explore the implications of “sex as the emergent religion, as the only thing left,” Updike says. While not published until 1976, Marry Me was actually written before Couples. In fact, one story seems to lead right into the other. The Witches of Eastwick explores the theme from a woman’s perspective.
Both Jerry Conant of Marry Me and Piet Hanema of Couples are educated professionals, married with children, and live in upper-middle-class suburbs of great cities. They are both suffering spiritually, longing for affirmation from outside themselves, for some sort of blessing and certainty. As Jerry says, “Maybe our trouble is that we live in the twilight of the old morality, and there’s just enough to torment us, and not enough to hold us in.” The mortal fear that such an insight inspires leads each man to a desperate quest for a love that will mend or heal his spiritual brokenness or emptiness.
Marry Me takes place during the second year of John F. Kennedy’s presidential administration, when the charm of the Camelot myth still captivated Americans. Significantly, Updike calls Marry Me a “romance” rather than a novel, suggesting an attempt to use the freer form to explore the ambiguities of love, marriage, and adultery. The novel ends in ambiguity, with no clear resolution. In fact, there are three possible endings: Jerry with his lover, Sally, in Wyoming; Jerry with his wife, Ruth, in France; and Jerry in the Virgin Islands alone, on the island of St. Croix, symbolizing perhaps Jerry’s self-immolation.
Couples takes place during the last year of Kennedy’s presidency, including his assassination; it is a much more cynical book, harsher and darker than Marry Me. A certain light has gone out in the land; death and decay haunt the imagination. In contrast to Marry Me, choices are made and lives reconstitute themselves in a kind of cyclical way at the end of Couples. These two rather weak men fail at their quests to find in the flesh what they have lost in the spirit. Both men are believers and churchgoers, and both face a crisis in their faith. The church, committed to secularity and worldliness, fails them. Their respective wives are naturalistic and feel at home on earth and offer them little surcease to their anxiety.
In Marry Me, Jerry must contend with Sally’s husband, Richard, an atheist with one blind eye, who insists on clear-cut decisions. For Jerry, however, every choice involves a loss that he cannot tolerate. In Couples, Piet is pitted against Freddy Thorne, the self-proclaimed priest of the new religion of sensuality. To Freddy, it is their fate to be “suspended inone of those dark ages that visits mankind between millennia, between the death and rebirth of gods, when there is nothing to steer by but sex and stoicism and the stars.”
The many adulteries among the ten couples of Couples lead finally to divorce and disintegration of the secular paradise of Tarbox, the fictional suburb of the novel. Piet leaves his unattainable but earthbound wife, fittingly named Angela, for the sensuous Foxy Whitman, whose abortion of Piet’s child Freddy arranges. When his church is destroyed by fire, Piet is freed from his old morality and guilt and the tension inherent in his sense of fallenness. Yet the satisfaction obtained with Foxy is a foreclosure of the vertical hope and is a kind of death. Both novels depict the failure of sex as a religion as well as the profound disappointment with love in its romantic or secular forms. Such may be Updike’s answer to the question he posed: “After Christianity, what?”
The Witches of Eastwick
The setting of The Witches of Eastwick is a small town in Rhode Island during the first year or so of Richard Nixon’s presidency, an era of protest and discontent. Three divorcées—Alexandra Spofford, Jane Smart, and Sukie Rougemont—discover the power of sisterhood and femininity and become witchlike in their powers. The delicate balance of their friendship is upset by the entrance of the apparently demoniac Darryl Van Horne, who takes them all as his lovers. The novel’s three parts, “The Coven,” “Malefica,” and “Guilt,” suggest a progression from the women’s newfound power and independence through an encounter with the demoniac to a rediscovery of responsibility through an awareness of guilt.
Like Updike’s many male protagonists, the three women must come to grips with death before they can reconstitute a meaningful life. Van Horne is a satanic figure whose machinations lead to a dissipation of the women’s powers. When he chooses the young Jennifer Gabriel for his wife, the women employ their powers to create a curse to bring about Jennifer’s death. When she does die, the women feel guilt, even though it is not clear that their curse caused her fatal cancer. Van Horne preaches a sermon on the evilness of a creation saturated with disease and leaves town with Jennifer’s brother, Christopher. The three women disband and find their way into suitable marriages.
