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.
What Updike bares in his beleaguered male chauvinists are the forces that keep men riveted on women as the solitary source of meaning in life. His novels open up a feminized world. The Updikean Connecticut suburb where Jerry lives is remarkably without the usual male obsession with work or sports. Jerry’s appetite for advancement as a commercial artist has been sated by an even money-flow. He competes only in mixed volleyball. Feminization is to love as mulch to roses, for the traditional triangle (two men fighting for one woman) is replaced by one (two women competing for one man) produced by the sexual availability of women and the scarcity, that Jerry loves to note, of men as interesting as he is.
Beneath Jerry’s boyish arrogance beats the heart of Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, the working-class hero of the brilliant novel Rabbit, Run (1960), which Marry Me resembles, and Rabbit Redux (1973). To find out how Jerry became a lady-killer, consider his brother Rabbit. Momism flourishes in the American housewife of Rabbit, Run who is controlling, ironic and relentlessly involved with her son, whose narcissism she alternately wounds and strokes. At 26, aged by his humiliating job, his heavily pregnant wife, his toddler son, Rabbit knows he has lost the sense of exaltation he felt in high school as a basketball star. He has no star status in his wife’s eyes. He runs away. At 36, returned, he becomes a hard-working linotyper, husband and father. He seems to have become his passive, joyless father. But he cannot take his father’s path because the world has changed all the road signs. He is automated out of work by a photo-offset machine. He is displaced from his wife’s bed by a man who is a better lover. Janice, his wife, works and has an income of her own. Technology has changed his mother’s life too. Old and ill, she is propped up and “pepped up by a pill” that brings her sexual fantasies she presumably never had as a healthy young woman.
Is sex the medicine of the 1960s? Only for women. For Rabbit there is no tonic for frustration but revenge. He takes in a black nihilist who expresses his own darker impulses, and a pretty young girl who has become a drug abuser. He lets the man insult him and takes out his rage at women passively by letting him kill the girl. His destructiveness and self-destructiveness get his house burned down. Rabbit is the dark side of any man who realizes his ideals and his power are gone. Updike connects the decline of masculinity with the social trends that undermine Rabbit. He compresses into the fall of Rabbit’s house and marriage the war between the sexes, the dissidence between classes and races, the efficiency economy that undermines a man’s sense of himself. Houseless, jobless, wifeless, Rabbit crumbles. Giving up on being a father to his son he goes back to his ever-loving Mom.
St. George has his dragon, Sir Galahad his grail; Updike’s men have only their women to justify their aggression and define them as men. Rabbit and Janice, Jerry and Ruth are matched pairs whose collusive entanglement with each other, however unhappy is crucial. When Rabbit runs out on his wife, Janice drunkenly drowns their infant daughter. When Janice runs out on Rabbit, he lets his young girl friend die. Neither Janice nor Rabbit is happy with the other yet the presence of her husband helps Janice function, and the presence of his wife helps Rabbit behave like a man. Janice is the control on his anger and self-hatred. When Jerry seems to be about to leave Ruth, she has an accident that demolishes her car. When Jerry must confront Sally’s husband, he feels like groveling to the man and giggling in bed with Ruth.
Updike puts life together as a sophisticated Oedipal knot in which a man is tied at both ends. His men fear being in control, in charge, but are equally afraid of being suffocated and controlled. T’heir inhibitions bring them the worst as sons and lovers. Lawrence’s famous son thought he would be a lover when his mother died. Updike’s heroes know how to keep their mothers alive forever by remaining in the box of coolness and contempt that is their mothers’ personality. Jerry virtually marries his mother or rather maneuvers his wife into an asexual, maternal protectiveness toward him. Resenting the flatness of their life together, he is drawn toward a woman who is wonderfully greedy for pleasure. Yet he does his best to ruin her need for him, uses sex as an instrument of revenge and his shows of tenderness to tie his women in knots.
