John Hoyer Updike (1932–2009) was one of the most successful and influential American literary writers of the post–World War II era. His novels and stories about suburban adultery and marital discord captured the white middle-class experience in the era of the birth-control pill and the sexual revolution. For all its graphic content, however, Updike’s work was informed by a complex Christian theology deeply influenced by the work of Søren Kierkegaard and such twentieth-century theologians as Paul Tillich and, most importantly, Karl Barth.

Born in 1932 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Updike spent his early childhood in the small neighboring town of Shillington, immortalized in his short fiction as Olinger. His father, Wesley Russell Updike, was a schoolteacher, while his mother, Linda Grace (Hoyer), was a frustrated writer who cultivated her son’s literary talents. Updike attended Harvard, from which he graduated summa cum laude in 1954. A year later he moved to New York to work for The New Yorker, which was already starting to publish his stories and light verse. In 1957, he quit his job and moved his burgeoning family to Ipswich, Massachusetts, a small bedroom community he would later fictionalize as Tarbox in his 1968 bestseller Couples, the novel that would permanently associate Updike with the theme of suburban adultery.

Updike was a remarkably prolific writer, publishing at least one book a year from 1958 to 2009, the year of his death from lung cancer. Of these 50 books, 23 were novels, including the four novels about the middle-class Everyman Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, which, along with the early stories, represent his most important contribution to U.S. literature.

Literary Works.

In an early essay titled “Dogwood Tree: A Boyhood,” Updike declared that his primary artistic goal was “to transcribe middleness with all its grits, bumps, and anonymities, in its fullness of satisfaction and mystery,” and to this ambition he remained true to the end (Crews, 1965, p. 186). In this same essay he also listed “the Three Great Secret Things”—sex, religion, and art—that would preoccupy him for the rest of his career (p. 180). Rather than use his work to affirm a particular religious vision, as in the case of a writer like Flannery O’Connor, Updike was more interested in exploring the predicament of being a Christian in an increasingly secular world, one in which God’s presence continues to diminish. As Jerry Conant, the hero of Updike’s 1976 novel Marry Me, explains, “Maybe our trouble is that we live in the twilight of the old morality, and there’s just enough to torment us, and not enough to hold us in” (p. 53).

Brought up a Lutheran, Updike had a Christian vision that was characterized by a preoccupation with faith, with a much more tolerant attitude toward works and sin. In his best work, Updike addresses ethical and theological issue dialectically, often presenting two or sometimes three different sides to the debate and then leaving the issue unresolved, in dynamic tension. In Rabbit, Run (1960), for instance, the title character, after leaving his wife and taking up with a prostitute, engages in a string of theologically infused conversations with an Episcopal priest named Eccles in which Rabbit’s questionable behavior is set against his subjective impulses, which Rabbit connects to his faith. Similarly, in Roger’s Version (1986), an irascible divinity professor spars with a young computer programmer who insists that he can develop a computer program proving God’s existence. Neither of these debates gets “solved” in their respective novels. Rather, Updike arranges his work dialectically, with the two sides of the debate placed in dynamic tension, in accordance with a strategy developed by Kierkegaard in his great early work, Either/Or.

The Rabbit Novels.

The “Rabbit” novels remain Updike’s most significant achievement. Each of the four books in the series—Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990)—is set in the final year of the decade preceding its publication and incorporates actual news events into its fictional texture. As such, the four novels taken together provide a rich account of the postwar American experience through the perspective of one complex man who struggles to balance his faith with his sexual appetites.

As suggested by the book titles, the tetralogy can be further divided into a tidy set of pairs. In Rabbit, Run, the title character leaves his family to seek fulfillment elsewhere. Conversely, by Rabbit Redux, Rabbit has become a cranky conservative, hunkered down in front of his television as the staid 1950s culture of his youth explodes into the psychedelic nightmare of the late 1960s. Meanwhile, his wife, Janice, moves in with an employee at her father’s car lot. Rabbit Is Rich finds Updike’s hero running that same car lot and working side by side with Janice’s former lover. Whereas Rabbit is plump and satisfied, his college-aged son Nelson has, just like his father, impregnated a woman and run from his responsibilities. Rabbit at Rest, the final novel in the series, both replays Rabbit Is Rich and winds up the tetralogy as a whole, ending the saga where it began: on a basketball court.

