The Witches of Eastwick was the closest that John Updike ever came to understanding feminism in his literature. Given the time and the context, he could not help but see the frustration behind the rush of the second wave feminists, the passionate need of women to be recognized as people in the eyes of each other and in the eyes of men. For a brief moment, he understood. It is easy for me to believe, after reading quite a lot of his work this week, that even after he developed some small, passing sympathy his misogynistic hatred for women as people grew.
The Widows of Eastwick is a sequel that revisits the characters he created in the seventies while the second wave of feminism was in full flow. It is quite possibly the most intentionally hateful book that I have ever read. Sexy Sukie, motherly Alexandra, and elegant Jane have been reduced to gross caricatures of the full-fleshed characters they were in the first book. Jane is scrawny, saggy, her speech prefixed by a stuttering ‘sss’. Alexandra has gotten fat, she has a bad dye-job, and she is plagued by rotten-vagina stench. You have no idea how much I wish that I were making this up.
Sukie, in her 60’s, is re-painted as a shallow, wanna-be Barbie clinging to a ragged version of the sensuality she used to flaunt. He presents her desire for sex as something so perverse and laughable that he has her try to seduce a toothless, maimed slob, who publicly rejects her. The implication is that once her womb dried she should have done the world a favor and blown away immediately into dust.
He has lingered on the unfulfilled, unsuccessful ways that their souls and bodies have declined. Now that their fertility is gone, there is no purpose for them. Their pretense at power is laughable and dangerous, for them. Over and over again he emphasizes that the power the women experienced in the first book was all in their head. He says, and has his characters repeat, over and over again that the only real power the witches enjoyed emerged from their sexuality- and now that they are no longer attractive they are empty hags. He does not say that there is no magic in the world; the emphasis is on the ‘fact’ that the women never had it. This is an important distinction later on.
He lingers over their physical decrepitude in a way that could almost be called loving if it contained less spite:
The little fluttering candle flames dug down into the drums of colored wax, bringing up a sickly perfume that concealed and forgave whatever odors drifted from between the unholy wantons’ legs, their nests of once thick and springy curls turned gauzy and gray, pubic clocks ticking unseen, decade after decade, in their underpants.
The fact that the writing is technically good makes this book even worse. In Updike’s mind there is no possibility at all that a woman who refuses to fit into the roles the author has laid out for her could ever feel fulfillment. Take this example, a speech that Updike puts in the mouth of Alexandra’s grown-up ‘good’ daughter, the child that the witch ‘neglected’ in order to make her sculptures (more on those in a second) and practice her other, admittedly darker, art: ‘What about children? Isn’t having them and loving them power enough for most women?’
This is the daughter, the author reminds us, who did the right thing by giving up her ‘foolish attempt at real art, lowering her expectations, and mothering her children.’ Over and over Updike states that the women were selfish, not in their actions, but in their desires. Their desire to be seen, to be more than mothers, was their real evil act. That is why he is punishing them. That is why the author feels justified in punishing them.
In the first book the witches developed their arts, gaining skill and success as their inner power grew. Sukie became a better writer, Jane a more passionate cellist able to tackle pieces of greater complexity and skill, and Alexandra’s sculptures, her little woman-shaped ‘Bubbies’ started selling enough to support her and her children.
Now Alexandra has given up sculpting so that her new husband could use the wheel- he was better at it anyway. Jane realized that she was never that good at the cello (her improvement was all in her brain), so when her dog chewed it up she never got a new one, and Sukie’s literary ambitions have dwindled to churning out grocery-store romances, possibly because the idea of even a bad writer stopping at all is too awful, too fearful a thing for an author to contemplate. Her art was too much like his own for the author to destroy. Deride her work as much as he will, Updike cannot make that art stop without betraying his own worst fears.
This gives me a glimmer of hope that, on some level, he might not have believed what he wrote. That he might not have settled the matter of the rights and roles of women as much as he’d hoped when he murdered Jane with an (I’m not kidding) exploding womb in the centre of the idiotic pentagram he drew for her with dish detergent. That he might not have totally meant it when he put these words in Sukie’s wilted mouth:
‘My God.’ Sukie said. The Goddess had evaporated. The moon burning outside the window leaned its near-full orb toward the unseen sun. Both women in their nakedness struggled to embrace and right the body of the third; Jane had gone limp as a drained wine skin even as she convulsed in spurts of writhing resistance to whatever was possessing her.
I hope, I sincerely hope, that Updike did not die believing that women who dare to want more out of life than what men think to give them deserve to be raped. Though the fact that they are killed by a coven of ‘good’ women who submit to the rule of a beautiful Apollonian man (who is the only one who does have real magic) rather leads me to doubt it. This book was published in 2009. It was given a good deal of largely positive attention. Ten years ago, I would have read it and been bothered by it, but I would not have been able to say why. Now I can. I thank God for feminism and the authors, male and female, who focus their power on more loving ends.