The Witches of Eastwick

by John Updike

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The Witches of Eastwick

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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...

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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 a sense of the world only hinted at by writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne. Amazingly, he is almost convincing in his portrayal of these characters as real creatures in service to the devil. This he accomplishes through his matter-of-fact descriptions, using his mastery of the language to create, through understatement, a feeling that the events these women bring about actually occur because they will them. Hence, when the vituperative Felicia Gabriel begins ranting to her husband about the immorality of the three witches, Updike, without authorial comment, describes how a steady stream of bits and pieces of floor sweepings—feathers, eggshells, dead wasps—appear on her tongue and choke her speech. Tennis balls turned into birds fly away from the court where the witches engage in sport; no one seems to find the event unusual, only annoying. When the three women find themselves displaced in Van Horne’s life by the lissome ingenue Jenny Gabriel, they assemble in coven to create a spell that will cause her to die. Working together to bring about the end which they desire, they are apparently successful: The girl dies of cancer.

Were the portrait totally convincing, one might be tempted to dismiss this novel as pure fantasy. Updike has been careful, however, to provide enough hints that there may be another explanation for the events which occur. For example, the Puritanical Felicia Gabriel, whose hypocrisy is apparent by her actions in supporting various “causes” while ignoring her family, is clearly a woman driven by hate. Jane Smart, one of the witches, offers a telling gloss on Felicia’s character when she observes, “It was the hate coming out of her mouth that did her in, not a few harmless feathers and pins.” Her husband has suffered years of being ignored and reviled; it takes no witchcraft to explain his impulsive decision to strike his wife with a poker and then, in remorse, to end his own life. Similarly, the illness that kills Jenny Gabriel, cancer, is one that needs no witches’ spell to infect even the youngest in society. In fact, Updike prepares the reader for Jenny’s death from the earliest pages of the novel; cancer is one of the central images in the book. Alexandra Sporoff, the oldest of the witches at thirty-eight, expresses a constant fear of it. That Jenny, and not Alexandra, should die from cancer simply adds to the irony that permeates this work. Perhaps Updike is suggesting through the novel that at the heart of this society lies a disease which will eventually destroy it from within.

Like the masters of the Gothic novel before him, Updike has used the conventions of the fantastic as a metaphor to point the way toward interpreting the world around him. In The Witches of Eastwick, “being a witch” is a kind of extended metaphor, a sign of the life-style of the middle-aged divorcée in American society, a mode of existence forced upon such women rather than sought out by them. Viewed by the men around them as eager and available for illicit sexual reveries, by their married contemporaries as threats, the divorced women are forced to turn to black magic to retain power and dignity in a world that denies them respectability because they are no longer married.

Darryl Van Horne offers the three witches temporary escape from the society that has branded them outcasts. Like Mephistopheles, he offers them something in exchange for their souls. Each woman is an artist of sorts, and Van Horne plays to their vanities in this realm by encouraging them to extend themselves in their chosen medium. He agrees to help Alexandra market her sculptures in New York if she will cease making handheld baubles and create larger figures. He practices with Jane, a cellist, so that she may one day join a professional group. He encourages journalist Sukie Rougemont to begin the novel she has been dreaming of writing. The reader is never deluded into thinking that Van Horne offers anything substantive. The art collection he flaunts is nothing more than an assemblage of bad pop-art junk (the discerning reader may recognize in the description of this collection parallels to that “beautiful” array of ornaments that Huck Finn finds in the Grangerfords’ parlor). Van Horne’s musical ability is no better; his “original” compositions are pastiches of radically different tunes that, wrenched together, produce only cacophony. The women, temporarily blinded to these deficiencies by their own delusions, willingly place themselves at Van Horne’s command. When he is discovered to be a fraud, their hopes are dashed.

The ends to which these “witches” use their magic at the conclusion of the novel appear at first to be grossly anticlimactic. All three women, who at various times have cast spells which defy natural laws and cause great harm in the Eastwick community, end up concocting charms to snare new husbands for themselves. Despite their powers, none lands a prize catch: Alexandra’s Prince Charming is merely another student in her design class, a “leathery limping man well into his forties.” Jane’s magic brings her “a perfectly suitable little man in a tuxedo and patent-leather pumps” who lives with his parents. Sukie’s charm produces a chance meeting with a man who resembles all of her lovers since her divorce. All three women abandon Eastwick for new lives with these men who offer not riches or fame, only an opportunity to regain respectable anonymity in a world that prizes the façade, at least, of the mundane and usual. There is strong suggestion in these scenes that this “black magic” is no different from that performed by countless other women in similar situations.

