Reading Updike and Roth.


Peter Sellick.


John Updike and Philip Roth are two writers at the peak of their careers, both American, both situated on the East Coast and both focused on the human dilemma.  They differ in that Updike is Christian and his novels spring from those roots while Roth is vehemently antireligious. This gives us an interesting opportunity to “compare and contrast” these two highly skilled and perceptive writers in the hope that we might discover what being Christian means at this level of intellectual life.  Both writers write powerfully and truthfully about the human dilemma and it is the nature of narrative to have to be a truthful account for it to work as art.  This essay is an analysis of some of these writer’s works in an attempt to draw out the difference between the point of view of a Christian writer and one eager to be understood as a thorough going secularist.


One of the issues that arise from this kind of project is how much a determinedly secular writer is influenced the culture that produced him even if such an influence is disavowed? One could argue that without the Judeo-Christian tradition we would not be so fascinated by stories of the human as mirrors to human existence and would thus not have the form of the modern novel as it stands today.  It is not my intention to address this question which may be impossible to answer, but to observe what each writer writes, how they understand the human dilemma and the trajectory of their characters.


John Updike has written many novels that are consciously about religion in its gathered form.  I have in mind the following: A Month of Sundays, The Witches of Eastwick, Roger’s Version, S., a novel, In the Beauty of the Lillies and finally Terrorist. But it is one of his novels that deal more with secular religion and the social mores that they produce that I would like to treat in some detail.  I refer to his early Couples, a novel that explores the post pill paradise of the American middle class huddled in Tarbox a town on the coast 20 miles South of Boston.  The central character is Piet Hanema (earthman) who is married to Angela (of the Angels) and they have two daughters who exist as extras to the main drama of adultery and wife swapping.  Updike bas been accused of overemphasizing sex in his novels and there is certainly much of it, but this is not in the cause of titillation but to show how the characters connect with each other.  For example, Piet beds all of the wives in the circle of couples but ends up with Foxy whose underwear is not always clean and who felates him.  The marriage between Piet and Angela is deficient in that it is a union between a man of the earth and a heavenly creature.  Foxy is the earthly Eve and becomes his proper wife.  The demonic in the novel is represented by Freddy Thorne a dentist who cynically sees life in terms of decay and procures an abortion for Foxy.  He fails to penetrate Angela on one of the couple’s weekend sorties into the snow and adultery.  In the face of the angelic the demonic is impotent.


Piet attends the local congregational church with his daughter, Angela does not go.  Her nature is to deny the earthly.  She replaces the girl’s pets with look-alikes when they die unbeknownst to them to save them from contemplating death.  Foxy is an Episcopalian and in one of the games that Freddy Thorne invents for the couple’s amusement names the Eucharist as the most precious thing she knows.  While Angela exists slightly above the earth Foxy knows that flesh and blood are central.


The end of the novel and the end of the couple’s friendships, crossed as they are by infidelity, is marked by the spire of the Congregational church being struck by God’s own lightening and its fiery demise before the couples and the townsfolk.  There is an air of the circus, of entertainment. Freddy Thorne brings a beer. This event marks the transformation that has occurred in the little settlement of Tarbox with is streets named Divinity, Prudence and Temperance. The sexual revolution under whose auspices the adultery between the couples is enacted has overturned the old morality and led to the dispersion of the couples who are shunned by the new crowd who come to town. It also leads to God destroying His own Church.  There is wonderful irony in these closing pages.  As the couples are entertained by the burning church, pages of an old sermon from 1795 flutter to the ground bearing the following words.


“It is the indispensable duty of all the nations of the earth, to know that the LORD he is Lord, and to offer unto him sincere and devout thanksgiving and praise. But if there is any nation under heaven, which hath more peculiar and forcible reasons than others, for joining with one heart and voice in offering up to him these grateful sacrifices, the United States of America are that nation.”


Couples is about America’s fall from grace and that fall happens in the marriage bed leaving children stranded and community destroyed.


The novels of Philip Roth that are ideal contrasts to Couples are “American Pastoral” and “The Human Stain”.  Although there are instances in both books in which Roth derides religious belief as suffocating, both of these books are profoundly religious.  By that I mean that few other authors give us more insight into the human experience. 


These novels are devastating for the reader.  So much is discussed and at such depth that they haunt the reader and are apt to produce a new maturity in him.  They are devastating because Roth is the enemy of all human pretension and he carves and slices and probes so that all is laid bare and there is nowhere to hide.  He does this while telling us that all belief in salvation is futile, not knowing, it seems, that having our pretensions stripped away so accurately and with such a deft touch is a kind of salvation but one purely negative, devoid of the grace of God.  We die to ourselves but without hope of resurrection. Our baptism is a one way journey into condemnation and chaos.


