The Witches of Eastwick

by John Updike

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The Characters

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It is clear from the detailed opening that Alexandra, in her late thirties, is the driving force behind the small coven and the focus for the author’s principal characterization. She seems to derive her power from the earthly elements, and her command of elemental forces is demonstrated by her control of a summer storm and by her “bubbies”: small clay statuettes that she sells at local boutiques. Yet Alexandra can also be moody and vain. As well as storms, her momentary whims can cause death. She alternately engages the reader’s empathy and awe with her earth-mother characteristics and engenders fear when, for example, she impulsively wills the death of a squirrel marauding in her garden. Through her own self-doubts, Alexandra demonstrates the shifting concerns of power, love, and sexuality being examined in the story.

Jane Smart, also in her late thirties, is a cellist, and that facet becomes the primary focus for her characterization. Jane is willful, hostile, and gifted; she is impatient with much save the passion for her music. Wildly decadent given the proper motivation, Jane demonstrates the self-indulgent ego that cares for little except personal gratification. It is through Jane that the reader begins to understand how power corrupts.

Sukie Rougemont, in her early thirties, is a reporter for the Eastwick Word. The reader cannot help but see Sukie in a favorable light. Alexandra’s constant comments about Sukie’s “monkeyish” curiosity and energetic, girlish demeanor add to this impression. Sukie is shown to be sympathetic and caring, but her outward manner of exuberance and sympathy may mask a certain cunning and calculation that can be chilling. Her seeming good nature may belie a sense of powerlessness and guilt that fuel a jealousy that ultimately becomes destructive.

Darryl Van Horne, though not specifically referred to as such, is a demonic manifestation. From his arrival out of nowhere to his orgies at the Lenox mansion, Darryl epitomizes those things the reader will consider crude, obnoxious, and vulgar; however, Darryl is also strongly charismatic. His tastes are eclectic. The furnishings of his home reflect a desire to acquire objects of art but also reveal an insensitive nature that disregards enduring artistic merit. He furnishes his home opulently only in relation to his own need for gratification. Therefore, his playroom, the scene of wild bacchanals, is minutely appointed to service every physical pleasure or desire, while the rest of his house is a scattering of furniture and uncrated objects.

Jenny Gabriel returns to Eastwick lost and unsure of herself. Confronted with the gruesome deaths of her parents, she and her ineffectual brother Chris are befriended by Darryl and the three witches. Soon, Jenny’s seemingly shy nature is conquered, and she joins in the frequent debauches. Finally, she consents to Darryl’s marriage proposal. Yet Jenny may not be the total innocent she at first seems. She is quick to recognize the essential power struggle between herself and the witches, and she seeks to consolidate her own position by becoming Darryl’s wife. Her effort proves her undoing, however, for the witches perceive a threat and act to preserve their own sense of family, which Jenny has usurped.

Characters Discussed

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Alexandra Spofford

Alexandra Spofford, a large, gray-blonde divorcée and mother. She and two fellow divorcées are convinced they have magic powers and explore witchcraft as a form of women’s liberation. Together they form an alliance in rebellion against the small-town conventions they believe have inhibited them. Their magic powers, however, not only have a liberating effect but also create mischief. Alexandra turns her former husband into polychrome dust and keeps...

(This entire section contains 787 words.)

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him in a jar in the cupboard, and the witches raise a thunderstorm to punish some youngsters who call Alexandra a hag. Alexandra is the leader of the coven of three witches because she is the oldest and the earthiest, and she relates most strongly to nature, from which the witches believe they derive their special powers. She is also a sculptor, working in the earthy medium of clay to make figures of female sensuality she calls “bubbies.” The powers that she and the other witches develop eventually lead to mayhem and even murder. They pursue the satanic Darryl Van Horne, and when he chooses Jennifer, a younger woman, they conjure her death. Chastened and guilty, Alexandra marries an art instructor who takes her to Taos, New Mexico.

Jane Smart

Jane Smart, the second witch. She is dark and short, and her special talent is music, especially the cello. Like her two friends, she neglects her children in favor of the powerful sisterhood of the witches, and she uses her magic powers in dubious ways. For example, she transforms her former husband into a dried herb hanging in the cellar. In addition, she and the other two women perform such tricks as breaking an old woman’s string of pearls, turning tennis balls into bats and toads, and killing innocent puppies and squirrels. The coven of witches disbands after they compete for the attentions of Darryl Van Horne and place a death curse on Jennifer, a young unmarried woman whom Darryl selects over them. Ultimately, Jane uses her powers to attract a new husband, a staid scion of an old Boston family.

Sukie Rougemont

Sukie Rougemont, a redhead, the youngest and most recently divorced of the three witches. She also neglects maternal responsibilities to pursue her talents as a writer and to develop her magical powers, which she already has used to transform her former husband into a placemat. Free from patriarchal structures and traditional puritan controls, Sukie has a love affair with Felicia’s husband, Clyde; participates with the other two witches in orgies with Darryl Van Horne; and uses her magic powers to inflict illness on her rival, Jennifer. Demoralized, Sukie attracts a salesman of word processors. She writes rather mechanical romantic novels.

Darryl Van Horne

Darryl Van Horne, a mysterious, wealthy bachelor who is new to Eastwick. A manipulative psychopath, he entices the witches to his mansion, which he has decorated with black sheets, couches, and walls and where they frolic together, including engaging in an orgy in a hot tub on Halloween. Although he prides himself on his skills as a critic, unlike the witches he is neither creative nor procreative. He may be a metaphysical fantasy created by the witches themselves. Whether imaginary or real, Van Horne is the devil. He may have murdered Jennifer for her money. He runs off to New York afterward with both her fortune and her brother. Unlike the witches, Van Horne has no sympathy for the natural world. He is surrounded by artificial creations such as tennis courts, stereos, and vinyl hamburgers. He denounces nature and all of its works in a sermon he gives at the Unitarian Church titled “This Is a Terrible Creation.” Because of his existential emptiness, he cannot appreciate, for all their moral ambiguity, the beauties of nature, art, or the women of Eastwick.

