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Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie are witches in a small Rhode Island town. Their lives are uneventful and petty, their magic mischievous and self-serving. When a mysterious man moves into town, they are instantly and inexplicably enamored of him and their witchy will takes a deadly turn. Updike captures the flavor of a northeastern small town in little interactions and vignettes. He also takes the time to write out the mechanics of witchcraft and includes specific spells or recipes for achieving certain goals. This lent a definite air of legitimacy and realness to his tale. But I feel many modern readers will find this book did not age well. I get the sense that it was understood at the that time that it was not a feminist book, and now there can be no doubt.
A Work of Feminism or a Condemnation of Feminism?
A key plot point of The Witches of Eastwick is that all of the women of Eastwick obtain powers after leaving a man or being left by a man. It sounds like a feminist premise—the men were holding them back and only after without them can the women assume their true power, or something like that? Not at all. The women we meet in Eastwick are crippled by pettiness, selfishness, and a severe lack of imagination. Here is an informative quote from Updike from an interview with New York Magazine:
The era in which I wrote it [the 1980s] was full of feminism and talk about how women should be in charge of the world. There would be no war. There would be nothing unpleasant, in fact, if women were in charge of the world. So I tried to write this book about women who, in achieving freedom of a sort, acquired power, the power that witches would have if there were witches. And they use it to kill another witch. So they behave no better with their power than men do. That was my chauvinistic thought.John Updike, from article Updike and the Women, Emily Nussbaum, New York Magazine
But women behaving “no better than men,” as Updike puts it, is not a chauvinist thought at its core: we are all people, we are all capable of deeds both good and evil. No, The Witches of Eastwick is chauvinist for a different reason. Updike puts on a show of elevating women by freeing them from the confines of their traditional housewife role and making them the main characters. But his task for the entirety of the novel is to undercut these women, by making them the most miserable, petty, dumb, racist, and evil people you’ve ever met. And the other female characters don’t escape his judgement either. As Atwood notes in her review of the novel, Updike “provides no blameless way of being female”.
Witchy Fun Waylayed
We always enjoy choosing a fun Halloween book, and this year one of the girls surprised us all with Halloween beverages on our porches (which we all dubbed ‘porch wine’ and now she is our ‘porch booze goddess’). We all walked into this novel with the expectation that it would be fun for Halloween because it was about witches and the book summary suggested it would be sexy too. Despite its extremely sexy set-ups, we agreed these are some of the most unsexy sex scenes you’ll ever come across.
Overwhelming Obtuseness and a Shining Frenetic Tirade
A major issue with the novel is its obtuseness. We are meant to understand right away that Darryl Van Horne is the devil and that he has beguiled the witches, but in seeking ambiguity Updike over-achieved. For much of the novel I was trying to understand why these women were pursuing this offensive, disgusting, and off-putting man. Another place where ambiguity reigned is the plot surrounding the parasites towards the end. All three witches experienced strange symptoms like weight loss and pain in chest near the ‘duodenum’. Then Darryl gives a sermon at the church in his wild, frenetic style in which he describes three parasites and their unique symptoms…the precise symptoms the witches have been experiencing. This plot point abruptly comes to nothing when Darryl moves away with Christopher and the witches find new husbands and also leave Eastwick. Regardless of its irrelevancy, I loved Darryl’s tirade, which can be read as a free-form poem independent of the novel. I adore its cosmic musings of a creator’s intentions and the Devil’s professional, persistent jealousy. It was a shining moment in the novel.
[The roundworm parasite] is as real a creature as you and me. He’s as noble a creature, designwise—really lovingly designed. You’ve got to picture that Big Visage leaning down and smiling through Its beard while those fabulous Fingers with Their angelic manicure fiddled with the last fine-tuning of old Schistosoma’s ventral sucker: that’s Creation. Now I ask you: isn’t that pretty terrible. Couldn’t you have done better, given the resources? I sure as hell could have. So vote for me next time, O.K.? Amen.The Witches of Eastwick, John Updike
Surprisingly, all three witches are unchanged at the end of the novel. We have often noted in our book club that being able to observe change in a main character gives a feeling of conclusion and natural progression to a book. Ie, if there is no change in our main characters, what was it all for? Even Darryl is the same, just as embittered and seeking, moving on to the next town. Maybe that was why the movie decided to…
Updike’s version of witchcraft is unsexy, unfun, and unoriginal in its critique of independent women. Updike crafted rather unforgettable characters and depicted northern small town living with great attention to detail, even as he clearly loathes every person in it. Not a single character escapes his grim view of humanity and he saves the majority of hateful characteristics for the three witches. Many readers will be able to tell that this book was intended as a “response to [Updike’s] feminist detractors”…and not in a good way. Check it out and make your own conclusions…
Wine Selection & Tasting Notes
Cupcake Pinot Noir. Scent: jammy vanilla. Flavor: green bell pepper, raspberry and blackberry. Light-bodied, slightly sweet, almost no tannins.
