The Witches of Eastwick

by John Updike
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719

Set in a typical small New England town, The Witches of Eastwick offers a witty, irreverent, and pointed glimpse of small-town people and values, but with a twist. The three main characters are witches, and amid local gossip, scandal, and sorcery, they seek the perfect relationship by any means.

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The Witches of Eastwick is divided into three chapters. These sections (“The Coven,” “Malefica,” and “Guilt”) respectively introduce the players and the situation, resolve the various conflicts that arise, and detail the aftermath. The story is related by an unseen, omniscient narrator who is a town resident.

The story begins as the three principal characters, Alexandra Spofford, Jane Smart, and Sukie Rougemont—all divorced, and whose former husbands are literally gathering dust on shelves in their homes—prepare to meet at Sukie’s for one of their weekly “Thursdays.” At such rendezvous, the three relax with a few drinks, gossip about the latest affairs they are having with various tired Eastwick husbands, and practice witchcraft.

During the first section of the novel, the narrator details the minutiae of life in Eastwick; however, the focus remains largely on the three witches, the various tricks and pranks they play (at times outright nasty), and their own boredom-generated affairs. The reader becomes acquainted with Alexandra’s deep, earthy rootedness and power; with Jane’s cranky, precise nature and passion for music; and with Sukie’s good-natured, inquisitive sensuality.

Darryl Van Horne makes his appearance at a community concert. Ostensibly, he has come to Eastwick to further his aim of inventing a solar-energy-collecting paint, but little is actually known of Darryl. The town is enthusiastic about his plans to renovate an old property that has been a tax drain on the community for some time. His near-grotesque appearance and “New York vulgar” manner repulse some, including the more sensitive Alexandra, but his brash and outspoken coarseness charms others, especially Jane. Immediately, it is clear that Darryl is interested in the three witches, and shortly, through appeals to each of their secret desires, he has managed to coax all of them into visiting the old Lenox mansion, which he is lavishly remodeling to suit his hedonistic purposes.

Soon, Darryl and the three witches are frequent companions at his home. There, sometimes on his dome tennis court (where tennis balls undergo startling transformations), but especially within the environs of his decadently lavish “playroom,” which includes a mammoth teakwood Jacuzzi, the four cavort sensuously, waited upon by Darryl’s servant, Fidel.

Meanwhile, changes are taking place within the community. Ed Parsley, the young Unitarian minister, lately Sukie’s lover, runs off to join the peace movement. (He is later killed while making a bomb.) Prim Brenda Parsley, Ed’s wife, finding a hidden assertiveness within herself, takes over the church’s ministry. Felicia Gabriel, the shrewish moral crusader, begins to find an odd assortment of feathers, thumbtacks, and insects issuing from her mouth. Clyde Gabriel, Sukie’s boss and the editor of the Eastwick Word, consumed by alcohol-induced guilt and in constant misery brought on by his wife’s nagging, kills her with a fireplace poker, then hangs himself. This event brings Clyde and Felicia’s children, Jenny and Chris, back to Eastwick. Soon, the two youths begin to take part in the regular festivities at the old mansion.

Things begin to sour among the Eastwick fivesome of Darryl, Alexandra, Jane, Sukie, and Jenny as jealousies start to surface. Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie all nurture fantasies concerning an eventual life together with Darryl, but he surprises and ultimately alienates the three by his announcement of marriage to the young Jenny. Stung by this seeming rejection, the witches conjure a spell aimed at avenging themselves upon Darryl and his smug new bride. Jenny becomes increasingly ill, and though Sukie and, especially, Alexandra have remorseful thoughts about their deed, they do nothing about it.

At the story’s end, power begins slowly to shift among the female residents of Eastwick. In the aftermath of Jenny’s long sickness and eventual death, Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie drift apart as a new coven forms from newer residents. The narrator reveals how the three eventually go on to form new lives away from Eastwick, but the memory of their presence seems to linger ethereally among the quaint byways of the small community.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1151

Jane Smart, Alexandra Spofford, and Sukie Rougemont are divorced single mothers in a small town in Rhode Island. They are also witches. One day in September, Jane tells Alexandra that a new man has moved to town, a New Yorker. Alexandra begins to reflect on her past as she returns to putting away the jars of spaghetti sauce she has made from her summer tomato crop. She continues these reflections as she walks her dog Coal on the beach.

Alexandra is an artist; she sculpts small clay figurines of women and sells them locally. Jane is a cellist and teaches piano. Sukie writes a gossip column for the local newspaper. They meet every Thursday for drinks and talk. At their next meeting, they discuss Greta, the awful wife of Raymond Neff, with whom Jane plays music. They also talk about Darryl Van Horne, the town’s newest resident.

