Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1755
Sarah Worth, the heroine of Updike’s final novel in the trilogy he has written to retell the story of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), repeats this aphorism, supposedly the Buddha’s last words, in one of the communiqués she sends to her best friend, Midge Hibbens, from her new “home” in the Arizona desert. Having abandoned her husband of twenty-some years, Sarah has fled to the desert to seek refuge and inner solace as a member of a commune run by the Indian guru Arhat Mindadali. There, she comes in closer touch with the teachings of the Buddha—if one can believe the letters she sends to various correspondents, for this novel is made up exclusively of Sarah’s letters and tapes to those outside the commune. As the reader learns by the end of this novel, however, Sarah has taken the Buddha’s advice to heart all along.
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S. follows earlier novels A Month of Sundays (1975) and Roger’s Version (1986) in Updike’s attempt to redo Hawthorne’s classic American tale from the perspectives of the three main characters. S. is Hester Prynne’s side of the story. This Hester, however, is a very modern lady, making her way in the 1980’s with considerably more confidence than her seventeenth century predecessor. The Puritan backdrop gives Updike great opportunity to load his work with allusion and irony, and he seldom misses a chance to bring a smile to the cognoscenti among his readership: the town outside the commune is Forrest (an immediate signal for anyone familiar with Hawthorne’s works); Sarah is descended from the Prynnes; her daughter is named Pearl; she spends time in the Hawthorne airport; one of the contributors to the Arhat’s coffers is a Mrs. Blithedale (from the title of another Hawthorne work); Sarah and her husband had bought their New England home from Mrs. Pyncheon (presumably it has seven gables).
Even those who do not catch these in-jokes will recognize parallels to the early 1980’s incident in Oregon, when real-life guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh established his utopian community in the midst of a politically conservative region of America. S. is clearly intended as a satiric commentary on contemporary American society: the commune runs a glitzy department store; the Arhat is in the T-shirt business and lives in a tacky 1950’s-style ranch house; the world outside the commune is crass, insular, destructive, puerile.
As in his other novels, Updike is often at his ironic best in S. when he examines the reasons that people cannot sustain a marriage. “It’s really not wise for married people (or lovers) to understand each other too well,” Sarah writes to her brother; “communication, I fear, is hideously overrated.” The words seem to come from Updike himself.
The reader, too, may be stymied by communication in this novel. Figuring out what is happening on the most elemental level in S. is a bit of a challenge, as Updike has chosen the epistolary form for his narrative. Reading a character’s letters does allow readers to see the many sides of the fictional self; Sarah’s multiple personalities are evident in the varying tones she uses to address her daughter, her mother, her husband, and the many functionaries to whom she must write in her attempt to make a break from her former life (the dentist, the hair-dresser, her lawyer). The epistolary form, however, always carries the danger that the novelist may be forced into unrealistic situations: letters too long to have been written in a short time, explanations that seem to go beyond what one normally expects to find in casual correspondence. Additionally, it may be difficult to imagine anyone in contemporary America writing so much. Updike solves the problem by having Sarah send tapes to her friend Midge; much of the background necessary for understanding what has happened to drive Sarah to the Arizona desert is revealed on these cassettes, where one expects to encounter garrulous dialogue and idle chitchat. Even with this help, the epistolary style forces the reader to pay close attention to details and to fill in the gaps between letters. Reading such a work makes one almost a detective, looking for clues to both action and motive.
The epistolary form provides Updike with an excellent vehicle for experimenting with various kinds of comedy and irony. Sarah tells her dentist that, while she cannot make her regular appointments because she has moved to the desert, she promises “to keep flossing and using the rubber tip on my gums.” At first, one is not certain whether Sarah is simply naïve or cynically ironic when she reports that she is overcome with bliss every day when she sees the Arhat “in person go by in a limousine,” or when she speaks with love of his “delicate graceful hands with all their rings flashing.” Even the reader is kept in the dark—with Sarah—about one of the greatest ironies: After confiding in Midge for so long, Sarah learns, to her dismay, that her best friend has decided to marry Sarah’s husband, Charles—and has been sharing Sarah’s private correspondence with him all along.
