John Updike Analysis

Discussion Topics

What is the initiation process like for John Updike’s protagonists? What do they learn while growing up? What epiphanies do they experience?

How does the family function as a unit in an Updike work? Do individuals find support in their families, conflict, or both?

What are the characteristics of Updike’s use of language? Is his style poetic? Metaphorical? Lyrical? Dense? Abstract?

How does Updike characterize contemporary American society in his stories and novels? What is the American Dream like in his fiction, and how easy is it to reach?

What is the state of marriage in Updike’s works? Are couples happy and fulfilled, or constrained andunsatisfied?

Updike has been called the foremost chronicler of the mores of Middle America. What is the portrait that emerges from his accounts?

Other Literary Forms

A prolific and versatile writer, John Updike was an accomplished novelist, perhaps best known for his “Rabbit” tetralogy, but he was also the author of The Centaur (1963), which fuses myth and realism in middle-class America; Couples (1968), which examines the social and sexual mores of a modern American town; The Coup (1978), in which the narrator is writing, in memoirs, the history of an imaginary African nation; and Roger’s Version (1986) and S (1988), which are creative reworkings of the situation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). His later novels include Brazil (1994), Toward the End of Time (1997), and Bech at Bay: A Quasi-Novel (1998). Updike also published many books of verse and a play (Buchanan Dying, 1974), and he wrote reviews and critical essays on literature, music, and painting for a few decades. His nonfiction works include Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf (1996) and More Matter: Essays and Criticism (1999).


The Centaur won for John Updike the National Book Award in 1964. He was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the youngest man to receive the honor at that time. “The Bulgarian Poetess” won an O. Henry Award in 1966.

Rabbit Is Rich (1981) won an American Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, while Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism (1983), a nine-hundred-page volume, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1991, Rabbit at Rest won a Pulitzer Prize, and in 1995, it received the Howells Medal. In 1996, Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996) won the Ambassador Book Award, and the next year Updike received the Campion Award. In 1998, he earned the Harvard Arts First Medal and the National Book Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

Other literary forms

From the time he published his first story in The New Yorker in 1954, John Updike truly became a man of letters, publishing in virtually every literary genre—poetry, short fiction, novel, essay, drama, art criticism, and autobiography. His first short-story collection, The Same Door, appeared in 1959; many more followed, including The Afterlife, and Other Stories in 1994. Updike’s play Buchanan Dying was published in 1974. His poetry has appeared in many volumes of his own, beginning with The Carpentered Hen, and Other Tame Creatures (1958), as well as in anthologies. Updike published his first nonfiction prose collection in 1965; most of his nonfiction works are collections of essays and criticism, but the autobiographical Self-Consciousness: Memoirs appeared in 1989 and the single-themed Golf Dreams: Writings on Golf was published in 1996.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

One of the major figures to emerge in American fiction after World War II, John Updike is widely acclaimed as one of the most accomplished stylists and prolific writers of his generation. Showing remarkable versatility and range, his fiction represents a penetrating chronicle in the realist mode of the changing morals and manners of American society. Updike’s work has met with both critical and popular success. His first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, received the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1960. In 1964, Updike received the National Book Award for The Centaur, and he was elected the same year to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. A number of his short stories have won the O. Henry Prize for best short story of the year and have been included in the yearly volumes of The Best American Short Stories. In 1977, Updike was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1981, his novel Rabbit Is Rich won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the American Book Award. That same year, he was awarded the Edward MacDowell Medal for literature. Along with an honorary doctoral degree from alma mater Harvard University, Updike received numerous honors throughout his career, including another Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the National Arts Club Medal of Honor, the National Book Foundation Medal, and the National Medal for the Humanities.

While Updike’s novels have continued the long national debate on the American civilization and its discontents, perhaps more significant is their depiction of restless and aspiring spirits struggling within the constraints of flesh, of time and gravity—lovers and battlers all. As Updike wrote about the novel in an essay, “Not to be in love, the capital N novel whispers to capital W western man, is to be dying.”

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

A prolific writer in all genres, John Updike was known chiefly as a novelist. His major works were best sellers and won significant critical acclaim both from reviewers for highbrow publications and from academics. Among his most noted novels are The Centaur (1963), Couples (1968), and the four novels depicting the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom: Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990). He was also an accomplished and respected writer of short stories, of which he published numerous volumes, and a first-rate critic and essayist, as well as an accomplished poet.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

John Updike was the recipient of numerous honors during his illustrious career. He received Pulitzer Prizes for Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest, in 1982 and 1991, respectively. Other awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship (1959), a Rosenthal Award (1960), National Book Awards (1964, 1982), O. Henry Awards (1966, 1991), France’s Foreign Book Prize (1966), a New England Poetry Club Golden Rose (1979), a MacDowell Medal (1981), National Book Critics Circle Awards for both fiction (1981, 1990) and criticism (1983), the Union League Club’s Abraham Lincoln Award (1982), a National Arts Club Medal of Honor (1984), a National Medal of the Arts (1989), a William Dean Howells Award (1995), the Campion Award (1997), a...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Boswell, Marshall. John Updike’s Rabbit Tetralogy: Mastered Irony in Motion. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. A study of Harry Angstrom’s literary journey through life.

Broer, Lawrence R., ed. Rabbit Tales: Poetry and Politics in John Updike’s Rabbit Novels. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998. Twelve essays that demonstrate that Updike’s Rabbit novels are a carefully crafted fabric of changing hues and textures, of social realism and something of grandeur. Includes bibliographical references and index.

De Bellis, Jack, ed. John Updike: The Critical Responses to the...

(The entire section is 859 words.)