John Updike is known mostly as a novelist whose fictional territory is white, Protestant, middle-class suburbia—especially small-town New England. He is generally a realist, celebrated for a writing style that is sometimes described as lyric, even baroque, in its detail. The Witches of Eastwick—published after the second of Updike’s critically acclaimed Rabbit Angstrom novels, Rabbit Is Rich (1981)—represented a departure for the author, in that its protagonists were women and it incorporated supernatural elements. Nevertheless, Updike addresses some of his favorite topics in the novel, including nature, religion, the difficulties of marriage, adultery and its fallout, and the meaning of human struggles within the inanity of suburbia.
Before he wrote The Witches of Eastwick, Updike was repeatedly criticized for creating women characters who occupied the margins of his stories, as sex objects and wives and mothers, but who were rarely developed in their full humanity. The novel was thus partly an attempt to answer this criticism. Updike was also motivated by an interest in witchcraft and, as he said repeatedly, in what it must be like to be a woman. Just as he returned in later novels to Rabbit Angstrom, sometimes after decades of that character’s life had passed, he returned to the witches in his last novel, The Widows of Eastwick (2008).
Given the background of the novel, which is set against the women’s movement and the Vietnam War, Updike’s witches might have found dignity and strength in their own nature as women, worshiped mother nature, and practiced a benign, healing sort of magic. Instead, the author chose to portray bad witches, who cast dangerous spells, alter the weather, fly, and even commit murder. Their supernatural abilities are ascribed to two conditions: Divorce has liberated them as women, and they are empowered by the very atmosphere of Eastwick and Rhode Island. The famously insubordinate Anne Hutchinson, who was exiled to Rhode Island, is mentioned more than once in the novel.
In the wake of their divorces, the witches’ freedom has allowed them to “find themselves” through artistic endeavor. Alexandra makes small clay figurines of women called “bubbies,” Sukie writes as a gossip columnist for the local paper, and Jane is a cellist. Updike makes it clear that none is as serious or gifted an artist as she might be. Like Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), they are marked, watched with some hostility, and gossiped about,...
(The entire section is 1051 words.)