The underlying commentary on modern society which Updike weaves through this neo-Gothic fantasy makes it difficult to agree with reviewers who have suggested that the novelist is simply acting in fun (The New York Times) or that nothing serious lingers from the work (The Wall Street Journal). Perhaps more than in any previous novel, Updike displays his satiric gifts in The Witches of Eastwick. Beneath the layer of the fantastic lies a very real story, and beneath that story lies a commentary which Updike himself voices in a rare authorial intrusion into the novel. Describing the town in winter, he notes how its inhabitants are “martyrs”: the teenagers who have little to do, the town drunk, and finally, the respectable citizens:martyrs too of a sort were the men and women hastening to adulterous trysts, risking disgrace and divorce for their fix of motel love—all sacrificing the outer world to the inner, proclaiming with this priority that everything solid-seeming and substantial is in fact a dream, of less account than a merciful rush of feeling.

With glancing allusions to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Updike reminds his readers that the inner world is often the most important part of people’s lives, that how people appear is not always indicative of what they really are.

In The Witches of Eastwick, Updike reveals to the reader the world of witchcraft from the point of view of the witches, stretching the bounds of reality to demonstrate the desperation of middle-aged women who will risk whatever is necessary to make something of their lives. Readers may recognize that the “sins” which these women commit are wrong, and, as Jane Smart astutely observes, “You pay for every sin.” Nevertheless, while the sin may be damnable, the sinners demand—and from the discerning reader receive—sympathy. Hate the sin, love the sinner: That is the message of Christianity. Once again, Updike has shown that beneath the veneer of sex and trivial concerns which characterize his novels, he is dealing with issues fundamental to all humanity. For that, The Witches of Eastwick deserves attention.

Literary Techniques

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The Witches of Eastwick may be Updike's most daring novel with regard to technique. Usually given to writing realistic fiction with only a hint of the surreal occasionally showing up through the dreams or fantasies of individual characters, Updike diverges significantly from his habitual patterns in this novel. The assumption on which the novel is built is that the three women about whom he writes are actually witches, with superhuman powers enabling them to affect the elements, change the course of natural events, and direct the actions of humans with whom they come in contact. He takes great pains to suggest physical similarities between Darryl Van Home, the principal male figure in the work, and the Devil; like the three women he seduces, Van Home is given the ability to affect both the forces of nature and the behavior of humans with whom he comes in contact.

Updike presents his fantastic tale with great understatement, however, treating the activities of his three witches as if they were merely extensions of their everyday activities. Through careful use of metaphor and allusion, Updike inconspicuously creates the illusion that supernatural acts are possible, thereby heightening the suspense created by the conflict between the forces of good and evil which vie within the novel.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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The Witches of Eastwick provides opportunities for serious discussion of a number of topics central to the American experience, especially those of everyday social life. Despite the fantastic premise on which the novel is based—that witchcraft exists and is practiced in modern times—both the characterization and story line offer fertile grounds for exploring issues about the quality and value of twentieth-century American living. Updike's graphic representations of the power of the Devil, coupled with his hostile portrayal of the townspeople in their treatment of the three women, provide opportunities to discuss the ways a novelist can use negative portrayals of character and action to suggest a positive alternative regarding both behavior and belief.

1. Although Updike has lived in New England for most of his adult life, many of his novels and stories are set in other locales. Why is New England a particularly appropriate setting for The Witches of Eastwick? In what ways does the setting itself lend depth to the presentation of character and theme? In what ways does the history of the region contribute to readers' appreciation of the story?

2. Feminist critics have been particularly harsh on Updike for his portrayal of the three principal women in this novel. In what ways is Updike exploiting stereotypes of women? Is he fair in representing each of his female protagonists as a well-rounded character with individual strengths and faults?

3. Felicia Gabriel, whose husband becomes the lover of one of the protagonists, is one character who is not taken in by the charms of the three witches. However, when she begins speaking out against the three women in the novel, she finds herself spitting forth objects such as buttons, feathers, and dust balls. Why does this happen? How has Updike used this episode symbolically in the novel?

4. In many of his works, Updike uses names to suggest something about characters or something about themes within the novel. What names seem to have special significance? How has the author used these to give some insight into character or theme?

5. At the end of the novel, each of the three witches leaves Eastwick to take up a new life. What is the significance of their departures? Do the choices they make after their disastrous affair with Darryl Van Home indicate that they have grown and learned from their experience?