The use of witchcraft allows Updike to explore the nature of evil and its connections with nature, history, and technology. The ambiguities of feminism are examined in The Witches of Eastwick in the context of the moral and social confusions of the late 1960’s and efforts to break down the destructive and outmoded polarities of the patriarchal tradition.
Bech and The Coup
The first two Bech books—Bech: A Book and Bech Is Back—and The Coup are novels and stories resulting from Updike’s travels to Eastern Europe and to Africa. Each work offers the author an opportunity to develop a very different persona from those of his domestic novels, as well as the chance to explore another aspect of “otherness” and “difference.” Bech: A Book is a collection of seven stories about a middle-aged and very successful Jewish novelist, Henry Bech, and his various experiences both abroad and in America. The collection is framed by the fiction of Updike writing about an actual person contemporary with him. The book has a foreword by the putative author as well as two appendixes. Such devices afford Updike an opportunity for humorous satire of the literary life in America. Bech emerges as a strong and believable character struggling with the failure of his success as a writer in a success-plagued culture. In Bech Is Back, Updike creates seven more stories about Bech’s travels and his wrestling with the ambiguities of fame, fortune, and human worth, the protagonist’s success with women an index of his success and worth as a writer. He must struggle with the question of whether he has sold out his talent for the marketplace, defiling both.
Felix Ellellou, the protagonist of The Coup, is a bold creation for Updike, a black Islamic Marxist whose memoirs constitute the novel. Now in exile, the former president of the fictional sub-Saharan nation of Kush recounts the story of his rise and fall and of his perpetual struggle to avoid the ambiguous gifts of American aid. He fears not only the junk food but also the forces of secularity and materialism that will ultimately make of his beloved Kush a spiritual wasteland. He virtually stands alone in his resistance to the so-called benefits of American civilization, toward which he admits ambivalence. In Ellellou, one can see an African version of Updike’s body-spirit conflict so prevalent in his fiction. For Ellellou, freedom must be freedom from material possessions, yet he anguishes over his people’s poverty-stricken plight. He believes that it is better to die in poverty than from spiritual loss. In privation, he believes, the spirit will soar. Despite Ellellou’s stoicism, his faith is plagued by doubts. He suspects that the new world religion will be godless and entropic. Updike’s African novel is a replay of the author’s critical interrogation of the moral and spiritual failures of the West.
A Month of Sundays, Roger’s Version, and S.
Updike’s concerns with love, marriage, and adultery in so much of his fiction link him to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great novel The Scarlet Letter (1850), America’s first great treatment of the complex social and religious consequences of adulterous love. Three novels in particular address different dimensions of that adulterous triangle of Hawthorne’s novel—A Month of Sundays, Roger’s Version, and S. Hawthorne’s Dimmesdale is updated in the figure of the Reverend Tom Marshfield, the exiled protagonist of A Month of Sundays. Roger Lambert of Roger’s Version, the professor of theology specializing in heresies, is Updike’s treatment of Hawthorne’s Roger Chillingworth. Sarah Worth of S. is a contemporary depiction of Hawthorne’s Hester, the truly noble and strong character of The Scarlet Letter.
Hawthorne’s Dimmesdale is crushed by his inability to integrate the body-and-soul division. So, too, does Updike’s Marshfield suffer from this split in a novel with many allusions to The Scarlet Letter. Marshfield marries the former Jane Chillingworth, whose father was Marshfield’s ethics instructor. The retreat center is managed by Ms. Prynne, who reads the diary entries of Marshfield and his fellow clerical exiles. The novel traces Marshfield’s integration of body and spirit, a mending of Marshfield’s fragmented self, enabling him to return to his ministry as a true helper to the faithful. Roger Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter was the cuckolded husband seeking revenge for his wife’s adultery. In Roger’s Version, Roger Lambert imagines that his wife Esther is having an affair with Dale, the computer science graduate student trying to prove God’s existence by computer. Dale is a kind of innocent, a fundamentalist seeking technological support for his faith. By the end, Dale’s project has failed, as Roger believed it would, and Dale returns to Ohio, his faith demolished. Yet Dale’s project provoked Roger to revivify his own faith and to engage his world more responsibly than he has.
Updike’s Sarah Worth of S. is certainly one possible version of a late twentieth century Hester Prynne. Sarah is a woman who has taken her life fully into her own hands without shame or illusion. After bolting from her faithless but wealthy physician husband, Sarah goes to an ashram in Arizona for spiritual renewal. That proves to be a false endeavor, but Sarah survives intact (and with much of the cult’s money). Loving and compassionate yet willful and worldly, Sarah Worth dares to follow her own path.