At their worst Updike’s men are victims of forces which be understands but they do not. When they find the woman of their dreams they invariably begin to hate her. When Rabbit runs out on Janice he meets a good-natured, sexy woman who makes him feel as alive and competitive as he did on the basketball court. He wants to oust all her other lovers from her mind. He succeeds. But afterward he dreams he is back in his mother’s kitchen with his call-girl sister, Mim. Mim opens the icebox door and they see a block of ice in which something that looks like a heart is frozen. His mother begins scolding Mim for opening the door. Mim turns into Janice, her face melts. But it’s Rabbit who is furious at women for trying to melt him. That Janice melts into oblivion reflects his angry fear that to lose your cool is to die. He wants to keep his heart on ice not only to stay in his mother’s box but to ice his explosiveness. Sister, wife, mistress are interchangeable as women who are in danger if his feelings are unleashed. This is the dark side of sex where romanticizing a woman is better than having her, because intimacy arouses destructiveness. What makes Rabbit feel alive is ironically the total conquest that makes him want to destroy.
Jerry conquers Sally, overpowers her concern for her children, her marriage, her financial security. But he is unwilling to thaw or to change and unable to remain the same. He thinks he wants a warm woman, but seems able to live only with a cold one who keeps his contempt alive and his anger in check. He looks to his mistress to be a stronger force, capable of freeing him. But getting into her means getting back to the frustration and anger he would have toward any woman who threatened to melt the iced anger that binds him to motherly Ruth.
Jerry’s mastery of the instant turnoff is the sign of his enthrallment. Updike developed how much more deeply a man can be spellbound in his fine short novel Of the Farm. There a man virtually fuses with his mother by seeing his wife through her disparaging eyes. Contempt is a bond between them. When Joey Hofstetter and his new wife arrive at his mother’s farm, he watches his sexual wife, whose body he loves, walk toward his mother. Knowing his mother will see her only as a large, gross, painted woman, he develops a kind of double vision, sees her that way too. He begins to belittle her, complain about her promiscuity with men before she knew him; he hates himself for being fool enough to marry her. As his mother, who had belittled his first wife during his marriage to her insists, wife two seems not so bright, charming or attractive as wife one. Joey’s self-hatred turns to hatred for the wife who is the living sign of his bad taste. Yet his fate is to need the contempt and self-contempt that keep him bound to his mother.
Women are the only masculine pursuit in Updike’s novels that offer the promise of relief and rebirth. Rabbit’s grace comes from his wish to be made new; his decline from losing his power to believe he can be. Jerry’s appeal comes from his boyish hope for heaven in a woman; his rigidity from his blindness to the massive evidence Updike provides that he would wreck an angel. The persistent tragic irony in Updike’s novels is the contradiction between what a man wants and what his heart will allow.
What would happen if everything were allowed? Updike has written novels which are comic resolutions of ambivalence. In these the Oedipal situation turns around: youth replaces authority as a value and Mom herself is available. Irony isn’t psychological bile but frothy social confusion. Updike is hilarious on the ill manners of marriage in a town where the basic social unit is the man and wife who are sexually disenchanted with each other. In Couples when Angela, oft-condemned by her husband for her repressions, begins confessing her interest in sex and asking for help, her husband becomes enraged. He is happy to be unhappy with her because he has learned to make his contempt work for him. He regards her as that perfect ally, the wife who is a defense against life: she holds his hand while the irate husband of his mistress tells him off. Ruth becomes Jerry’s sisterly confidante as they face Sally and her husband, making Jerry feel as though he has found a family by loving Sally. Like the long-suffering Mrs Marshfield in A Month of Sundays who knows how to humiliate her husband’s mistress almost as well as he does, wives and husbands are ”the matched jaws of a heartbreaker.” The payoff is for the husband who learns how useful it is to have a wife who loves him just like a mother.
Why can’t Updike’s men live happily, if incestuously, with both in the postpill paradise? Sex, Updike implies, frees men for other things, but binds women deeply to the men who please them. After the most ecstatic experience the couple is often left upset: the man wants to please (Updike’s men think like gentlemen), but knows he cannot give the woman what he thinks she wants (quaintly, it’s always marriage). Sally, who watches her lover rise, dress and run, feels left behind. Jerry finds himself engulfed by death anxiety so profound it must reflect his fear of immanent punishment for betraying both his wife and mistress.
