Much has already been said about Couples – John Updike’s controversial 1968 novel about the lives and indiscretions of well-off couples living in the suburban town of Tarbox, Boston. At first glance, the novel may seem like a run of the mill erotic novel – tawdry and titillating, but nothing more. This was, in fact, the common perception that greeted the novel on its debut in 1968, hence its notoriety as a “controversial” novel. Much of its hype, however, is not lost, considering the amount of sex – illicit and otherwise – that graces the pages of the novel, as well as the forthright manner with which Updike boldly discusses these activities.
Scandal and notoriety prevented a proper and contextual understanding of Updike’s novel, leaving it languishing in literary purgatory. In time, however, with the changes in society and modern views on sex, Updike’s Couples has, to some degree, been resurrected and reevaluated with a different perspective and point of view. Though still shocking in its extensive discussion of adultery and lecherous behavior in general, the novel has finally emerged from under its tag as a bawdy piece of B-rated literature to become one of Updike’s signature novels.
No longer viewed as eroticized sensationalism, the novel is now seen as a representation of Updike’s most striking leitmotif: suburban adultery. If not erotica for eroticism’s sake, what then is the central thought in Updike’s Couples? Such is the question that this paper now intends to answer. This paper posits that John Updike’s Couples reflects the collapse of traditional values in the face of modernity particularly in the early 1960s. With the parameters of sexuality shattered by the advent of birth control, wealthy men and women living the “perfect” life are actually morally in disarray.
Society, despite its beautiful and urbane facade, is in reality rotting away and slowly experiencing a moral decay. The beauty of suburbia and its polished citizens stand in sharp contrast to the breakdown of social norms and propriety. Such is the theme of John Updike’s Couples. To prove so, it is necessary to first look into the writer himself, John Updike. Much of his writings reflect his personal opinions, of course, and understanding the writer will most certainly provide a better contextual understanding of the novel.
Moreover, it is necessary that a discussion of the era (early 1960s, under the Kennedy administration) be conducted in order to fully relay the circumstances that give way to the morally reprehensible “system” established by the titular couples. Lastly, this paper shall look into the juxtaposition of aesthetics (the beauty of both the people and the suburban town they inhabit) and the rotten structure of banality they willingly cling to. These are the significant aspects of John Updike’s Couples that shall be discussed.
First of all, who was John Updike? Little is known about Updike’s childhood, except that he was born to a middle class Pennsylvania family in 1932. John Updike’s interest in writing began with his mother’s instructions, herself a prolific writer. His mother’s influence proved intense and enduring, giving him the strength and courage to continue with writing. Despite the lack of sufficient funds for his education, Updike’s talents received recognition and earned him a full scholarship at Harvard University, where he joined the Harvard Lampoon.
Upon graduation, he joined the New Yorker, which published his first story, Friends from Philadelphia, in 1954. The story would soon be followed by several more of his writings, all published through the New Yorker. By the end of the 1950s, Updike was reaping the fruits of a successful literary career (Pritchard 2000, p. 2). It was not, however, his writing technique that caught the fancy of critics. Though fluid and never boring, it is not his efficient style that gained support for John Updike.
Unfortunately, his choice of subject matter overshadowed his style of writing, essentially giving way to the “controversial” tag. Couples is just one example of his unique point of view and manner of describing even the most intimate of details (Amidon 2005, p. 51). The mention and overt discussion of sex remained quite touchy, if not entirely taboo, even as society during the 1960s had significantly modernized. The effect of his controversial topics, however, had led to a period wherein his writings were shunned, to a certain degree, and remained misclassified as bawdy erotica.
“Suburban adultery”, a topic most associated with John Updike, is born of his own experiences in grappling with the temptations of sex and desire. The writing of the novel Couples came at a time when he was completely confused in his personal life, particularly with regards to his marriage. Updike was in the middle of a passionate love affair and was, in fact, contemplating filing for a divorce. In the end, he decided not to push through with the plan for divorce (Pritchard 2000, p. 119).
The topic, therefore, is described vividly in every scene of the novel, reflecting Updike’s own struggle with his inner demons and the destruction of the institution of marriage before his very eyes. The crumbling of his own marriage proved to be the very basis of Couples. To Updike, a certain degree of the story of a failed marriage is “sad magic” (Pritchard 2000, p. 124). Extramarital relations for Updike are not erotic, despite the manner with which he describes the sexual activities of his characters in the novel.