Toward the End of Time
Ever the chronicler of societal obsessions, Updike in 1997 provided his readers with a millennial book, Toward the End of Time. The year is 2020, and a Sino-American nuclear war has recently destroyed the North American infrastructure and the U.S. government. In a universe of two moons and new life-forms, the “metallobioforms” that rose up out of the nuclear slime, the normal order of things seems to have come undone. Updike’s protagonist, Ben Turnbull, seems at times to assume the identities of such disparate entities as an ancient Egyptian tomb robber and a medieval monk, and he is having an affair with a dark-eyed young woman whom he suspects is also a doe. Updike spends considerable time mulling over the mysteries of quantum mechanics and string theory, implying that such abstractions may contain the key to the enigma of time. In the end, though, the drama of Ben’s postmillennial existence seems an elaboration of the sublunary obsessions of other Updike protagonists. The story of this sixty-six-year-old retired financial adviser could almost serve as a coda to the Rabbit books.
Bech at Bay
With Bech at Bay, Updike ended the saga of another of his favorite alter egos, the now septuagenarian Henry Bech. Like its predecessors, this “quasi-novel” consists of a series of linked stories concerning the crabbed but accomplished—and now superannuated—Jewish novelist. Bech at Bay finds Bech at the heart of late twentieth century American literary life; however, that life, like Bech himself, seems to have lost nearly all its vitality. The mood is set in the book’s opening section, “Bech in Czech,” in which Bech finds himself on a book tour in the gloom of Prague, haunted by the uneasy feeling that he is no more than a character in someone else’s book. In another episode, Bech is tapped to head an elite artistic organization called “The Forty”—a group not unlike the American Academy of Art and Letters, which Updike served as chancellor—but finds himself presiding over its demise when the elderly existing members refuse to admit any new blood.
Nonetheless, Bech has not lost all his imaginative powers. In “Bech Noir,” he fantasizes the murders of critics who have abused him. Then, in the volume’s finale, Bech is awarded the Nobel Prize. Delivering his acceptance speech before the Swedish Academy, Bech asserts his vitality by holding aloft his newborn daughter for the audience’s edification. The gesture is, if nothing else, life affirming. Exactly how Bech—a “semi-obscure” writer with a slim body of work—arrived at this pinnacle of literary recognition is no clearer than the import of Bech’s entire literary saga. Updike may be saying that for his fictional counterpart, this jaded urban Jew with writer’s block, life and sex trump art. As the title of the book tells the reader, this last installment of the Bech series is a quasi-novel, and Henry Bech seems often to be merely a mask for his creator. The epigraph, “Something of the unreal is necessary to fecundate the real,” which Updike borrows from Wallace Stevens, points to the correspondence between creator and creation.
Gertrude and Claudius
Returning once more in 2000 to a central subject of so many of his novels and short stories—that is to say, adultery and its pleasures, pains, ensuing entanglements, and consequences—yet with an original use for it, Updike creates a tale that has as its takeoff point not only William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (pr. c. 1600-1601) but also two ancient sources that the Bard of Avon drew upon when writing the play. Here Updike focuses reader attention on these versions not in order to recast or refurbish the existing plot of a storied revenge tale but to add depth to two characters Shakespeare placed on his second tier—namely, Queen Gertrude and her second husband, Claudius, whose rule is made possible by the latter’s murder of Hamlet’s father, the king.
Like many other couples in Updike, Gertrude and Claudius have shared an intense affair that has led them to the precipice, and yet they are ignorant of their peril. In this case, their ill-conceived adulterous coupling will lead Hamlet, as readers of Shakespeare know, from a stunned realization of what has happened to his father to hatred of the murderers and to thoughts of revenge, which, as a wronged son, in turn will lead to matricide and the murder of a detested, conniving uncle—his own form of justice. This progression is not the subject of this book, however, for Updike chooses to take us only as far as midway into the first act of Shakespeare’s play, and here Gertrude and Claudius share the spotlight, with Hamlet for the most part only a presence discussed by them rather than himself being “onstage.” Readers know, for example, that Hamlet has a close tie with a clown named Yorick as well as with the “fair Ophelia,” but they get to know Hamlet only from the words of others—that is, until he finally turns up at book’s end.
