Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Witches of Eastwick can be seen as something of a departure for John Updike, yet the book is also a continuation of themes expressed in his earlier fiction. The work’s mythological nature does have at least one precedent in Updike’s third novel, The Centaur (1963), but aside from that, the novel reveals Updike’s continuing regard for detailing the smallest aspects of daily life with meticulous care. His preoccupation with what goes on behind closed doors and his penchant for scrutinizing dreary existence have struck some critics as obsessive; still, Updike’s skill at portrayal cannot be denied, even by his harshest detractors.

To many critics, the writing in The Witches of Eastwick is generally thought to be as good as that in some of Updike’s best efforts, including The Poorhouse Fair (1959), Of the Farm (1965), Couples (1968), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rabbit Is Rich (1981), which immediately preceded The Witches of Eastwick. Yet some critics have also blasted Updike’s novel for being pretentious, mean-spirited, and overly indulgent. As well, The Witches of Eastwick has been thought by some to demonstrate an essential dislike for women.

Since the period of his earliest works, critical focus has shifted from a concern with Updike’s lush, detailed style to a consideration of his themes, which, some say, he treats in a shallow and inconsequential manner. Much of the severest criticism might be summed up by the charge that Updike writes very well about nothing much. Updike has countered by claiming that such critics are looking only for ever-increasing thrills. He suggests that the normal and the real are profound in their own respects.