John Updike Updike, John (Vol. 13)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Updike, John 1932–

Updike is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, critic, essayist, and author of children's books. An acute observer of the human condition, Updike produces prose that is spare and rich in allegory. His characters, treated with sympathy and simplicity, are often depicted in hopeless marital and social situations. The way in which they grapple with love and, especially, lust represents Updike's central purpose: to explicate man's metaphysical strivings through an investigation of the strengths and limitations of his physical being. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Victor Strandberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Back in the second decade of this century, Herman Hesse remarked that "Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap."… In the figure of John Updike, Hesse's crisis of culture attains what we might call a culminating expression. Unwilling to exorcise the dilemma by making a game of it, in the mode of black humor widely prevalent among his contemporaries, Updike has confronted the problem of belief as directly as did Tolstoy and Tennyson a century earlier, but with the added authority of a mind keenly aware of twentieth-century science and theology…. Moving out from an intensely imagined vision of death as its starting point, this search for a belief that might provide a stay against death comprises the "figure in the carpet" that Henry James spoke of, the master theme that, threading from book to book, gives design to Updike's work as a whole and marks him as one of the leading religious writers of his age.

"Our fundamental anxiety is that we do not exist—or will cease to exist." That statement from Updike's essay on Denis de Rougemont's writings (Assorted Prose …) compresses within its narrow pith the most recurrent nightmare in Updike's work…. The dread of Death stalks softly through all of Updike's books…. (pp. 157-58)

[For example,] Couples (1968) notably places its erotic episodes against a background saturated with news of expiring flesh: the slow death of Pope John, the mysterious sinking of the submarine Thresher, the death of the Kennedy infant, the Diem assassinations, the murder of the President himself, the killing of Lee Oswald (which the Hanemas watch on television), two planes crashing in Turkey, a great Alaskan earthquake. The fictional world of Couples can hardly compete with such real life extinctions, but it does offer the slow dying of John Ong by cancer in counterpoint with the insomniac dread visited upon Piet Hanema ever since his parents died in a crash….

Beyond this prospect of personal extinction lies that ultimate formulation of doom from the science of Physics, the theory of Entropy, which foresees the whole universe eventually burning out into a final icy darkness. This idea horrifies a good many Updike people, a typical instance being the tortured insomniac at the end of Pigeon Feathers who wakes his wife at last to share his terror: "I told her of the centuries coming when our names would be forgotten, of the millennia when our nation would be a myth and our continent an ocean, of the aeons when our earth would be vanished and the stars themselves diffused into a uniform and irreversible tepidity."… Worst of all is the eternally "forgotten" state in the above passage, a final and total extinction of the self that has haunted George Caldwell in The Centaur ever since he witnessed his father's death, though Caldwell accepts both death and entropy cheerfully enough otherwise. (p. 159)

Updike might as well have been speaking of himself when he described Conrad Aiken's stories as projecting a world whose "horror is not Hitlerian but Einsteinian," concerned not with crime and war but with the "interstellar gulfs" and "central nihil" of "the cosmic vacuity."… All of Updike's major work to date may be seen as some kind of response to this trauma; his people variously resist death through Christian faith (John...

(The entire section is 7,405 words.)