This last twist of fate is two-edged: It is not simply amusing, for it suggests a darker side to Midge’s character. Midge’s betrayal of her supposed best friend is only one of several in the novel. Charles has affairs with his nurses; the officials at the commune are living a lie, bilking devotees of funds while they live in luxury. In fact, the Arhat turns out to be a fake: He is really Art Steinmetz, from Watertown, Massachusetts, making a fast buck by soaking those gullible enough to fall for his routine. Even Sarah appears to be surprised and disillusioned by this news.
Clearly, Sarah herself is not without a darker side. Her meteoric rise from initiate to valued confidante in the Arhat’s entourage may strain the limits of credulity, but the reader who follows her letters closely sees beneath the surface a very different woman from the one who professes to be in need of “finding herself.” Despite protestations that she has sought this new life to open up her mind, Sarah remains quite rigid and provincial in dealing with members of her family. To her daughter she offers timeworn advice to study hard and never be tempted by drugs. “Get your degree,” she insists, urging that Pearl avoid commitment to the young Dutchman who seeks her affections, since marriage will only turn Pearl into a “manacled slave.”
Sarah is under no delusions about relations between the sexes: “A wife is convenient, especially for a spoiled and preoccupied man of middling years,” she writes to her husband, and therefore if he eventually wants to remarry, she “will ask an appropriate settlement in exchange” for his freedom. Indeed, Sarah seems driven by the cash nexus. She demands that Charles sell off their community property at “fair market value” and send her half the money. Even more sinister, however, is the behind-the-scenes maneuvering she does with her own funds—and eventually with those of the commune. As early as three days after she leaves her husband, Sarah begins squirreling away money for herself. Every so often, she drops a line to this bank or that agency arranging to deposit funds for some future event. As she moves into the inner circles of the Arhat’s trusted associates, deposits to her own accounts grow. Juxtaposed to her cryptic notes to her own bankers are lengthy form letters she writes on the Arhat’s behalf to contributors whose large sums are still coming into the commune’s treasury. The suggestion is strong that Sarah’s mind is not the only thing she is opening while staying at her desert retreat. By the time she leaves the commune—an event of which the reader learns by piecing together information from several letters near the end of the novel—she has amassed a small fortune, concealed in accounts on which she can draw when she seeks a new refuge in the Cayman Islands. This woman, it turns out, is no ingenue; Sarah Price Worth has always known the price of freedom, and its worth.
Whether one is heartened, amused, or disillusioned by Sarah’s final triumph clearly depends on the perspective from which one views her. Ultimately, this novel will be judged on the success Updike achieves in creating this modern Hester Prynne. Clearly, Sarah Worth is an attempt on Updike’s part to answer frequent charges that he does not—or cannot—treat relationships from a woman’s point of view. Sarah is more than simply a modern woman who gets over in a male-dominated system. Like Hawthorne, Updike wants his readers to see Sarah as a kind of Everywoman; he even has the Arhat give her the Hindu name Kundalini, which signifies the female energy principle. Readers are asked to see Sarah’s pronouncements on her particular predicament as emblematic of woman’s plight in a male-dominated world. She presents the issues that (at least in Updike’s view) are uppermost in the minds of today’s woman: “Children aren’t entirely the point of a woman’s life, are they?” she asks her mother. “But if not, what is? Tell me if you’ve learned,” she pleads. She speaks, one assumes, for all women when she tells the Arhat: “For a woman to give herself—and it’s entirely lovely, to give yourself—there has to be an illusion, or it’s no good.” Finally, she makes it clear that she speaks as a representative of her gender: “One of the things you as a male will never have to know,” she writes to her brother, “is how much a woman can suffer—jealousy, humiliation, panic, sense of betrayal—such a churning would shake a man to pieces.”
On the surface, Sarah appears to say all the right things to please those who want to see women come into their own as individuals, not remain reduced to stereotypes. These mots savants emanate, however, from a woman who is ultimately self-centered and under no real illusions about the way of the world. Is Sarah Worth really a spokesperson for women, or is she simply a man speaking in drag? No doubt the controversy over this novel will be heated; it may give rise to more critical fireworks than any of Updike’s earlier works. Perhaps, though, that is exactly what the author intended.