Those whom readers do get to know are Hamlet’s mother, his uncle, and, to some extent, his father, that stern warlord devoid of emotional connection to wife and son. Unlike Shakespeare’s rendition of the ancient saga, Updike’s Queen Gertrude is not simply a whorish woman or a murderous one—she is shown more as a lonely person who gets little attention from her husband and thus is ripe for male conquest once Claudius makes his pitch for her affections. Claudius, for his part, is only doing what comes naturally when he woos Gertrude straight into his bed; no grand villain, he seems more the conniver and opportunist. What readers discover here is an arrestingly plausible romance that serves to fill in gaps and answer the questions left in Shakespeare’s version of things.
Seek My Face
Just as he did with Gertrude and Claudius in 2000, John Updike demonstrated with Seek My Face in 2002 that he could take chances and explore new literary terrain in his old age. As with the earlier novel, however, several reviewers found Seek My Face both singular when compared with the typical works in the Updike canon, which tend to focus on everyday East Coast suburbs and the ordinary people who live there, and yet disappointing, in this case because they found the novel to be less a literary breakthrough than a tired retelling of the life story of one of the modern art world’s most celebrated painters, the so-called drip artist, abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock. Some critics, however, have nevertheless found in this celebrity memoir a new direction for Updike’s prose.
Here one finds the free-ranging recollections of Hope Ouderkirk, a woman once married to artist Zach McCoy (read “Pollock”), whose loutish behavior, epic drinking bouts, and general unpredictability ultimately lead to his demise. Her second husband, Guy Holloway—no accident in his name—is ultimately a derivative, vapid artist whose art follows the fashions of the times and who cannot depose McCoy in Hope’s life and memories. As for McCoy, he finds women mysterious and worthy of pursuit, but, like his real-life model, he also finds them emotionally elusive. They in turn are fascinated and sometimes repelled by him and the puzzling conflicts that churn within him.
Updike loyalists who possibly feel a bit dislocated by his two previous works are likely to feel at home in this 2004 novel Villages, which is, as many have noted, a return to much the same suburbs found in the author’s Rabbit series of works—to Tarbox or any of the other middling-sized Updike upscale communities—and the adulterous lives of their residents. Instead of young or even middle-aged virile characters, however, Villages has the virile—yet precariously so—Owen MacKenzie in his dotage living out the end of his romantically tangled days in Haskells Crossing, Massachusetts, and remembering what it was like to be young and in love or lust or both. MacKenzie, a man whose early interest in computers and their creation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology eventually makes him a fortune, has many opportunities to meet women, many of them married. Here once again is an archetypal Updike male “lead”—a rather unlikable and rather ordinary individual who, by means of the author’s impressive poetic gift, becomes someone to whom attention must be paid.
With Terrorist, Updike, though not abandoning the American East Coast or his predilection for depicting with high accuracy the mundane and the everyday, does strike out into what constitutes more new territory—the inner life of a highly conflicted and desperate young Muslim man named Ahmad who is growing up angry in the northern New Jersey city of Prospect. Ahmad eventually becomes so obsessed by fanatical thoughts that he embarks on a mission to kill as many supposedly freethinking infidels as he can with the assistance of explosives. Taking far more chances with subject, setting, and genre than he had for some time previously in his fiction, Updike crafts a fast-paced and credible suspense novel that also functions as a critique of culture in the United States in the years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
As a counterweight to the angry Muslim fanatic is his unlikely mentor, hedonistic sixty-three-year-old Jewish schoolteacher Jack Levy, whose inner life is as focused on making love as Ahmad’s is on eliminating the enemies of Islam. A further use of a counterweight comes as Updike introduces the evil Lebanese terrorist Charlie, a man who inflames his mind with hatred of the West just as Levy would soothe it with his “take life as it comes and appreciate it” preachments. Charlie goes further than simply encouraging Ahmad’s prejudices—he offers him a concrete way to get revenge on the United States and on those among his fellow teenagers who give him a hard time. The journey Ahmad undertakes is memorable and, at times, thrilling.
With the astonishing variety and richness of his narratives, Updike created novels that constitute a serious exploration and probing of the spiritual conditions of American culture in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In Updike’s fiction, the fate of American civilization is seen in the condition of love—its risks and dangers as well as its possibility for gracious transformation.