Rather than titillating, the goal of Updike’s prose is to portray the emptiness that these affairs and illicit relationships cause. There is no desire to eroticize or sexualize the characters; the idea is to present the weaknesses of their personalities and the ramifications of unbridled desire. It is not specifically aiming for preaching either, focusing only on the emotional hollowness that gives birth to the seed of lust and temptations in the first place. As Updike himself explains, his idea of sex in his literary achievements is far from intentionally erotic.
Rather, the idea is to create a portrait wherein sex is a tool; it is a means by which Updike indicts the weaknesses of society’s moral fiber. As he said of sex in his writings in an interview with CNN, “I’ve seen it said of my work that it’s ‘anti-aphrodisiac,’ that it doesn’t – that my descriptions of sex doesn’t turn you on. But they’re not really meant to do that. I mean, sex described in detail is not a turn-on” (Austin 1998). Updike is far from a prude, true, yet his writings are not erotic for eroticism’s sake.
The goal is to present moral weaknesses, not join banality. Unlike the earlier accusation of critics, the story of Couples is far from erotic, despite its routine use of sexual scenes and explicit activities. The story revolves around the lives of several couples living in an upscale community in Tarbox – a fictional suburb located in Boston. These young couples live wealthy lifestyles and have enough time on their hands to fool around. Piet Hanema, for example, is a serial adulterer. He has trysts with Foxy, as well as with several more of the novel’s women.
His decadence is merely one of the morally bankrupt scenes in the story. It is not just Piet, though, who experiences a life of immorality and lack of a moral center. The couples engage in “wife-swapping” activities, such as in the case of the Applebys and the Little-smiths. None of the members of the community are entirely above the erotic rondalla, sending everyone in the community into a moral tailspin. In the end, however, it is Piet and his mistress Foxy who are cast out from the lot. Piet, since the beginning of the novel, is insistent on gaining freedom from his marriage.
Though initially not bent towards the destruction of his own marriage, in the end, Piet divorces his wife Angela and his thrown out of the apartment with his mistress. As Greiner (1984) points out, “lovers are drawn as much to what destroys marriage as to what supports it” (p. 146). They are far from completely beyond the trappings of love, hence its effect as a double-edged sword. While it is love that bound two souls together under the sacrament of marriage in the first place, it is also “love” or whatever passes for it that successfully questions the sacrament and stands as a threat to its stability.
Despite accepting the sacrament of marriage and his chained life, Piet needs and wants room, seeking sex and love from elsewhere despite his wife’s presence. There is a need to hone his skills as an illicit lover, and the adrenaline rush of such relationships do exist. And yet despite their illicit activities and immoral actions, Updike refuses to view his characters as villains. They are far from perfect, given their morally unstable relationships, and they are all tottering over the edge of hell with their hypocritical Presybterian lives.
None of them truly lives up to the Christian ideals, and they can be described as having their own religion – the religion of sex and lust. Despite these errors and flaws, however, the characters are not evil per se. They are, rather, personifications of Updike’s understanding of suburbia and the moral decay that goes on behind the facade of wealth and propriety. They are weak, not evil, and are merely caught in the struggle to keep up with the liberal times even with the significant changes in society during this period (Greiner 1984, p. 148).
Unfortunately, the highlighting of adulterous Tarbox soon became news across every home in the United States. Rather than view the sublime veins incorporated in Updike’s novel, it was soon branded sensationalized and controversial. Protests emerged, decrying Updike’s use of explicit words and graphic portrayal of sex. Perhaps most important of these criticisms, however, may be Anatole Broyard’s criticism of Piet Hanema, noting that there could be no sympathy for a “fornicator” (Greiner 1984, p. 149). In this the critics see the point of Updike’s novel, yet completely miss it as well
To classify Updike’s novel as no more than a potboiler is to ignore its finer and less prominent points. To many, the adulterous activities and their graphic descriptions are the core of the novel. Looking past beyond such however, is the only way to find the true meaning of Updike’s Couples. In the world of Tarbox, sex is just another ordinary day. Despite their preoccupation with it, sex is not the core of the community. It is, of course, an ironic glue that brings various couples together and inevitably unhinges them when the time comes.
The characters are simply wandering from one relationship to another, in search not of true love, but of companionship and momentary beauty. Rather than portray the couples as treacherous villains determined to subvert the values of the day, Updike presents them as brats unwilling to succumb to the demands of married life. The central concept of their lives is “fun”, and with the end of each day, beyond the trappings of the suburban community, husband and wife find themselves alone with the bills, the children, the leftover food and the dishes to wash.
