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…

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