Boredom and John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick (No, It’s Not What You Think)
Perhaps in the passageways of our dreams we meet, more than we know: one white lamplit face astonished by another.
John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick
You say John Updike, I immediately think “A&P”, that story read by probably all English lit majors worldwide. I’m just going to go ahead and say it: it bored me to tears. You’d think a short story that starts with “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits” would have a lot more going for it. What follows is a very detailed, day-in-the-life-of American suburbia, which John Updike’s name is synonymous for. I may never have picked up any of his Rabbit series because suburban Americana isn’t really my jam (at least not anymore, not when I finally got out of the rut of thinking that suburbia is where contemporary lit is /should be at, and I do blame the New Yorker and the Paris Review and most MFA institutions for that), but I will say that anything John Updike will always have that incisive, precise, and totally enviable investigation and expression of character.
So you have High-lit Updike here writing about, of all things and much to my delight and possibly the only reason why I’ve always wanted to read this book, witches. Not a la Arthur Miller’s The Crucible where it’s are-they-or-are-they-not witches-and-actually-that’s-not-even-the-important-part or is it all just symbolism more than anything – these are witches of Harry Potter order. Or more precisely, the Macbeth order, and I’m putting in Shakespeare here for a good bit of irony because nowadays, if you have actual witches who wield magic in your novel – i.e. speculative fiction elements – your chances of being taken seriously by the powers that be is going to be pretty abysmal. Why that is or whether it shouldn’t be like this is a completely different discussion and I’m going to let Margaret Atwood and Michael Chabon do the talking for that, but suffice to say that I think there’s so much potential for an exploration of character on a figure that could very well be an icon of feminism.
This is where most people find things interesting. The Witches of Eastwick 1. is about three divorced women – Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie – with otherwordly powers 2. they take turns as the leading points of view in the novel, and 3. this book is written by a man. Whether or not a woman can even possibly be represented “fairly” by a male writer in general is a different can of worms, but as to where this novel stands in terms of feminism, I’m giving it a grade of…N/A.
Let’s get one thing straight: although the book doesn’t go all kitschy about how powerful these women are by summoning apocalyptic images or something similar – if anything, all their demonstrations of magic here are towards something comical and of a small, suburban scale, except for one big game changer with very real consequences two-thirds into the book – the tone Updike uses tells you that these women are capable of so much more than what they’re showing. (It’s also amusing that as far as this book is concerned, you get your powers by being a divorced woman. Seriously.) They’re very powerful, full stop. And this is exactly the sort of thing that I lap up. (I once wanted to go watch Colombiana, and my friend asked if I knew what the movie was about, and I said no, but give me a girl with a gun and I’m happy. Now whether or not the movie was a good movie is an entirely different matter. P.S.: No, it wasn’t.)
But do all signs point to feminism so far? Not entirely. Updike does say that the novel was written as a rather misogynistic reaction to feminism. He says, “The era in which I wrote it was full of feminism and talk about how women should be in charge of the world. There would be no war. There would be nothing unpleasant, in fact, if women were in charge of the world. So I tried to write this book about women who, in achieving freedom of a sort, acquired power, the power that witches would have if there were witches. And they use it to kill another witch. So they behave no better with their power than men do. That was my chauvinistic thought.”
But it’s a very dated idea (which makes sense, considering the novel was written in 1984). Women aren’t collectively “better” than men, nor are men collectively “better” than women. Trying to argue for one side of that (which Updike does by his own admission) sounds like some variation of playground “Girls rule, boys drool” and that thing about boys being cool while girls have cooties. When kids say it, it’s silly; when adults do, it’s even sillier because you’d think at this point they know that not all women are the same and not all men are the same either.
So that’s one approach to the novel I can’t quite take seriously. Here’s another angle: so you have these powerful women, then in comes Darryl van Horne, the male newcomer in town (and is non-magical and is no prize at all in terms of personality), and these three women fall over themselves trying to get him for themselves. So you have Awesome, Otherworldly Power on one hand and I Need a Man (Especially This Douchebag!) on the other. It’s a stalemate and most people can’t seem to decide if the book is feminist or anti-feminist because of that. But the way I see it is that if you take that debate about whether a women should or should not want a man out of the question for a moment (my own personal brand of feminism is more about having a choice anyway – if a strong woman doesn’t want a man, awesome, if she does, equally awesome, it’s totally up to her), at the end of the day, Darryl van Horne isn’t the point of the novel at all.
(Yeah, I think that’s the feminism more typical of me, refusing to make this story ALL ABOUT A MAN. Boy, you always learn a bit more of yourself, writing these things.)
Yes, van Horne is the catalyst for most events of the book and at one point of the story, the women do fight fiercely (though not really against each other) over him, an event that does call for some eye-rolling. But what the three of them were after wasn’t him exactly – it was what he represented, which, it seemed to me, was just a bit of excitement.
And that’s about it. These three women were bored out of their minds. They were divorced, they had grown tired of their kids and their tiny, Rhode Island lives (Updike’s suburban forte right here), and all the while they have these magical powers at their disposal. It’s like forcing a tornado into a little medicine bottle. So enter a possible bone of contention, Mr. van Horne, and of course they’re going to turn him into the object of a game and off we go. Yes, the three women are vapid and petty and very Mean Girls, but I don’t think the cause for that has anything to do with them being women, or being women with powers, and certainly not women with powers who want a particular man. They don’t even like Darryl van Horne, that much is obvious. The cause for all this misbehavior is just the suffocating tininess of their lives. At the end of the day, this story is about boredom. They play tennis with each other to relieve that but even the game is so boring that they transform the tennis ball into different objects just to ratchet up the tension. They sleep with men after men while keeping them at arm’s length because there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do in their town. And Updike is fantastic at conveying how that boredom eats you up from inside and slowly turns you into malefica.
This is still Updike though. Which means I still skipped a few descriptive paragraphs here and there.