John Updike
John Updike; drawing by David Levine

John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick (1984), according to many critics, was not only a brilliantly written tale of supernatural and sexual goings-on in a New England town; it was a lighthearted, occasionally heavy-handed attack on the feminist movement. To some readers the book proved that Updike hated women. Others, more perceptive and/or more generous, claimed that on the contrary Updike loved women, but did not always like them very much. Also he did not trust them, especially if they were single, attractive, and sexually experienced, like the three heroines of The Witches of Eastwick. Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie were all divorced mothers in their thirties, strikingly good-looking, and a threat to what are now called family values, since when the story began they were each sleeping with someone else’s husband….

Some critics were particularly annoyed by one of the basic assumptions of Updike’s novel: that any woman without a husband is, or is in danger of becoming, a witch: potentially dangerous, spiteful, powerful, seductive, and probably sexually loose. This is not a new idea, of course. The majority of those accused in the witchcraft trials of early modern Europe were single women; and a song that used to be heard at fraternity parties over half a century ago (and, I am told, occasionally still is) declares:

A man without a woman Is like a ship without a sail,
Is like a boat without a rudder, Is like a kite without a tail….
But if there’s one thing worse, In this universe…
It’s a woman without a man!

Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie (as Diane Johnson pointed out in her perceptive review of The Witches of Eastwick in these pages1) were essentially a support group: they met regularly, exchanged confidences, and checked up on each other’s many children. At first they used magic mainly to affect the weather or to afflict local people who had annoyed them. Real trouble only started when they fell under the spell of a newcomer to Eastwick, Darryl Van Horne, whose name and modus operandi let the reader know at once that he was the devil.

This apparently very rich middle-aged man appears out of nowhere, buys and renovates a local mansion, and fills it with fancy pieces of furniture and a lot of pop art, which Updike describes as

gaudy travesties of the ordinary—giant pay telephones in limp canvas, American flags duplicated in impasto,…relentless enlargements of our comic strips and advertising insignia, our movie stars and bottle caps, our candies and newspapers and traffic signs.

There is also a giant vinyl hamburger, a stack of imitation Brillo cartons, and (Van Horne’s favorite) a naked woman made out of contemporary debris by Kleinholt, which Alexandra recoils from as “a joke against women.” This might at first suggest that for Updike, who has written with admiration of more mainstream artists from Vermeer to Diebenkorn, such work is inspired by demons. But in fact he has said that he thought of The Witches of Eastwick as a pop art novel, and that he was fond of Oldenburg and Johns and Warhol. He once told an interviewer that their work “made sense to me and amused me” and that it gave him “pleasure to assemble, for my devilish hero, a pretty good Pop Art collection.”

Unlike the elegant satanic tempters of grand opera, Darryl Van Horne is essentially a repellent character. To Alexandra, when they first meet, he seems “pushy, coarse, and a blabbermouth.” He dresses and speaks vulgarly; his body is covered with greasy, curly black hair; he spits when he speaks and has cold, clammy hands. It later appears that (as was reported by accused witches in earlier centuries) his private parts are ice-cold, and that intercourse with him is always painful. Yet he is able to seduce the witches, one after the other, with the help of lots of exotic spicy food and drink and drugs, a huge hot tub, and an indoor tennis court. Even though these luxuries were more novel in 1984 than they later became, it seems strange that any woman would want to sleep with their owner—though in the film version, where Van Horne is incarnated in Jack Nicholson, it becomes more understandable.

Under the influence of Van Horne, the three witches neglect their children and their lovers, and their magic becomes darker. Eventually, out of jealousy, they unite to hex a young virgin, Jenny, whom Van Horne has seduced with their help. Jenny becomes ill and dies, and Van Horne leaves town with her teenage brother, whom he was apparently after all along. The three witches are appalled and overcome with guilt. Apparently they now recognize that a woman without a man is the worst thing in the universe, since each of them casts a spell to locate a new husband for herself, and soon they all marry and leave town, giving up both their close friendship and their supernatural powers.


Though this ending seemed fitting under the terms Updike had set, readers who had come to care for Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie will be interested, though perhaps not pleased, to discover what happened to them afterward. The Widows of Eastwick is a sadder and more low-key novel than its predecessor. For one thing, over thirty years have passed, and the beautiful, sexy heroines of the first novel have become elderly women. Nobody is really interested in them anymore, and they have no purpose in the world. As Alexandra puts it, “What was her time worth? Less and less: she was an old lady, post-menopausal, on Nature’s trashheap.” She also remarks perceptively that as an elderly woman “you live…surrounded by more and more strangers, to whom you are a disposable apparition cluttering the view.”

One problem that a majority of writers now face for the first time in history is that they frequently live into old age. As Stephen Burn put it recently in the Times Literary Supplement:

The writers who emerged in the middle of the last century…indisputably have stamina. But one of the by-products of their longevity is a late phase in their career when every book lies in the shadows cast by mortality. In these late works, narrative invention has to battle its way onto a page where bodily decline threatens to be the only subject.

The writers that Stephen Burn cites are all men, and most have been preoccupied exclusively with male mortality. It is to Updike’s great credit, and a proof of his long-standing and ardent interest in women, that he is also interested in and deeply sympathetic to their experience of age.