6. Each of the women in the novel is an artist, and Darryl Van Home claims to be a collector. What is Updike saying about the practice of art?

7. Shortly before he leaves Eastwick, Darryl Van Home preaches a sermon to a congregation in town. What is the significance of that sermon? What do we learn about modern religion? Can we trust Van Home's perspective?

Social Concerns

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In The Witches of Eastwick, John Updike focuses on one of the subjects which most interests him as a chronicler of modern American life: the changing status of men and women in society. His three female protagonists struggle to establish themselves within a small-town community which is at best begrudgingly tolerant, and at its worst openly hostile, to their unconventional lifestyles. However, Updike gives these women a decided advantage over their opponents; all three have supernatural powers, enabling them to manipulate nature and other people. All once-married but now on their own, they suffer the opprobrium of their fellow townspeople because they try to make their way as mothers and breadwinners without the support of a husband. Their struggle indicates that, despite the movement in America toward acceptance of alternative lifestyles, the majority of Americans in small towns are not particularly accepting of women who flaunt traditional conventions, especially with regard to love and marriage.

The larger social issue underlying the stories of the three women whom Updike casts as witches in the small Rhode Island town of Eastwick is the effect of the feminist movement on American society. Never a strong supporter of women's liberation, Updike seems at best ambivalent about the rectitude of his heroines' behavior. At times their romantic adventures seem comic, at other times truly tragic and worthy of readers' sympathy. All three women are presented as victims of spite and even open prejudice; their weekly gatherings (which Updike ominously refers to as covens), at which they bemoan their fate as social outcasts, are presented with great compassion by the author. Nevertheless, while their valiant attempts to achieve dignity within the community are certainly laudatory, their willingness to flaunt conventions of morality and custom seem somehow misguided. Readers are made to see the ill effects of their actions—especially the death and destruction of other families as a result of their affairs with various men of the town, and especially with the mysterious stranger Darryl Van Home. It is not surprising that the three women who have been ostracized by the Eastwick community should turn to Van Home when he extends his friendship to them; the consequences of their doing so lead to personal trauma and social tragedy, however, and Updike is suggesting that this may be the cost for a society which refuses to grant understanding to people whose lifestyles do not conform to those of the majority.

Another concern for Updike is the role of religion and morality in modern America. As he does in many of his other works, the author takes pains to point out the many failures of conventional religious practices. The characters in The Witches of Eastwick who are associated with the various churches in the town are hardly models of good behavior; while they may observe the rules of their religion on the surface, their pharisaical behavior is evident in their private lives and in the un-Christian treatment they show toward Alexandra, Sukie, and Jane. Their initial willingness to embrace the stranger Darryl Van Home because he has money also suggests that they are more concerned with outward appearances than inner strength of character.

Literary Precedents

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The most obvious precedent for Updike's story is the historical record in New England. Living in Massachusetts for most of his adult life, Updike has frequently turned to the lore of the region for subject matter in stories and novels. He has also indicated on more than one occasion the significance he finds in the Puritan legacy of modern America, especially with respect to attitudes about religion and sexuality, two themes which predominate The Witches of Eastwick. Unquestionably, there are thematic parallels between this novel and one considered among the greatest American classics, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1850; see separate entry). Parallels with other works in this tradition may also be found, such as Arthur Miller's The Crucible (1953), but it would be unwise to speculate that Updike was directly influenced by such writings. On the other hand, The Witches of Eastwick is a part of a tradition in popular fiction which explores the seamy underside of ostensibly respectable society. In American literature, the best examples of that tradition are the novels of Henry James; however, a more recent exemplar, also set in New England and long a best seller, is Grace Metalious' Peyton Place (1956; see separate entry).

Updike's devil is particularly modern. Unlike his predecessors in works such as Dante's Divine Comedy (c. 1307-1320) or Milton's Paradise Lost (1667), he lacks grandeur and inspires no fear. Rather, he is at times comic, at times merely pathetic. His pandering to the townspeople and especially the three witches, his intense egotism and his pursuit of self-gratification make him merely repulsive. The portrait is in keeping with Updike's general view of religion in contemporary America. In earlier times, the awesome dimensions of the religious experience had a powerful effect on human behavior. In contemporary society, however, the religious aspects of human experience have been reduced to a series of psychological and sociological complexes which cause people to feel good or, in the case of their encounter with evil, merely uncomfortable.

