John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick (1984)
When 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.