John Updike Long Fiction Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 7,189 words.)