The protagonists of these books are two American heroes who rise to prominence from a Jewish and a Negro background and live the American dream until all that they have built tumbles around them.  Both of these novels are tragedies that end in death.


American Pastoral is about a Jew, nick-named the Swede, who rises to fame and fortune initially because he is a great athlete but then via his father’s glove making enterprise.  His sporting prowess gives him the self confidence and the character to make a success of his life in business and family and to marry Miss Newark a Catholic beauty. They have a lone daughter.  There is a poignant scene in which the Jewish father interviews the prospective Catholic daughter-in-law in order to sort out how his grandchildren will be raised.  He bargains with her about religious practice and grants that the children may be baptized and that they may go to church at Christmas and Easter but under no circumstances can he permit them to eat the body and drink the blood of Jesus, echoing John 6:52. This is all in vain since neither the husband nor the wife is observant and the child is brought up in the ubiquitous spiritual wasteland of our prosperous time.  It is out of this vacuum that she becomes involved in radical politics (in the time of the Vietnam war) and plants a bomb in the local post office killing the local doctor.  She becomes a fugitive and leaves her family to cope with the damage the best they can.  But Mr. and Mrs. America do not cope and the marriage dissolves.  The daughter is found again towards the end of the book by her father. She has become a member of a sect that seeks only the death of its believers who are reduced to madness and ill health by paradoxically attempting to harm not even the bacteria that floats in the air. One cannot help but see that this is what Roth thinks of religion in general, irrational, life denying, suicidal.


Roth’s description of the Swede’s marriage is of an ideal to the extent that the reader is drawn to envy the constancy and the transporting sex.  It is as if he builds this marriage to the heights so that its fall will be even the more traumatic.  Again we wonder at Roth’s motive in this.  Even the best that he can envisage is brought down as if to push home his point that all ends in betrayal and death.


This is a novel about the idolatry of the American dream and its fragility.  While the daughter has two loving parents and lacks nothing, she is subject to terrifying forces which draw her on to murder. The parents are powerless to halt the slide into a politics turned criminal.  The book opens with the end of the story in which the Swede dines with the author and tells him a tale of success that shows no hint of the agony and desolation that has infected his life. Hubris wins out and there is no salvation.


This book has affinities to Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lillies which begins with the loss of faith of a grandfather and goes on to tell the story of the grandson who attaches himself to a Waco like sect and dies in the flames.  In Updike the loss of faith produces the vacuum into which many false and destructive gods then inhabit.  I am not sure whether Roth makes that connection even though it is an obvious interpretation of his story.


The Human Stain is about sin, obviously.  It is about a pale skinned Negro, Coleman Silk, who passes himself off for white, abandons his family, marries a white woman and becomes a professor of classics and dean of a small liberal arts college.  A moment in class undoes him.  After taking the role of students he remarks that there are two he has not seen in class and wonders aloud if they are spooks, meaning ghosts.  It turns out that the two missing students are black and that “spooks” is an old term for nigger.  The lovely irony is that he is accused of racism; he is hounded and eventually resigns at the age of 71.  His reputation is destroyed and he distances himself from the college and from colleagues who did not support him.  The iron is that on his journey up the academic ladder, having dispensed with his family in the most cold hearted way, robbing his mother of her grandchildren and letting go of the faith he was raised in so that many think he is Jewish, Silk is done in by the new secular religion of political correctness.


The focus of this novel is betrayal, both the dean’s betrayal of who he is and the college’s betrayal of fair mindedness and learning.  The stain referred to is that human element, not shared with the animals, that promotes the self at the expense of the deep bonds of family and colleagues.  In this novel Roth gives each character his or her due so that no one may be left whom we do not understand, from the talented and suave dean Silk to the traumatized and crazy Vietnam Vet to the abused and grieving woman whose two children are killed.  Roth will not deal in clichés, he will not let us lapse into prejudice, each character, no matter how disturbing, is drawn in detail so that we may understand. In theological terms each character is a child of God no matter how far he or she has wandered from Him and each deserves his story told.


In Updike and Roth we have two authors one of whom has acknowledged his debt to Christianity and the other who denies any connection to Judaism or Christianity.  Both write about contemporary American man with insight and accuracy.  We could say that Roth inherits from the Judeo-Christian heritage but does not acknowledge it, that he is living off capital that he does not recognise.  There is some truth in this in that that heritage has permeated and conditioned all of the culture of the West, it is in the air we breath and cannot be avoided.  Flight from this heritage into an imagined atheism or an attempted secularism or rationalism does not produce fecund works of art.  These traditions have no imagination and are essentially natural history, not the stuff that good novels are made of.  This is confirmed by the writing of the radical biologists and evolutionary psychologists.  They may be interesting in themselves but do not expect great works of art to spring from them.