Brenda Parsley

Brenda Parsley, a married woman and critic of the witches. She takes over the Unitarian Church, running it more efficiently than her husband, but in the process becomes a dreadful woman. She receives her comeuppance when bumblebees and butterflies come out of her mouth as she denounces the witches from her pulpit.

Felicia Gabriel

Felicia Gabriel, the mother of Christopher and Jenny Gabriel and ill-tempered wife of the editor of the local newspaper. When she is especially outraged, parrot feathers, dried wasps, and bits of eggshell spew from her mouth. A critic of the witches, she considers herself a virtuous woman devoted to good causes, but she has reserves of malicious energy.

Jennifer Gabriel

Jennifer Gabriel, an unmarried X-ray technician who rivals the witches for the affections of Darryl Van Horne. Soon after marrying Darryl, she dies of cancer, which may have been caused by the witches, who stick her facsimile with pins.

Characters

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Perhaps in this novel more than any of his others, Updike uses characterization as a means of social commentary, and his portrait of the principal characters has raised significant controversy. Feminist critics have been particularly harsh in attacking what they perceive as stereotypical presentation of all three witches. In the opinion of reviewer Alice Bloom, the author's penchant to take on the premises of feminism has led him to produce a novel which is from beginning to end a "tart cliche tarted up as sniggering, smart humour." Distinguished feminists such as Margaret Atwood and Gail Godwin have leveled harsh criticism at the seemingly one-dimensional female protagonists. Hence, an examination of characterization is critical to a sound understanding of Updike's intentions and a deep appreciation for the themes which he explores in the novel.

The Witches of Eastwick is dominated by four strong characters: three divorced women and the man who captivates all of them. What makes each even more intriguing is that each is endowed with extraordinary, perhaps even supernatural, powers.

If there is a central female figure, it is Alexandra Sporoff. Over forty and conscious of her age, Alexandra has engaged in a series of affairs since losing her husband. She is a devoted mother (although one might question her willingness to share marijuana joints with her teen-age son) concerned about providing for her family's welfare. As the novel progresses, readers learn that she is suffering from an internal illness which is surely cancer. Alexandra is a woman for whom physical love is important, not simply to gratify sexual passion but to meet her emotional needs. She is less concerned with her reputation among the members of the community than she is with establishing relationships which make her feel fulfilled. Having had more than one affair with the local married men, she is aware of the hypocrisy of many of the townspeople in Eastwick, and she has developed a sardonic view of life in the city. She seems comfortable with her magical powers, but seldom wishes to use them for evil purposes. Rather, she finds her witchcraft useful in helping her get her way in small matters; only when goaded by her friends, especially Jane, does she resort to what might be called black magic. The other two principal women figures in the novel look for her to take the lead in arranging for their meetings with Darryl Van Home.

Jane Smart, a cellist, is in some ways the most headstrong among the three witches. Also divorced, she has taken up with the husbands of some of the more outwardly upstanding women in Eastwick, and like Alexandra she understands the hypocrisy which exists beneath the surface of righteousness in the community. Among the women she seems the most self-centered and possessive. For example, when she sees that Darryl is paying attention to Alexandra or to Sukie, she withdraws from their circle temporarily to express her displeasure. She, too, restricts her supernatural powers to serving minor interests, but she seems the most capable of turning her powers to evil. She goads the others, especially Alexandra, into activity against Jenny Gabriel when the teenager displaces all three witches in Darryl Van Home's life.

Sukie Rougemont is the most docile of the witches, relying on her two sisters for advice on a number of important matters in her life. Like them, she has affairs after separating from her husband. A writer for the local newspaper, she is often privy to gossip about town which she shares with her friends. Much like Alexandra, she wants a sound relationship with a man in order to fulfill her emotional needs. She is easily led to action, both for good and for evil, by her more strong-minded friends.

By far the most mysterious and enigmatic character in the novel is Darryl Van Home. Clearly intended as an incarnation of Satan, Van Home is a shady businessman who seems to be quite rich, and who lavishes his wealth on his friends while poking fun at the townspeople of Eastwick. Updike describes him as having slick-backed hair, ears that seem pointed, and pointed shoes that remind people of goats' feet. He is a collector of art, although his tastes range from the merely eccentric to the bizarre and grotesque. His moral code is simple: Instant gratification is worthwhile for its own sake, and there is no room for the feelings of others in his life. He disdains conventional norms, both moral and social. His lifestyle is a mockery of both middle-class values and those of the wealthy who behave more conventionally in social circles. He uses the women he meets as objects, collecting them much as he does his art work, and spurning them when he no longer finds pleasure in their company. Late in the novel, he reveals his bisexual nature when he runs away from Eastwick in the company of a young man. Despite his obvious faults, however, he is able to cast a spell over the three women who seek his company; all of them find him irresistible, and each is secretly hopeful that he will choose her as a bride.

The townspeople of Eastwick are less well developed, and most seem to be stereotypes of characters expected to be found among the citizens of a small town. The preacher Clyde Gabriel and his wife Felicia are drawn with some distinction, and the complexity of their marital relationship lends depth to one's understanding of their behavior when Clyde has an affair with one of the witches. The portrayal of the Gabriels' children is less well defined, even though both become deeply involved with Darryl Van Home. As one finds in most modern novels, the interest of readers lies principally in a few characters whose interactions reveal much about both the social concerns and themes with which the author is dealing.

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