John Updike Updike, John (Vol. 5)

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Updike, John (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Updike, John 1932–

Updike is an American novelist and poet. A traditional novelist, he writes with ironic and literate complexity on contemporary themes. The "Rabbit" novels and the sensational Couples are particularly well known. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Although the ordered structures of the physical universe are endlessly fascinating to him and receive his admiring attention, the ambiguities of flesh are what bring out the best in John Updike. His work constantly takes up the theme of man as the Adam who awakens to a knowledge of his fallen state and to a realization of the immensity of the issues of good and evil. (p. 14)

Updike expects his readers to be literate. He assumes that references to world literature—to the Bible, to Boethius, to Beatrix Potter—will be recognized without being laboriously spelled out. In the greater part of Updike's work, indeed, there is a dialogue between the story he tells and other stories on the same theme that have established themselves within our cultural heritage and have helped to shape the Western imagination. Sometimes this dialogue is explicit; more often it is not. In "You'll Never Know, Dear" the theme of the world as a fair inevitably harks back to the classic presentation of Vanity Fair in Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. Yet a more intimate link seems to exist between Updike's story and James Joyce's "Araby," from Dubliners, which itself contains clear reminiscences of Bunyan. (pp. 19-20)

The interplay of dualities and the experience of life as a series of paradoxes bulk large in Updike's fiction. This is the result of his viewing the world in the perspective of Christian faith. Taking such a stance, he does not simply use Christian motifs (as Joyce does) in order to point to the universality of the fall from the ideal to the actual, from the sacred to the profane. He sees existence as that which simultaneously hides and reveals the truth about itself, since truth ultimately lies beyond the bounds of space and time and yet must be grasped by creatures who are temporally and spatially limited. Thus he regards the passage from innocence to experience as neither a triumph nor a disaster, as neither a casting off of foolish illusion nor a fall from eternity into time. Insofar as innocence means an intuition of the eternal and the sacred, men should never travel so far away from it that they cannot return to the vision it gives; and, insofar as experience means encounter with the actual world in all its ambiguity and complexity, men should never turn away from it under the impression that they can somehow escape the risks inherent in the human condition. (pp. 22-3)

One Updike story links with others, because Updike presents at all times a consistent universe where men reap what they sow and are rewarded by the god at whose shrine they serve, according to the nature of that god. (p. 24)

Even if the surface of his stories gives only the lesser part of his intention, this does not mean that the surface is irrelevant, or that any melody at all would serve as the sufficient foil to the countermelody. The two levels of his fiction, the literal and the symbolic, are mutually dependent….

He has a high estimate of human intelligence, and a belief that every individual can use it to discover the kind of world he is living in. The givenness of an intelligible (though mystery-laden) universe, and the questioning mind of the individual who can respond to the given—these are the poles between which Updike slings his creative vision. In sharp contrast to despairing or defiant dogmatists who proclaim this terrestrial stage to be a cosmic Theater of the Absurd, he finds the world of nature and of man to be a place of intricate and marvelous patterns of meaning. (p. 28)

Updike's theme remains constant: earth seen in relation to heaven. Only the focus changes. And Updike's technique remains consistent also. Like Kierkegaard, he is adept at indirect communication. Kierkegaard...

(The entire section is 12,958 words.)