The Witches of Eastwick Discussion Questions
- Is The Witches of Eastwick a work of feminism?
- Updike wrote The Witches of Eastwick in response to criticism that his earlier books portrayed women as “wives, sex objects and purely domestic creatures.”
- A core mechanism of the magic in the novel is that women in the town of Eastwick obtain their powers by being husbandless.
- As Margaret Atwood says in her review of the work, “Mr. Updike provides no blameless way of being female.”
- The plot centers around the witches using their powers to sleep with other women’s husbands and then to kill a woman that marries a man they are not done sleeping with.
- Updike makes an effort to be playful and meta (and arguably achieves both), but his opinions about women are not satire. Consider this quote from Updike:
“The era in which I wrote it [1980s] was full of feminism and talk about how women should be in charge of the world. There would be no war. There would be nothing unpleasant, in fact, if women were in charge of the world. So I tried to write this book about women who, in achieving freedom of a sort, acquired power, the power that witches would have if there were witches. And they use it to kill another witch. So they behave no better with their power than men do. That was my chauvinistic thought.”John Updike, from article Updike and the Women, Emily Nussbaum, New York Magazine
- Is the concept that women could behave badly a chauvinist thought?
- Is The Witches of Eastwick still a chauvinist work?
- Did Updike pay tribute to feminist detractors with The Witches of Eastwick or did he write a great misogynist novel as a grand F-U, “an explosive mix of empathy and malice”?
- Discuss this Margaret Atwood quote:
What a culture has to say about witchcraft, whether in jest or in earnest, has a lot to do with its views of sexuality and power, and especially with the apportioning of powers between the sexes.The Witches of Eastwick Review by Margaret Atwood, The New York Times
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.The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike [A Review], We Need to Talk About Books
- Updike brings up the concept that women have an instinct to heal men using their sex.
- Is there any truth to this?
- Is there anything damaging in describing a man’s desire as a wound?
- Why doesn’t Updike discuss a woman’s desire?
It was fundamental and instinctive, it was womanly, to want to heal—to apply the poultice of acquiescent flesh to the wound of a male’s desire, to give his closeted spirit the exaltation of seeing a witch slip out of her clothes and go sky-clad in a room full of tawdry motel furniture.
Sukie had never slept with Clyde. But she had this mothering sense that she could give him health.
- In a book that features quite a bit of lesbian sex, why doesn’t Updike address the concept of a lesbian relationships? Was he constricted by his own setting or by his own beliefs?
That first night at Darryl’s, dancing to Joplin, they had clung together and wept at the curse of heterosexuality that held them apart as if each were a rose in a plastic tube.
- Pick a thematic summary for The Witches of Eastwick:
- Before plumbing, in the old outhouses, in winter, the accreted shit of the family would mount up in a spiky frozen stalagmite, and such phenomena help us to believe that there is more to life than the airbrushed ads at the front of magazines, the Platonic forms of perfume bottles and nylon nightgowns and Rolls-Royce fenders.
- There was so much dirt in life, so many eraser crumbs and stray coffee grounds and dead wasps trapped inside the storm windows, that it seemed all of a person’s time—all of a woman’s time, at any rate—was spent in reallocation, taking things from one place to another, dirt being as her mother had said simply matter in the wrong place.
- [The roundworm parasite] is as real a creature as you and me. He’s as noble a creature, designwise—really lovingly designed. You’ve got to picture that Big Visage leaning down and smiling through Its beard while those fabulous Fingers with Their angelic manicure fiddled with the last fine-tuning of old Schistosoma’s ventral sucker: that’s Creation. Now I ask you: isn’t that pretty terrible. Couldn’t you have done better, given the resources? I sure as hell could have. So vote for me next time, O.K.? Amen.
- “Kiss my ass,” he said huskily.