Jerry is helpless before his need to wound. It is not Sally who brings up marriage but he who offers it to withdraw his offer, to tighten the knot of impotence and helplessness in which he holds her. His very passivity, his indecisiveness drips with his coercive attempt to involve her and Ruth into fighting it out between them, absolving him of responsibility, competing to see who can please him more, and mothering him all the while. Cornered between exasperated mistresses and wives, some of Updike’s heroes rhapsodize the disparities between what each sex wants, declaring woman is earthbound, man is stargazer. Sally is the “golden staircase” Jerry “can never climb.” But the stargazing, the religiosity of Updike’s good Christian men invariably involves a wish to look past female pain and their own sexual anger. They want to think well of themselves while blaming the mistresses who draw them with their clear, open sexuality for being too “pushy,” and their battered wives for being “frigid and pathetic.” While Ruth and Sally practice charity, (toward Jerry, not each other) Jerry plays God the father and Christ crucified.
Updike’s defense against despair is style, the spectacular management of perspective to overlook disaster. In conversation, he once spoke of a dream he had at 14 of a knight in armor who pursued a Polynesian girl across Europe. On her island he finds her, looks at her through a palm frond and dies. “I never wrote that novel, the historical one,” he remarked. But Updike imprinted its message in novels where to look too closely is to diminish the ideal woman with her own reality and to die a little oneself. Updike’s Jerrys regenerate themselves by not seeing the women they make love to. In sex Sally’s face is “a mirror held inches below his own face, a mirror of love more than another person. He asked himself who this was and then remembered it was Sally.” Then Jerry, the Jerrys, foil, belittle, betray, disappoint, but somehow never cease to in the women who so imperfectly stand in for the force to which they have given their lives, the Lady of Rebirth
Updike is not a sexual materialist. He is an idealist, perhaps by necessity. In Aaron’s Rod Lawrence worshipped the penis. Updike arrives at male narcissism by the modern route of irony, mocking Jerry’s vision of his erection as the Bodily Ascension. Updike’s Lawrentian religion makes sex the great reconciler. Sex as the origin and the goal, the moment of eternity, the mortality that feels like omnipotence, reconciles the conflicts of characters whose greatest fear is that the dead part of themselves may defeat the living. In A Month of Sundays Reverend Marshfleld jokes that there is no more beautiful phrase than “sexual object.” Updike’s characters are so in love with their objective that they cannot help, within the limits of the bed, loving the women with whom they achieve it. How should women feel? Like Yeats’s Crazy Jane? She confides: “Though like a road/That men pass over/My body makes no moan/But sings on; All things remain in God.” Updike’s happiest characters are those who do not lose the power to believe there are Janes who make it all possible.
Updike sees women as a prophecy of something better. The greatest love in Marry Me is Updike’s. It is evident in his lavish unsparing skill in creating Ruth. Her acid accuracy about her husband’s flaws is unaccompanied by any desire for revenge, any critical bent, any interest in throwing him out. Updike’s women are mirrors of his appreciativeness of the qualities of patient forgiveness and excitement his Ruths and Sallys divide between them. Ruth has more insight into her man than into herself. And while Updike is more grateful than any other male writer for the nobility of women, while he grants them every palm of virtue, he never seems to try to know how they might judge themselves for staying with a man who offers his arm, his hand in marriage, to help them fall.
The sign of Updike’s grace as a writer is the superb clarity with which he renders the man bewitched by his ambivalences. Not since Rabbit, Run, one of the finest novels of the past twenty years, has Updike written with such hard beauty of a man endlessly wandering the labyrinth of his own needs, irresistibly childlike in his faith in the magic of a woman, and abusively fearful of broken spells. Marry Me is a compassionate judgment of one kind of married man that brings to mind St. Augustine’s remark, “I kept my heart from assenting to anything, fearing to fall headlong, but by hanging in suspense I was the worse killed.”