Originally, all three witches were artists, though in a minor key. Alexandra helped to support herself and her children by creating ceramic figurines for a local gift shop, Jane played the cello and gave music lessons, and Sukie wrote a weekly column for the local newspaper. In The Witches of Eastwick Darryl Van Horne encouraged all of them to be more ambitious, without much success—perhaps, it was implied, because they had very little talent. Some critics felt that this was a deliberate mockery of the currently popular view that we are all creative persons, who only need support and a little confidence to “realize our potential.” Other readers took it more personally, as implying that women cannot be serious artists.

In The Widows of Eastwick we learn that both Alexandra and Jane gave up their creative skills when they married for the second time, Alex because her husband, a ceramicist, “jealous and dictatorial in his art as true artists are,” would not share his kiln. Sukie switched from her newspaper column to popular paperback love stories, which her second husband called “little romance novels for frustrated lamebrain women.” (Possibly this is an ironic private joke, and Sukie’s particular kind of fiction can be seen as a caricature of Updike’s own work as described by his most hostile critics.)

The first third of The Widows of Eastwick slowly reintroduces us to Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie, now in their late sixties to mid-seventies. Like many well-to-do widows, they divert themselves by going on expensive guided tours, singly or together, to British Columbia, Egypt, and China. Unfortunately, this section of the book often sounds like the kind of tour guide who constantly explains more than most listeners want to know about the history and geography of places they have no connection to and will never see again. There are brilliant passages of description and wonderful comic moments, such as the story of an uncomfortable and nearly disastrous camel ride, but they are infrequent. Though Updike has clearly done a lot of research, and perhaps been on such tours himself, much of this section of the book eventually produces a lethal combination of boredom and envy.

In real life, when your friends or relatives subject you to a lengthy recital—often with photographs or video presentations—of a trip that doesn’t sound like all that much fun, you may suspect that you are up against a classic example of cognitive dissonance—resulting, in this case, in the tendency to value an experience even though it was often disappointing and sometimes actively unpleasant. After all, if someone has spent thousands of dollars to go on a guided tour, it must have been worth it—if not, he has been conned, and is a deluded ninny. But if he can convince himself that the trip was wonderful, then the expense of time and money was justified.

Readers who feel an impulse to shove this book aside during its first slow hundred pages should resist, however, because as soon as Updike gets Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie back to Eastwick the story takes off as if on a storm-whipped broomstick. Suddenly his prose is full of energy, radiance, and spellbinding (in every sense) incident. Reunited in Daryl Van Horne’s former mansion, which has been converted into condos, the three witches rediscover their supernatural powers. They meet former lovers and former enemies, are threatened with deadly supernatural malice, and atone for their past evildoing by restoring the fertility of a barren woman and curing a crippled man. There is also a fair amount of exotic sex, lovingly described.


Since I now believe that any reviewer who insists upon telling you the entire plot of a novel is practicing a particular sort of malevolent witchcraft, I will say no more. It is interesting, however, to speculate on what Updike’s moral position might be in these two books. As he has declared himself, he is a believing Christian. “I have been a churchgoer in three Protestant denominations—Lutheran, Congregational, Episcopal —and the Christian faith has given me comfort in my life,” he said when receiving the Campion Medal in 1997. His beliefs are complicated: he thinks, for instance, that adultery is natural, and “often a social embarrassment but rarely a cause for individual damnation.”2 In a collection of essays, Hugging the Shore (1983), Updike remarks that “witchcraft is a venture, one could generally say, of women into the realm of power.”

The first-person-plural narrative voice that ends The Witches appears to represent the conventional, churchgoing inhabitants of Eastwick. It remarks that since the witches have left town “the weather generally seems tamer,” and seems to somewhat regret “the days when they were solid among us, gorgeous and doing evil.” The Widows begins in a similar voice, but now its tone has grown meaner and more spiteful, and its language is awkward, unpleasant, and full of jargon. It has also become deceitful, remarking for instance “that the husbands whom the three Godforsaken women had by their dark arts concocted for themselves did not prove durable” (though if you work it out they all lasted for over thirty years, dying in their seventies or eighties). At intervals throughout the book this nasty, censorious narrator speaks up again, describing Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie as “accursed,” “damned souls,” and “seasoned accomplices in evildoing.”

Yet in between these accusations, the narrative always segues gracefully into Updike’s characteristic omniscient third-person narrator, who has a brilliant command of language, sees and knows all, and seems not to judge the witches but rather to sympathize with and even admire them. It is possible, of course, that he nevertheless considers them damned. Or perhaps he believes that they have atoned for the evil they did so long ago. Certainly they have done many years of penance for once having been independent, powerful women. They have been Good Wives in the most dismal Victorian terms: for over thirty years they have never been unfaithful. Meanwhile, both Alexandra and Sukie have overlooked their mates’ multiple infidelities, and Jane has accommodated to her husband’s peculiar sexual demands (never specified). Alexandra and Jane have also given up the arts they loved, and Sukie has debased hers.

At the end of The Widows, the disagreeable first-person-plural narrative voice of Eastwick reappears to remark: “We thanked Heaven to see the unholy wantons flee our abiding seaside hamlet.” But now it does not have the last word: instead we are shown Alexandra and Sukie planning another exotic and luxurious guided tour. Depending on your view—and possibly your experience—of this form of travel, you can read this as a proof that they have atoned and been forgiven, and will now be rewarded—or as a sign that they are about to reenter one of the outer circles of hell.

This Issue

January 15, 2009