To a certain degree, such a relationship is less exciting and not quite as desirable as spending time with the equally bored neighbors (Grenier, 1984, p. 151). The couples, therefore, are far from total villains and much easier to understand as adults with the minds of young children, unwilling accept responsibility yet entirely willing to pursue the cult of fun. To say that they are the product of a determinedly lost generation is to heap unnecessary blame on the characters. It is not that they preeminently wished for the structure of such a morally reprehensible situation.
The issues in the novel are, in fact, the product of the times. The characters are merely swept up in the current, following the changing values and transitional problems that occur when modernity clashes with traditional values. There are changes in society, with growing wealth and scientific advances, and it is simply not possible to ignore the changes; the characters succumb to the call of the “wild” despite their surface urbanity. As mentioned earlier, it is not an innate “evilness” that Updike wishes to uncover in his Couples.
The underlying core is less sinister than what critics and censors of his day had easily assumed. In truth, the story of Updike’s novel is no more a potboiler than a thriller. It is simply a portrayal of Updike’s own nostalgic view of the changes in society, including the slow deconstruction of a small town similar to the one he grew up in. Throughout the novel, the tone is largely wistful, reminiscent of a different past. There is something in the manner with which Updike contrasts the beautiful town and the rotting away of its core; a resounding sigh seems to escape Updike’s lips with every word.
Much of the story’s very core is essentially reliant on the time frame of the novel. Updike pegs it on the early 1960s, under the Kennedy administration. As he himself pointed out, there is no way that the plot could’ve existed in a different era. He noted that the action “could have taken place only under Kennedy; the social currents it traces are as specific to those years as flowers in a meadow are to their moment of summer” (Neary 1992, p. 144). There is something specific in the era that Updike particularly takes note of: the introduction of the bill and the liberation of women from the yokes of pregnancy.
Without fear of pregnancy hanging over their heads, sex outside of marriage becomes a much more realistic possibility. It is what Updike calls the “post-pill paradise” (Sheed 1968), a world wherein the problem of unwanted pregnancy no longer exists. Updike describes his characters as wealthier than their predecessors, having been born into an era of relative prosperity. There is no limit to their desire for fulfillment, regardless of the price. They are driven by the id, raised in a culture of “me” and supported by the changing society. It is not just Tarbox which is changing.
It is far from a microcosm entirely separate from the rest of society. Updike does not portray the suburb as a cancer entirely separate and different from the rest of the country. Rather, the suburb of Tarbox is a representative of many. The characters, themselves generic, are easily interchangeable and quite possibly recognizable in any town across the United States. In this world of change, not omly the couples of Tarbox are transformed. They are part of a larger social transformation, and Updike’s focus on their interactions and illicit affairs present his understanding of society (not just suburbia) in general.
The couples, though seemingly too deviant and unbelievable to be considered general stereotypes, are in fact Updike’s definition of the moral breakdown of society. It is not an indictment of suburban life (despite the use of the term “suburban adultery”). The location of his subjects is more of a realistic portrayal than an unfair indictment. His judgment is not one of localization. Rather, Updike is presenting the class most affected by the changes in the Kennedy administration, primarily due to their wealth and social status.
It is also in this level that the reality of class versus crass becomes most realize. Behind the beautiful homes and educated facades, there is darkness. The players randomly select their next partner, playing a grand, elaborate and ritualistic game of musical chairs with their neighbors. Play, again, is a significant theme in Updike’s novel, being the central concept that drives the couples to pursue sexual adventures again and again. The significance of the time period should not be ignored. Updike describes his characters as the products of national tribulations.
Following the Great Depression and World War II, these young couples find themselves thrust into a new America, one that struggles to keep up the facade of decency while slowly eroded away by modernity and the vulgarity of the new world order. These characters are far from intentionally indecent, however. Their initial goal was to be enveloped in beauty, separate from the staleness of the rest of the nation and the vulgarity that threatens to creep up the morality ladder (Sheed 1968). In the end, however, they find themselves in a vulgarity of their own making, hidden under the sheen of decency and beauty that the suburbs signify.
Quoting Updike, “the ultimate influence of a government whose taxes and commissions and appetite for armaments set limits everywhere, introduced into a nation whose leadership allowed a toothless moralism [sic] to dissemble a certain practiced cunning, into a culture where adolescent passions and homosexual philosophies were not quite yet triumphant, a climate still furtively hedonist” (Neary 1992, p. 146). The passage describes Updike’s view of the world in which the couples were molded. For all their failures and flaws, these characters were but the products of a bigger problem.