On Sunday night, Jane and Neff play in a concert at the Unitarian church. Van Horne attends. He talks to Alexandra about her sculptures, and she decides that she hates him. Jane meets him, and he critiques her performance and makes suggestions about her playing. Ed Parsley, the minister, joins them, as does Sukie. Van Horne reveals that he is attempting to invent some sort of protective coating that generates electricity.

Sukie is the first to visit Van Horne, and she publishes a newspaper story about him. She tells Alexandra that Van Horne wants to get to know all of them. Alexandra reflects on her life and her struggles with depression. She is waiting for something to happen. Sukie is attracted to her editor, Clyde; she talks about his wife Felicia’s obsession with causes. Jane is practicing pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach at Van Horne’s suggestion. The women think about visiting the newcomer.

Alexandra takes Coal for a walk on the beach near the Lenox mansion, the house Van Horne has bought. He happens upon her and persuades her to come into his house. When she notices the smells of sulfur, he explains that there is a laboratory in the house. Van Horne encourages Alexandra to try sculpting larger pieces, and he tells her that he knows of a gallery where she might be able to sell them.

The three witches visit Van Horne together, and soon a tennis match on his new court is in progress. Sukie and Van Horne play against Jane and Alexandra. Afterward, Sukie leaves, but the two remaining women bathe with Van Horne in a huge teak tub he has had custom built for a room with a skylight. This will be the first of many such baths. They smoke a joint and discuss men and women and the history of withchcraft. Sukie returns and joins them, having checked on her children. The women caress one another, listen to Janis Joplin, and, when they all leave the bath, bring the naked Van Horne to orgasm. They will become a subject of town gossip that winter.

Ed Parsley runs off with a local teenager named Dawn. Alexandra and Jane talk on the phone about the minister and about Sukie’s attraction to Clyde. They think that Felicia is awful. Meanwhile, Clyde and Felicia are also discussing Ed’s defection. As she speaks, Felicia begins to find small bits of various things, such as feathers, in her mouth. Removing the items, she admits to Clyde that this has been happening to her lately. Clyde has been unhappy with his wife for a long time.

Sukie receives letters from Ed describing his and Dawn’s escape to the underground, where they are learning to make bombs. She is with Van Horne and resists telling him that she and Jane are responsible for Felicia’s torment, having cast a spell on her. Sukie and Van Horne have lunch and talk about her attraction to Clyde and Van Horne’s scientific projects. Sukie and Clyde finally make love, after which Clyde and Felicia have a confrontation: She continues to spit out garbage, and he kills her with the fireplace poker. Clyde then hangs himself.

Sukie talks to Jane and Alexandra, revealing that she feels some responsibility for Clyde’s death. The Gabriel children come to town to arrange their parents’ funeral and dispose of their estate. Sukie invites the oldest child, Jennifer, a laboratory technician from Chicago, to Van Horne’s mansion. The others are upset at the invitation; they see Jennifer’s presence as an intrusion. Soon, however, the women feel an instinct to mother Jennifer, enjoying her innocence and pristine beauty as she joins them in their rites of the tub. When Jennifer moves in with Van Horne to become his lab assistant, their maternal instincts turn to jealousy.

Ed is blown up by a bomb he was constructing. There is no evidence of Dawn’s body at the site of the explosion, and it is unknown whether she was also killed or whether she escaped. Jennifer and Van Horne get married. The witches decide to dispense with the young new wife. They conjure a spell which results in her contracting cancer. Jennifer deals bravely with her slow and agonizing death: She bears her condition with strength and good humor, and she innocently fails to blame the witches for her disease.

Jennifer and Van Horne begin attending church, where Ed Parsley’s wife, Brenda, has become a growing force by preaching in his stead. The town admires both Jennifer and Brenda, much to the witches’ chagrin. They exhibit some signs of remorse. Alexandra and Sukie seek out the wax figure upon which they cast the spell in the bog where Alexandra tossed it. Ultimately, the witches lose Van Horne despite their efforts. After delivering a eulogy for his wife, he escapes his creditors and Eastwick with Jennifer’s brother Christopher, who turns out to be his lover.

The witches attempt to deal with their role in Jennifer’s death. Sukie wonders if they were not fulfilling Van Horne’s will by killing his wife, clearing the way for him to run off with her brother. Sukie claims that Jennifer was not so sorry to die because she knew about the relationship between her husband and brother.

It is fall again, the seasons have come full circle, and the witches must get on with their lives. Alexandra builds her ideal husband and enrolls part-time in the Rhode Island School of Design, where she meets him, a ceramicist from Taos. The two eventually marry, and Jim takes Alexandra and her children out West. Jane, still teaching piano, likewise creates a husband from the remains of her precious, smashed cello; he is a small man in a tuxedo who is quite well-to-do. Sukie, who has become editor of the town newspaper, also conjures up a husband, a sandy-haired man from Connecticut. At the end of the novel, the witches are all gone.

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