In his Introduction to Rabbit Angstrom, the single-volume edition of the Rabbit tetralogy published in 1995, Updike described the title character as “a creature of fear and trembling” who, “like [Dostoyevsky’s] Underground Man, [is] incorrigible; from first to last he bridles at good advice, taking direction only from his personal, also incorrigible God” (p. xxii). Throughout the four novels, Rabbit seeks to relocate the elusive athletic grace he experienced as a standout high-school basketball player. Because he confuses physical with spiritual grace, sexuality remains a key outlet for this search. In contrast with his creator’s formidable education, Rabbit never went to college, and so his spiritual ambitions are often confused and inarticulate, as when he tells Reverend Eccles in Rabbit, Run, “Well, I don’t know all this about theology, but I’ll tell you, I do feel, I guess, that somewhere behind all this … there’s something that wants me to find it” (Updike, 1995, p. 110). Once again taking his cue from Kierkegaard, Updike portrays Rabbit’s faith as entirely subjective, and grounded in little more than a sense of himself as “a God-made one-of-a-kind with an immortal soul breathed in. A vehicle of grace. A battlefield of good and evil. An apprentice angel” (Updike, 1995, p. 1265). Yet this inner faith leaves him open to the fallen world, which he observes keenly and lovingly as filtered through Updike’s gorgeous present-tense narrative voice.

The Adultery Novels.

In 1968, Updike made his biggest commercial splash with Couples, which reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list and was featured on the cover of Time magazine. Set in 1963–1964, the novel chronicles the adulterous behavior of ten couples in a Boston suburb. Although the graphic sexual content grabbed all the headlines, the novel is in fact one of Updike’s most ambitious explorations of the conflict between faith and sexuality. The world of Couples is modern and secular—or, as one character memorably calls it, “the post-pill paradise” (1968, p. 52). Updike depicts his promiscuous characters as spiritual seekers who look to sex as a new path to fulfillment and salvation. One of the novel’s rare believers is Piet Hanema, who finds a kindred spirit in the pregnant newcomer to town, Foxy Whitman.

In 1976, following his own divorce, Updike published Marry Me, a companion piece to Couples. The novel overlaps in many ways with its predecessor and was in fact an earlier, more autobiographical draft of its more famous sibling. In contrast to Couples’ expansive cast of interlocking characters, the novel focuses exclusively on one pair of lovers—Jerry Conant, a commercial illustrator, and Sally Mathias, his neighbor.

Late in his career, Updike revisited the world of these two linked novels in Villages (2004), which he billed as a Bildungsroman. The novel’s hero, Owen Mackenzie, is a computer programmer who, like Piet Hanema and Jerry Conant, experiments exuberantly with serial adultery amid the hopeful opulence of the Kennedy years. Unlike the earlier characters, however, Owen is almost entirely secular; not until his second marriage does he embrace faith and fidelity. As such, Villages strips sex of its spiritual component and depicts it as “a programmed delirium that rolls back death with death’s own substance” (2004, p. 319). This shift accords with what the critic Peter Bailey calls the “reluctantly expanding secularism of Updike’s aesthetic” (2006, p. 33).

The Scarlet Letter Trilogy.

Each of the three novels that constitute “The Scarlet Letter Trilogy” updates and parodies Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel from the perspective of one of the three characters in Hawthorne’s complex love triangle. The first novel in the sequence, A Month of Sundays (1975), provides a playful updating of Arthur Dimmesdale’s predicament. Updike’s stand-in is the Reverend Tom Marshfield, who flees to a desert retreat when his parish learns of his affair with a married churchgoer. The novel consists of Marshfield’s exuberant journal, wherein the reverend details his predicament while also engaging with the work of Kierkegaard and Barth.

Marshfield also indulges in fanciful biblical exegesis, most prominently of John 8:11: “Neither do I condemn thee.” Jesus speaks these words to a woman caught in an adulterous tryst. Marshfield also focuses on Matthew 5:27–28, in which Jesus declares, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery. But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” Rather than regard this pronouncement as a stern warning to remain “pure in thought,” Marshfield declares, “Adultery, my friends, is our inherent condition. … Who that has eyes to see cannot so lust? Was not the First Divine Commandment received by human ears, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’? Adultery is not a choice to avoided; it is a circumstance to be embraced” (Updike, 1975, pp. 44–45).

A decade would pass before Updike returned to his Hawthornean theme. The second novel of the series, Roger’s Version (1986), updates Hawthorne’s Roger Chillingworth in the form of Roger Lambert, a lascivious divinity professor at what appears to be Harvard. Dimmesdale’s role is played by the computer programmer Dale Kohler, who believes that there is now clear scientific evidence for God’s existence. Lambert, also a devotee of Barth, dismisses Dale’s theories out of hand. As he explains, “I find your whole idea aesthetically and ethically repulsive. Aesthetically because it describes a God Who lets Himself be intellectually trapped, and ethically because it eliminates faith from religion” (Updike, 1986, p. 24). Later in the novel Lambert quotes Barth’s insistence, from The Word of God and the Word of Man, that “there is no way from us to God—not even a via negativa—not even a via dialectica nor paradoxa. The god who stood at the end of some human way—even of this way—would not be God” (Barth, 1978, p. 177; Updike, 1986, p. 41). Typically, the novel ends with the debate between Lambert and Kohler unresolved.

