The Witches of Eastwick

by John Updike

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Themes and Meanings

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As with many stories, this novel can be read from different perspectives. On one level, it posits the possibility of instant wish gratification and questions the moral implications of such a proposition: Would such power corrupt? and to what degree? What is the nature of such corruption? How much pleasure is too much? On another level, the novel is a somewhat bawdy romp filled with satiric pokes and jabs at small-town Americana.

It is through the everyday lives of the principal characters that these themes are explored, as well as others concerning religion, gender, and morality. The narrator guides the reader through Alexandra’s middle-aged doubts about herself and her consequent use of witchcraft to prop up her unexciting life. Chiefly through Alexandra, readers come to know how daily annoyances can be taken care of with a murmured spell, or a thought. Readers also see, however, the darker side to such power, as when Alexandra’s petulance causes the elderly Mrs. Lovecraft to break her hip. In the same way, Jane’s passion for the cello becomes an obsession under the tutelage of the devilish Darryl. In the end, her instrument lies in splinters, testament and analogy to her own shattered ambitions. Sukie’s caring, free-spirited innocence also undergoes a transformation, and she changes from the buoyant confidante of Alexandra into a vengeful witch.

Darryl might be thought of as both focus and source for the witches’ powers, yet he never demonstrates any supernatural abilities himself, nor is he suggested to be otherworldly in any but superficial ways. He seems wholly unsurprised and comfortable with whatever the three women do. Darryl seems to feed the witches’ needs while at the same time feeding upon their lavish attentions. He is largely seen as a passive receptor, and Updike may thus be suggesting that evil and corruption are fed more by human needs than from outside sources.

The story examines the consequences of unchecked power and may be asking the reader to consider the issue of moral behavior. What if, with a nod of the head, one could bypass the normal social checks and balances and, for example, get rid of the neighbor’s annoying dog? Could anyone be counted upon to exercise control with such power? In The Witches of Eastwick, the three witches constantly circumvent such controls. Besides being alternately amusing, thrilling, and lascivious, the novel gently brings such considerations to the reader’s attention.

Themes

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As it is in most of Updike's other longer works, the importance of the individual person's struggle to understand his or her place in the universe and comprehend the meaning of life are major themes in The Witches of Eastwick. Bereft of the comforts that conventional living provides to so many individuals, the three heroines are forced to look within themselves, and to each other, to discover some purpose for living. While he avoids being overly philosophical, Updike manages to place his heroines in situations where they must question their role as women and as mothers. Each confronts in some way a personal tragedy, causing all three to reflect on the transitory nature of life. Even their fecundity and their almost rapacious desire to engage in sexual activity have metaphysical implications: As they enjoy the fruits of behavior which leads to procreation and continuance of the species, they are forced to see that their own offspring are visible signs that a new generation is arising to replace them as they grow older. The presence of physical illness within the community— one of the witches suffers from what appears to be cancer—causes them to reflect on...

(This entire section contains 708 words.)

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their own mortality.

A second important theme in the novel involves the universal conflict between good and evil. Set against the background of a New England community, allowing Updike to rely upon the traditions of a region that has been closely associated with witch trials in the past, the novel offers insight into the struggle of traditional religion and the occult. While the hypocrisy of conventional religion comes under fire from Updike, there is nevertheless a strong indication that the work of Darryl Van Home, a thinly disguised representation of the Devil, is inherently and fundamentally destructive. Updike is concerned with ways the forces of evil are able to penetrate a community such as Eastwick, whose citizens are more concerned with upholding the outward conventions of morality than with practicing Christian virtues.

A third theme, closely tied to the social conventions of Eastwick and modern America, is the exploration of the role of women in a patriarchal society. Like many novelists of the nineteenth and twentieth century, Updike is interested in the struggle of women to attain a sense of personhood and self-worth in a community where men have traditionally established both the rules of behavior and the values on which individuals are judged. Although not a feminist, he is clearly sympathetic to the plight of his three heroines who attempt to be accepted as respected citizens of their communities. While the circumstances of the latter half of the twentieth century have brought this perennial problem to the forefront of the modern consciousness, Updike recognizes that the problems women have had in achieving equal place with men both socially and morally extends throughout Western civilization. His heroines' refusal to accept social conventions is not simply a failure of moral willpower; rather, it is a conscious act of rebellion against standards which have kept women from achieving their full potential in a culture where they are often seen merely as objects created for the pleasures of men.

More muted, perhaps, than other themes is Updike's exploration of the power of art. All three of his witches possess some artistic talent. Among the three of them they cover the principal forms of artistic expression: visual, musical, and literary. Initially they use their talents for harmless purposes (two even try to earn a living in this way), but by the end of the novel they all employ their artistic skill in practicing their magic. The linking of art and magic is an age-old practice, and the notion that the artist is somehow possessed of special powers has been popularized in literary circles since the emergence of the Romantic movement in the late eighteenth century. Figures such as Shakespeare's Prospero in The Tempest (1611) and the poet described in the closing lines of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" (1816) are literary precursors to Updike's three women. Although he is never direct in saying so, Updike may be trying to show readers that the power of the artist to create a spell with his art is a form of magic which may be used for good or for evil.

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