The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike [A Review]

The Witches of Eastwick was my first Updike and a wonderful introduction at that. The prose is exquisite, the evocations magnificent and the themes complex and defy analysis. Just avoid the movie.

The Witches of Eastwick

In the small town of Eastwick, Rhode Island, three women have come to possess magical abilities. Dispatched of their husbands while still in their prime; the air and maternal beauty of Eastwick has empowered them.

Jane Smart’s husband now hangs, dried and shrivelled, amongst her herbs and she sometimes sprinkles bits of him onto her cooking for piquancy. A cellist, Jane subsists on giving piano lessons to school children. Sukie Rougemont, the youngest of the three, writes a column for the local weekly. Her husband now exists only as a placemat. Thirty-eight year old Alexandra slowly reduced her husband to dust. She keeps him in a jar as a souvenir. Dry and ‘entropically cool’, Alexandra is the unofficial leader of the coven. Persistently self-conscious of her weight, her aging and paranoid about non-existent cancer, Alexandra earns her income sculpting anatomically correct figurines of women in exaggerated proportions.

All three are engaged in unsatisfactory affairs with married men. The witches are healers and find themselves drawn to men who need them; the juvenile, the desperate, the depressed. Jane is sleeping with a workmate; music teacher Raymond Neff. An unctuous, effeminate, tyrannical father of five who, despite their private intimacies, belittles Jane in public. Sukie’s lover is the local Reverend who feels unfulfilled practicing in an affluent small town when major social change is going on across the country. Sullen Alex, has been sleeping with Joe, an Italian-Catholic builder and father of five.

The lives of all three, and eventually the whole town, is unsettled and forever altered by the arrival of the mysterious Darryl Van Horne. Apparently quite wealthy, Van Horne has acquired a local mansion and begun extensive alterations; disturbing local wildlife, installing a laboratory and a ridiculously opulent indoor spa and sauna. An accomplished pianist, a collector of vulgar pop art and a self-proclaimed scientist trying to solve the world’s energy woes; few who come into contact with Van Horne escape his charisma.

Despite his messy manners and tendency to drop backhanded compliments; people are drawn to Van Horne. None more so than the three witches. Previously happy in their occupations, Darryl inspires them to dream beyond their current stations, risking their security. Where before they spent their Thursday afternoons drinking cocktails and swapping stories together; they now spend them at Darryl’s mansion, playing tennis before the four of them head to the enormous tub where the liaisons turn sexual.

But mystery continues to surround Van Horne. Where has all his wealth come from? Why are his clothes monogramed with other initials? And which witch is the real object of his affections?

From the opening pages of The Witches of Eastwick, I was immediately put to mind of Pride and Prejudice. That might sound like a strange connection to make. Both novels begin with an established conversation – Pride and Prejudice with a conversation between Mr and Mrs Bennet, The Witches of Eastwick with a conversation between Jane and Alexandra. Both conversations are of a similar topic and have a similar feel; the sudden appearance of a single man of good fortune into their little community with the hint of machinations and prophecy for Mrs Bennet and Alexandra respectively. Where Mrs Bennet tells her husband “Have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”, Jane tells Alexandra “Sukie said a man has bought the Lenox Mansion”.

Whether this is just a coincidence or Updike is consciously having some fun with the reader is something I cannot say. Neither would surprise me. But it did give me a warm first impression and the sense that I was in for a treat. Time magazine’s description says it best:

“Witty, ironic, engrossing and punctuated by transports of spectacular prose.”

The prose is exquisite. I have been fed on mostly contemporary fiction in recent years, and even the ‘modern classics’ I have read have not impressed me greatly. This novel was a welcome return to a higher class of writing. And yet it is difficult to find a short passage to share what I mean by that here. The elegance cannot be exemplified by sharing a passage of a few sentences as it can in many other books; here they exist in long paragraphs of complementary thoughts and images that piece together a majestic whole.

Some of the best passages seem to have little to do with plot, characterisation or setting; seemingly breaking the rule of eliminating the superfluous; yet you would not want to be spared these pieces. It is playful and teasing as well. Especially as Updike seems to want to find a use for every term associated with witchcraft – familiar, cosmic order, evil eye, enchantment, cackling – in a non-witchcraft context. Updike had a long interest in the history of witchcraft. He cites a childhood fascination with local witch doctors, to reading Jules Michelet at Harvard and maintaining his interest ever since.

The novel has an interesting structure as well – three parts with no chapters. Longer set-piece scenes are broken up with telephone conversations (remember those?) between two of the witches which catch up the reader on all that occurs between larger scenes.

Witches was my first Updike but his reputation preceded my reading of this book. While his writing carries many reputations, the one that his novels were the stuff of infidelity and adultery in small town, middle-class America was the particular one I was conscious of. Equally was I aware that this drew the attention of 60’s and 70’s feminists who accused Updike’s novels of being misogynistic. Witches, I had heard, was a departure from this. 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, especially for its time, but I think it would be a mistake to take that conclusion too far. The novel, after all, is not political, it is not a polemic, it is not trying to score points for feminism. Like Sex and the City, at first glance it can appear to be pro-feminist as it centres on the lives of a few independent women. But in hindsight, also like Sex and the City, this conclusion is limited as the interests and sources of fulfilment for the women are still centred around the men in their lives. You could at least argue that Sex and the City was a steppingstone to, say, Girls. It is harder to say something similar for The Witches of Eastwick. Has any other male writer taken up the challenge? Or has the need for one to do so become obsolete?

There is plenty in it that could be described as non-feminist or as Updike satirising and poking fun. Updike teases, and in doing so defies anyone wanting to try and find a consistent theory of the novel. Margaret Attwood, writing at the time, probably put it best:

“any attempt to analyse further would be like taking an elephant gun to puff pastry: an Updike should not mean but be”.

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.

The less said about the film version the better. The film seems to have taken the basic premise, but gone on to craft a very different story. The message of the film seems to be that the three women are victims of their own inability to know what they want and can’t face up to the reality of what their wishes have conjured. It is perhaps a sign of the gap between the literary world and Hollywood in providing for complexity in female characters and their stories. Not surprisingly, the film also omits virtually all of the sub-plots and their characters. The novel is far darker with the jealousies, vengeances and the harm done to others, both planned and spontaneous. The film is very much an 80’s film, the role played by the period in the novel is erased, it is far lighter and the ending and how the story is brought there is also severely altered.

The one thing the film did get right was perhaps the easiest to imagine – casting Jack Nicholson as Van Horne. Reading the novel, it is difficult to imagine anyone other than Nicholson playing the character – charismatic in person but repulsive in manner; offensive in word, but alluring in sentiment.

Having read and enjoyed my first Updike, I am not yet rushing to read any more. I have a tendency – a bad habit really – of keeping a safe distance from authors I have enjoyed and instead taking risks with authors I have not yet experienced. Updike’s literary achievements are impressive, his prose exquisite and his twice-Pulitzer-winning Rabbit series alluring. But with stacks and stacks of other books I have already committed myself to, it may be a while before I get to enjoy him again.


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