Updike wrapped up his trilogy with the comic S. (1988), an “epistolary” novel drawn from the letters and tapes of Sarah Worth, this novel’s Hester Prynne, who falls for a Hindu religious leader.

Late Updike.

After publishing Rabbit at Rest, Updike’s career loses the focus that the Rabbit project had given it. The novels from his late period are more varied in style and approach but also weaker overall. Of the nine novels that make up this late grouping, the best and most ambitious is In the Beauty of the Lilies, a 500-page saga that charts God’s presence in the lives of four generations of the Wilmot family. The first Wilmot in the novel, Clarence, is a Presbyterian minister who, in spring 1910, abruptly loses his faith at the exact moment the silent-film star Mary Pickford faints while filming a scene in D. W. Griffith’s The Call to Arms. From this replete premise, Updike contrasts the ascent of movies and pop culture with the decline in religious belief. The novel ends in 1990 with Clark Wilmot, a troubled believer who dies in a televised FBI raid on the compound of the Branch Davidian–like cult to which he has become an adherent.

Updike’s penultimate novel also explores the intersections between religious fundamentalism and violence. Terrorist (2006) focuses on Ahmad Ashmawy, an 18-year-old devout Muslim who plots a terrorist attack on his adopted hometown of New Prospect, New Jersey. He is thwarted by his guidance counselor Jack Levy, a big-hearted Jewish atheist who is also having an affair with Ahmad’s divorced mother. Although the novel divided critics, it became Updike’s last major bestseller.

Hope for Heaven.

Numerous critics were impatient with Updike’s Barthian Christianity, with its nonintervening God and its vision of humans roaming free under a heaven that remains aloof and nonjudgmental. Ralph Wood accused him of  “moral passivity” (1988, p. 190), while Frederick Crews, in a scathing review of Roger’s Version, observed, “In Barth, Updike has found a means of talking back to a prickly conscience and a set of reasons for believing that, regardless of his conduct, he may yet be counted among the saved” (1965, p. 174). These criticisms have teeth, at least insofar as they accurately encapsulate the complacency with which Updike’s characters regard their religious convictions. Villages’ Owen McKenzie, the last of Updike’s prototypical heroes, clings to “two evidential arguments … for the truth of the Christian religion,” the first being his “wish to live forever” and the second being his sense that he is “made for a better world” (Updike, 2004, p. 312). Rabbit Angstrom, Tom Marshfield, Roger Lambert, and a whole host of other Updike heroes share the same justification for their beliefs.

Ultimately, in Updike, one cannot extricate the religious impulse from the aesthetic. In his memoir Self-Consciousness, he flatly explains, “Imitation is praise. Description expresses love. … What small faith I have has given me what artistic courage I have. My theory was that God already knows everything and cannot be shocked. And only truth is useful. Only truth can be built upon” (1989, p. 231).

[See also FICTION, BIBLICAL and MODERN LITERATURE.]

Bibliography

References

  • Bailey, Peter J. Rabbit (Un)Redeemed: The Drama of Belief in John Updike’s Fiction. Teaneck, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006.
  • Barth, John. The Word of God and the Word of Man. Translated by Peter Smith. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1978.
  • Crews, Frederick. “Dogwood Tree: A Boyhood.” In Assorted Prose, pp. 151–187. New York: Knopf, 1965.
  • Updike, John. Couples. New York: Knopf, 1968.
  • Updike John. A Month of Sundays. New York: Knopf, 1975.
  • Updike, John. Marry Me. New York: Knopf, 1976.
  • Updike, John. Roger’s Version. New York: Knopf, 1986.
  • Updike, John. Self-Consciousness. New York: Knopf, 1989.
  • Updike, John. “Mr. Updike’s Planet.” In The Critics Bear It Away: American Fiction and the Academy. New York: Random House, 1992.
  • Updike, John. Rabbit Angstrom. New York: Knopf, 1995.
  • Updike, John. Villages. New York: Knopf, 2004.
  • Wood, Ralph C. The Comedy of Redemption: Christian Faith and the Comic Vision of Four American Novelists. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988.

Further Reading

  • Begley, Adam. Updike. New York: HarperCollins, 2014.
  • Olster, Stacey, ed. The Cambridge Companion to John Updike. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Pritchard, William H. Updike: America’s Man of Letters. South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth, 2000.

Marshall Boswell