The Witches of Eastwick
An event becoming almost as regular as death and taxes is the yearly appearance of a new book by John Updike. The prolific Pennsylvanian-turned-New Englander has managed to produce a volume annually since 1957. In the process, he has shown himself a capable practitioner of a variety of literary genres: poetry, short stories, essays, reviews, and especially novels.
His 1982 and 1983 contributions to the literary scene were collections of previously published works: a novel woven out of seven short stories (Bech Is Back, 1982) and a massive gathering of book reviews, miscellaneous essays, and criticism (Hugging the Shore, 1983). In 1984, he returned to the genre for which he is most acclaimed by the American reading public, the novel, offering as his fare a subtly drawn local-color piece that doubles as a venture into the realm of the Gothic, The Witches of Eastwick.
Updike has woven into his story all the ingredients of a good television soap opera. Eastwick, Rhode Island, a small New England town where extramarital goings-on rival those of the now-familiar neomythical Peyton Place, is the locale for these adventures. The heroines—Alexandra Sporoff, Sukie Rougemont, and Jane Smart—are three middle-aged divorcées who have found themselves on more than one occasion involved in affairs with married men in town. Suddenly they find their lives disrupted by the arrival of Darryl Van Horne, an eligible and apparently wealthy bachelor who moves into a decaying mansion along the shore. This shadowy figure has strong sex appeal, no visible means of support, and a bizarre taste in parties, art, and decor. In his newly renovated home, complete with sauna done over in black, the women find a new meeting place for their traditional weekly gatherings. Sex, drugs, and alcohol become mainstays at their soirees. Initial concerns about who will eventually win Darryl’s heart (and hand) give way to a curious camaraderie among the women when they discover that he wants them all, at least for a time.
Such behavior sits ill with more decorous neighbors; Felicia Gabriel, a crusading do-gooder, speaks vehemently against the goings-on at the mansion. Her husband, a lover of one of the divorcées, kills Felicia in a blind rage, then commits suicide. When the Gabriels’ grown son and daughter return to Eastwick to settle the family estate, the group of divorcées introduces them to the environs of the Van Horne mansion. Quietly, Van Horne begins to show favor toward the daughter, Jenny; he finally marries her. In retaliation, the women plot to do away with Jenny, but she dies of cancer. The final ironic touch occurs when Van Horne leaves town with Jenny’s brother, Chris, with whom he has always been in love. Disillusioned, the three divorcées adjust to the disappointment of being jilted; eventually each finds a new husband.
Such goings-on are hardly remarkable in an Updike novel. Extramarital affairs, small-town boorishness and prudishness, men and women trying to make meaningful lives for themselves in the modern world—such has long been the stuff of which Updike novels are made. Fans of Updike who have not read this book but who are familiar with the Rabbit novels (Rabbit, Run, 1960, Rabbit Redux, 1971, and Rabbit Is Rich, 1981) and with Couples (1968) will not be surprised by this description of the action in The Witches of Eastwick. Updike has long been recognized as one of the most important novelist in the realm of social realism. A surprise is in store, however, for those who read the work. Updike has produced a story with a Jamesian turn of the screw. The three central characters in this book are witches—not middle-aged women who act like witches nor ugly hags who remind one of witches—but real witches.
Updike’s heroines possess magical powers and can use them for diabolical purposes. They can change inanimate objects into living creatures. The charms they concoct can affect people’s lives. Adding to this rather bizarre notion is the fact that Darryl Van Horne is a kind of modern devil, a necromancer who experiments with a contemporary form of alchemy, trying to turn common substances into energy. He behaves in many ways like the satanic figures from medieval treatises on the king of the underworld, conducting mock Eucharists, emitting cold semen, becoming depressed at the arrival of the Easter season. Even his name is suggestive of the role he plays. Certainly the introduction of the innocent Gabriel children into the mysteries of the Lenox mansion group parallels scenes from earlier novels such as Matthew Gregory Lewis’ The Monk (1796) and Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). Social realism has been joined by elements of the Gothic to form a novel radically different from most others in the Updike canon—one which, like its predecessors in the Gothic tradition, uses the fantastic to lend credence to moral and social lessons about the real world.
What goes on at the home of Darryl Van Horne is a twentieth century version of traditional New England black magic and devil worship. Sometimes graphic in his descriptions of the lewd and blasphemous ceremonies, Updike gives the reader...
(The entire section is 2148 words.)