In order to find works of art that are not influenced by the Christian tradition in the West we must go back to pre Christian times, to Greek tragedy. Aristotle understood these plays as being cathartic.  As they watched events turn from bad to worse they identified with them and were thus cleansed, a theory taken up in modern psychology.  That Roth makes his protagonist in The Human Stain a professor of classics is significant since this represents a humanism that precedes the Christian story.


The differences between Greek tragedy and biblical narrative are difficult to discern because of the breadth of each, especially the latter that includes legend, story, history, poetry and song.  However one obvious difference is that the characters in Greek tragedy are the playthings of the gods, they deal with implacable fate while those of the bible enact narratives that occur in partnership with the one God.  Thus the book of Job looks like an extended Greek tragedy, especially in the beginning in which God confers with the heavenly beings and they rather cold heartedly plot to test him. But it does not end like a Greek tragedy.  While the meaninglessness of suffering is addressed in full with no quarter spared, Job repents of his woes by acknowledging:


“Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did no know.” (Job 42:3)


In the face of human suffering God still reigns beyond our knowledge.  While I am no expert in Greek tragedy I have a sense that tragedy is unrelieved very much like the tragedy in Roth’s two novels. In Updike, Piet and Foxy exit the story to form a new life and even Rabbit, portrayed in Rabbit at Rest, whose only hymns are the advertising jingles on the car radio, at the end tells his son death is not as bad as it seems and his wife goes on to remarry.  These stories are not tragedies in the way that Roth’s are, life does go on and it goes on in hopefulness.


Roth is a humanist in the same way that biblical narratives are humanist, they are concerned with the human dilemma. This focus, latent in the OT, finds its full flourishing in the New with the Word becoming flesh, God becomes a man. The divine revelation is revelation of the nature of the man who is obedient to the Father. In Christ we see ourselves as the one made in the image of God. Thus any story that searches and finds the truth about man is akin to revelation.  That must be why we have art, which is insight tutored by the gospel.  Here we are left with our original question about the religious nature of Roth’s art.  Certainly he probes what it means to be human and does so with more skill than most.  Does this mean that he is an inheritor of the Christian tradition or is it enough for him to rely on the Greeks, and does it matter? 


 One can still be a brilliant describer of humanity without the Christian revelation, but this leads to a truly tragic view without remainder. The Swede dies in denial, projecting the perfect life and Coleman Silk dies without resolution to the charges made against him and leaving his racial secret intact to further haunt his children.  This is the view of nature raw and clear but always dominated by death which has the last say in all human dramas. Perhaps this is why Greek tragedy went into eclipse when Christianity spread through the ancient world, it was obvious that though one could identify with the tragedy of the protagonists and perhaps obtain some relief from ones own tragedy by identification, the picture of life as accidental and dark did not change.


Comparison of these stories from Updike and Roth allows us to dissect out two views of the world, one in the light of the revelation of God in Christ and the other without. The question about what Roth would write in the absence of the Christian story may be placed aside for another day. What is of importance is to understand that a brilliant observer and wordsmith is certainly able to produce a truthful human narrative.  However, with all its depth, that story will be a natural history of the human soul giving out only onto death.  As such it is to be much valued as are secular expressions like natural science.  But without the revelation guarded by the Church these stories will never open out onto life.  They will always be bound over to death.


Natural knowledge of the world is an essential part of theology. However, this knowledge must be tested for its authenticity.  This is most obvious in the human sciences in which the human person is reduced to mechanism be that physiological, psychological, evolutionary, neural or hormonal.  The reason the human sciences have distorted the human is that this science has gone its way without the theology of the human person.  Such is the methodology of these sciences that they discount such considerations and are apt to miss entirely the true nature of person. Roth similarly discounts the Christian and Jewish witness to the essential nature of man. But I would not say that he presents us with a distorted humanism, just a limited one.


Updike certainly gives onto hope in that his stories do not end so blankly in death. The richness of his work derives from his use of the theological stance.  His characters in Couples play out biblical roles, Adam, Eve, the angelic and the demonic.  It is how they interact, often sexually, that is most interesting.  The Christian story provides an interpretive framework that reveals a truth that is, without it, hidden. We are thus given a language that describes the world that is not limited by fact.  Roth’s description may be accurate and penetrating but it is set in a framework limited by the fact of death. Updike gives death its due but the Christian story does not let it have the final say. This is not naïve optimism but hope that is costly won.