Ir al contenido principal

John Updike's Fascination with "the American Small Town"

This month I would like to share with you an audio from WNYC: Adam Begley talks about his biography of Updike, which explores how Updike's fiction was shaped by his tumultous personal life and love for "the American small town". I hope you enjoy it!

When it comes to "The Witches of Eastiwck", our January pick, your opinions were divided. Some liked it, some were quite disappointed. To sum up:

  • The principal themes in Updike's work are: sex, religion, death and "the American small town, Protestant middle class" (of which he once said, "I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules."). All of which you can actually find in "The Witches of Eastwick". 

  • 1984 “The Witches of Eastwick” is published.

  • 1987 Hollywood film adaptation of The Witches of Eastwick, directed by George Miller and starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon

  • STYLE: a unique blend of Realism, Expressionism, satire and religious allegory

The beauty of Updike's prose to me has always been that he writes with his mouth full, there's abundance on every page, and in every sentence. By the end of his writing life, this abundance could sometimes slip over into parody, the books themselves unable to carry the weight, but in "The Witches of Eastwick", he has a subject that demands this omnivorousness. Written in three distinct acts, the "cost" of witchcraft begins to show in the collateral damage that affects their lives.
  • In "witches" Updike found a grand subject that also offers endless opportunity to satirise small town life. van Horne is a most peculiar kind of devil, actually impotent (in both ways) without the powers of the women. He is drawn to them and to Eastwick like a parasite. When he gives a sermon to the local congregation at the end of the novel he talks about nature's parasites. The implication is that the witches too are this; but in reality he is talking about himself - and by implication, if this world of parasites is God's world, then shit, they might as well have given the other guy (him, the devil) a chance. This playful irreverance has mostly stood the test of time. 

  • Updike wrote The Witches of Eastwick to ‘make things right with his feminist detractors’. 
“My heroines[‘]… witchcraft in an intuitive and fitfully articulated collusion, sprung from their discovery that husbandlessness brings power. Witchcraft is the venture, one could say, of women into the realm of power. What women in the Middle Ages besides witches and queens wielded power that men needed to fear?”

“But I would not have begun this novel if I had not known, in my life, witchy women, and in my experience felt something of the sinister old myths to resonate with the modern female experiences of liberation and raised consciousness.”

The novel has been described as pro-feminist.
  • Although published in 1984, the novel is set in ‘approximately 1970’ according to Updike. In other words, it is set right after the counter-cultural bubble has burst – after the events of the Manson murders and the Altamont Free Concert. This setting informs some of the sub-themes of the novel. The witches and others in the novel are of an older generation and don’t quite understand the mindset of the youth of the day. Updike explores a certain liberal hypocrisy of the time; what liberalism exists in Eastwick is of the high-minded, affluent, New England sort; yet when presented with the prospect of racial integration, available drugs and radical youths; they retreat from their ideals. Sukie’s lover, the Reverend Ed Parsley, wants to join the anti-war efforts of the time but feels trapped by his marriage and vocation. Though he finds the courage to leave, his age and churchman status means he is not trusted by the protesting youth.

  • John Updike spent his last years in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, in the same corner of New England where so much of his fiction is set. His last book was The Widows of Eastwick (2008), a sequel to his 1984 novel, The Witches of Eastwick.