Adaptations

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In 1987, Warner Brothers released what could be described as a "blockbuster" movie based on Updike's novel. The screen version of The Witches of Eastwick had an all-star cast: The three witches were played by Cher (Alexandra), Susan Sarandon (Jane), and Michelle Pfeiffer (Sukie), and Jack Nicholson was cast in the role of Darryl Van Home. Directed by veteran George Miller, who had achieved notoriety through his work on the Mad Max movies, the motion picture follows loosely the story Updike relates in his novel. There are a number of significant differences, however, most notably the shift of focus from the three witches to the figure of the devil. Not surprisingly, Nicholson steals the show with his caricature of Satan; many reviewers noted how closely the character of Darryl Van Home resembles the principal character in the movie version of Stephen King's The Shining (1980), a motion picture which established Nicholson as the premier portrayer of demented evil for his generation of screen stars.

The women in the film are deprived of the complexity of character which Updike gives them; their attraction to Van Home, and their behavior in his presence, is merely stereotypical. Further, they do not even realize they have supernatural powers. Perhaps because the stars selected for the roles are themselves known for their ability to portray seductresses, the female characters on screen have a sameness about them which makes them decidedly less interesting than they appear in the novel. Screenwriter Michael Christofer chose to rewrite the ending of the novel so that the three witches are able to achieve mastery over the devil, driving him back into hell and joining together to take over Van Home's riches.

Although a modest success at the box office, the screen adaptation of The Witches of Eastwick falls short of the critical success achieved by Updike in his novel. Updike himself made fun of the film in a New Yorker article wherein he pointed out the superiority of the novel over the movie adaptation.

An audio version of the novel, with the text read by Donada Peters, has been produced by Books on Tape.

Bibliography

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Bloom, Harold, ed. John Updike. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. In his introduction, Bloom commends the artful style of The Witches of Eastwick, focusing especially on the characterizations of the three witches. To Bloom, this is more than a satiric novel; it reaches into horror for its powerful effect. Though Bloom praises the novel’s concluding passages, he suggests a stylistic flaw in them as well.

Campbell, Jeff H. Updike’s Novels: Thorns Spell a Word. Wichita Falls, Tex.: Midwestern State University Press, 1987. Chapter 5 contrasts Updike’s Marry Me: A Romance (1976), Couples, and The Witches of Eastwick. Campbell focuses first on the sociological aspects of these novels, and especially on the deterioration of marriage. With regard to The Witches of Eastwick, Campbell discusses themes of feminism, the demythologizing of Satan, and the balancing of self between the internal and external worlds.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVI, July 18, 1984, p. 21.

Library Journal. CIX, May 1, 1984, p. 917.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 13, 1984, p. 1.

The New York Review of Books. XXXI, June 14, 1984, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, May 13, 1984, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LX, June 25, 1984, p. 107.

Newman, Judie. John Updike. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Newman suggests that The Witches of Eastwick questions the relationship between imaginative power and political power. Her analysis thoroughly investigates the story’s major characters, and she concludes by demonstrating how the novel might be read as commentary on the Vietnam War.

Newsweek. CIII, May 7, 1984, p. 92.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, March 23, 1984, p. 66.

Schiff, James A. John Updike Revisited. Boston: Twayne, 1998. Schiff’s highly readable overview of Updike’s prose works provides commentary on his best-selling books, as well as his lesser known works. A chapter is devoted to a critical treatment of Couples and The Witches of Eastwick, which Schiff groups together under the heading “Marriage Novels.”

Time. CXXIII, May 7, 1984, p. 113.

Times Literary Supplement. September 28, 1984, p. 1084.

Verduin, Kathleen. “Sex, Nature, and Dualism in The Witches of Eastwick.” Modern Language Quarterly 46 (September, 1985): 293-315. Verduin considers the heated controversy Updike’s work generated among feminists and demonstrates how the author highlights the complicity between women and nature in the novel, especially through the vehicle of witchcraft. A scholarly treatment of women’s shifting roles in society as revealed by Updike’s various characterizations of women.

The Wall Street Journal. CCIII, June 20, 1984, p. 28.

Welsh, J. M. “Bewitched and Bewildered Over Eastwick.’” Literature and Film Quarterly 15, no. 3 (1987): 152-154. Contrasts Updike’s novel with the 1987 film version. Though Welsh regards the novel as superior, he sees the ending as weak. He concludes that the film has plenty of popular appeal but little connection with the apparent concerns of the novel’s author.

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