Reading New England: The Witches of Eastwick

John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick (1984)

eastwickWhen I said I planned to read The Witches of Eastwick for the Reading New England challenge, I also said I didn’t expect to enjoy it — and I was right, I didn’t. So this is going to be one of the rare times on this blog when I talk about a book I did not like at all. Usually I prefer not to spend my blogging time on negativity, but this time I do want to try to work through my thoughts and see if I can articulate them in a comprehensible way. If you’ve read the book, I’d be very interested to hear yours as well — whether you agree with me or not.

According to the author himself, this is a book about female power; some even consider it a feminist book. But the power is entirely negative, life-denying, solipsistic. The witches themselves (three middle-aged women in the coastal Rhode Island town of Eastwick, who gain magical powers upon losing their men through divorce or death), are primarily interested in having affairs with a succession of local men, crowned by the newcomer to the town, Darryl Van Horne. All the men are unattractive, but Darryl — who is never explicitly identified with the Devil — is the most horrendous of all, with his ice-cold semen and rampant vulgarity. Yet the witches are obsessed with him and become murderously jealous when he takes up with a younger woman, with disastrous results. Does this lead them a moral awakening? No, only a few minor qualms, followed by escape with another set of magically conjured men. The end.

It was striking to me that the witches are all mothers, but they have barely any scenes with their children. They complain about them, they plot how to get them out of the way so they can have sex with their lovers, they groan about what terrible mothers they are. But we almost never see them interacting with them, and more than anything else, this made the book seem like a male fantasy to me. Get the children out of the way; insinuate yourself into the female brain, and see how all she thinks about is you, you, you. Other women are just obstructions to be gotten out of the way, or to make victims of petty revenge and spite; even animals who interfere with the pursuit of selfish pleasure are simply objects to be destroyed at will. And men are also objects of mere desire, disposed of when they become boring. Naturally, female power has a dark side, and maybe that’s all that Updike set out to portray; but I do not believe that’s all there is to it.

The handling of magic also bothered me. The book’s premise is that when women become free of the confines of marriage, they become witches in the literal, medieval sense: sprouting extra nipples to suckle their familiars, saying backwards Latin chants, making wax figures, and so on. This seems to be Updike’s idea of a joke; the novel takes place during the Vietnam era, when such women in a small town would indeed have been thought of as witches — so why not make that the truth?

The thing is, this spontaneous arising of witchcraft out of nowhere does not entirely make sense. Sometimes it’s intuitive and psychologically true (the witches making an image to destroy their enemy); other times it’s silly and over the top (turning tennis balls into various objects during a game). Some of their spells are primitive forms of sympathetic magic; others are more sophisticated, like the backward prayers that pop into their heads untaught. The mix of magics felt random and sloppy to me, and too un-subtle in its manifestations.

Was there anything I did appreciate? Well, Updike writes in a highly sensuous, tactile way, and turns some beautiful phrases. Nearly every description turns into a sexual reference, of course, making one feel trapped in the mind of a twelve-year-old boy, but at doing that he is very effective. Darryl, in all his sliminess, was a rather brilliant modern take on the unholy charms of the Devil; his sermon (held in a Unitarian church) was disgustingly mesmerizing, and his “Vote for me” ending fit right in with the political situation, both then and now. And there was one character for whom I felt a smidgen of sympathy and understanding, one of the men who is driven by the witches into madness and suicide. Finally, I felt there was a human character I could believe in — not particularly like or identify with, but at least find convincing. So it might be worth reading one of Updike’s books centered on the male perspective, where his writing might ring more true. This one, I’m afraid, held no magic for me.


21 thoughts on “Reading New England: The Witches of Eastwick

  1. It seems to me that if this book is about female power, then what he’s saying is that females with power are selfish and abusive. Like men with power. Or that the only women who can have power are women who will abuse it?
    I’m glad you decided to review this even though you didn’t like it – your review is thought provoking. And I’ll be sure not to read it, because it sounds like it would make me mad. Especially the relationship between the women and their children. This sounds about right: “…and more than anything else, this made the book seem like a male fantasy to me. Get the children out of the way; insinuate yourself into the female brain, and see how all she thinks about is you, you, you.”


    1. Margaret Atwood gave the book a favorable review when it came out, so maybe there is something I’m missing. But I do think that the lack of mother-child relationships makes any discussion of female power seem bizarrely truncated.


  2. As always, Lory, a wonderfully insightful and well-written review. I’ll echo Naomi, particularly in that the same sentences she quotes stood out for me as well. This sounds to me, well, like the very opposite of a feminist book. I thank you for the warning, and I won’t be reading it.


  3. I really admire reviewers who are able to articulate their reasons for not liking a book. In regard to this book, I have not read it, but your review almost makes me want to in a weird sort of way! The fact that all of that negativity as you describe it is considered ‘feminist’ by some makes me sad; what a twisted notion of female power.


    1. The irony is that once I get started, I can often go on at much more length about a book I didn’t like than one I did! It’s good to do once in a while, but I really don’t want to spend that much time and energy on such books in general.


  4. Well, now I really don’t want to read this book. 🙂 Having seen bits and pieces of the movie, I was never that intrigued with this story to begin with…and I’m not a real fan of Updike either. But you did a great job of reviewing a story you didn’t enjoy, and explaining why.


  5. I read this some time ago. I remember liking it but I may have missed some of the aspects of the aspects of the story and characters that you highlight.

    I remember that I liked how the characters were crafted. However I remembered them as being unlikable.


    1. Some characters I can love to hate — these ones not so much. However, I know some readers have enjoyed the black humor; I’m just not one of them.


  6. Great review! And it actually makes me want to try the book again to see what I would make of it now. I remember liking the movie a lot back in the 80’s and being disappointed with the book when I read it because it was so different from the film.

    The only other thing I have read by Updike is Rabbit, Run which was beautifully written, albeit depressing.


    1. The movie sounds quite different — not quite so bleak. If I do read more Updike, I’m definitely going to go in expecting it to be depressing.


  7. I suspect I’ve only seen the movie, with Jack Nicholson as the devilish lover. I think it’s also possible that in the mid-80s, a well-known “masculine” author like Updike writing a novel in which women were the protagonists and had some sexual agency was enough to get labeled “feminist.”


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