From the October 30, 1976, edition of The Nation.
John Updike, American novelist, short story writer, poet and essayist, died January 27, 2009 at the age of 76. In this 1976 essay from The Nation Archives, Josephine Hendin considered one of Updike’s favored subjects: men, and their relationships with women.
John Updike’s novels show a man’s marriage as his fate. No one has done more to explode male freedom as a myth than Updike in novels of American men whose lives, from cradle to grave, are structured by women. His characters are the philanderers who seem freewheeling until the press of Updike’s intelligence reveals them as captives in that velvet glove, the female presence. Often accused of being narrow in his concerns, Updike may in fact have anticipated that, of all the revolutionary currents of the past decade, the one that would last is sexual. No other male writer has probed so single-mindedly a man’s need of women or the anger dependency inflames. Marry Me is about a man who, bewitched between his mistress and his wife, finds his destiny is sexual calamity. This superb, irresistible novel is a subtle exposure of what you might call tender malice.
Jerry adores his beautiful blonde mistress, Sally, who drops her children elsewhere to come to him on an idyllic beach. Breathing her pleasure in her lover’s ear, she hears him softly inquire: “Do you mind… the pain we’re going to cause?” About to make love to Ruth, his as yet unknowing wife, Jerry purrs, “Tell me about Sally.” Each woman furiously believes the other is his favorite subject. Jerry, uses even his death anxiety as a jealousy hook: To Sally: “I look at your face, and imagine myself lying in bed dying, and ask myself, ‘Is this the face I want at my death-bed?’ I don’t know. I honestly don’t know, Sally.” To Ruth: “Whenever I’m with Sally I know I’m never going to die.” “Aid with me?” “You?” “You’re death. I’m married to my death.” But packing his medicated inhaler to leave Ruth, he interrupts his complaints with the sweet inquiry: “Shall I wait until you fall asleep?”
Updike’s groaning humor captures the disparity between the dreamlike pleasures expected between the “lover” and his “mistress” and the hesitancy of the suburban swinger. His wit blooms in the gap between the euphoric outburst “Marry me,” and the failure of those magic words to change one’s soul. In the most sophisticated situation comedy imaginable, Updike achieves an absolutely hypnotic novel of sexual suspense in which a man and woman find their perfect love moves leave them checkmated. Why can’t amor vincit omnia?
Updike uses an ordinary suburban love affair for the exposure of that failed warrior, the American prisoner of sex. Jerry’s chains are forged by psychological and social trends that split the dream of love from a man’s capacity for loving. Updike is the D.H. Lawrence of our time, opening up the male heart not in terms of myth but in realistic fiction that unsentimentally shows, those relations between the sexes that head toward antagonistic love. The sexual revolution emerges in Updike’s fiction as those psychological and social trends that both define maleness as sexual responsibility for women and at the same time produce men who cannot help but needle, belittle and wound the sweetest blonde beloved. Jerry and Sally are not just superbly realized characters but Updike’s prototypes of those new “revolutionary” products: the man engulfed by self-hatred and anger; the woman who is all unambivalent sex.