Society itself, led by the government, was far from the pristine, moral structure it once was. The Applebys, the Little-smiths, the Guerins, the Constantines, the Hanemas etc. are merely the by-products of a flawed era. The destruction of society, therefore, does not begin and end with suburban adultery. It is merely a microcosm of a larger decay – one that goes beyond the wife-swapping activities of the inhabitants of Tarbox, Boston. In part, Updike’s focus is on the period and the circumstances that give rise to the opportunities for suburban adultery. One significant detail that Updike notes is the introduction of birth control.
Whereas the novels of the 1950s focused on the “everyone is pregnant” motif, in Updike’s novel it is more of an “everyone is guilty” narrative (Greiner 1984, p. 145). Previously, pregnancy outside of marriage was the biggest obstacle for illicit lovers. Physical consummation, after all, could always leave an undeniable proof in the woman’s womb. With the introduction of the pill, however, a new “paradise” is opened to the people, with the characters of Updike’s Couples taking full advantage of the situation. These new methods of birth control had, to some effect, liberated the characters from the burdens of pregnancy.
Now as long as his mistresses would remain on the pill, Piet would have no problems keeping his affairs in order. No longer would the characters of Updike’s novel fear the repercussions of sex outside of marriage, hence the ease with which they gradually fall into the abyss of sexual debauchery and adultery. And yet it seems as if this is just the tip of Updike’s metaphorical discussion. More than an indictment of the potentially “evil” consequences of birth control (such as the encouragement of promiscuity, perhaps), Updike’s inclusion of the pill is less of a reproach and more of a symbolism.
It is not the pill per se that drives the characters into the arms of others. It is the slow break-down of society, particularly religion. The pill is merely a tool by which society slowly presents its disintegration. In itself, it cannot be identified as the cause of social decay. Rather, it is a sign of the changing times – a symbol of the struggle of the old traditional values to keep up with the changes in the modern world. In Updike’s own point of view, the concept of the novel is not really adultery. It is a discussion of the disintegration of society through the disintegration of church.
Marriage, after all, is a sacrament. The destruction of marriage, therefore, does not signify the end of a union alone. It is a metaphor for the slow destruction of the church and its foundations. Sex is the new religion (Greiner 1984, p. 149). With the church crumbling and religion not as reliable as it once was, the characters of Updike’s Couples seek comfort and solace from another source. Marriage is not enough to provide the human warmth the characters require. They are not villains, just people trapped by circumstances and incapable of escaping from the needs of the flesh.
It is a religion in itself, this search for fun. Quoting from the jacket blurb of Couples, Sheed (1968) notes how one character is supposed to be a priest and the other a scapegoat. In some ways, the idea of a spiritual leader leading the empty towards greater hypocrisy and shallowness is apt for the story. Fred Thorne is identified as the priest, the leader who organizes parties and games for the bored couples. His party on the night of Kennedy’s assassination is telling; the couples swear to be solemn yet soon revert to their partying ways.
In a sense, this invokes a feeling of emptiness, of floating through space. These characters have nothing else but their physical selves to cling to. The government’s leader is assassinated, God strikes his own church with lightning and society is giving way underground to new bores. In essence, they are free of religious and political encumbrances, only to realize that without these structures there is almost nothing to hold on to at all. In the end, there is nothing but the warmth that sex provides – be it illicit or otherwise – giving a physical reality to the world.
Without this physical connection, they are lost. The couples move around, shuffle in their beautiful clothing and beautiful homes. Beyond the facade however, are emptiness and a world of gradual moral decay. Works Cited Amidon, Stephen. “Unzipped: John Updike’s Prose is as Supple as Ever in This Chronicle of a Lifetime’s Erotic Exploits. ” New Statesman, 134. 4724(2005): 51 Austin, Jonathan. “His Characters Allow Updike to be ‘Free’. ” CNN. Com, 16 November 1998. Available 27 April 2008, from http://edition. cnn. com/books/news/9811/16/updike/index.
html Greiner, Donald. John Updike’s Novels. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1984 Neary, John. Something and Nothingness: The Fiction of John Updike and John Fowles. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992 Pritchard, William. Updike: America’s Man of Letters. South Royalton, VT: Steerforth Press, 2000 Sheed, Wilfrid. “Couples. ” The New York Times, 7 April 1968. Available 27 April 2008, from http://www. nytimes. com/1968/04/07/books/updike-couples. html? pagewanted=1 Updike, John. Couples. NY: Ballantine Books, 1999
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