Reviewing a Scene: Three Witches in a Tub

Flickr image by Automania

I wrote previously that John Updike’s novels are organic creations that bulge and stretch in certain scenes. The end of the first of Witches of Eastwick‘s three lengthy chapters has one of those. I’ll be looking at another such scene in a post next week, so come back!

The first chapter of the novel is called The Coven. The second and third are Maleficia and Guilt. Before getting to that big scene that ends the first chapter, what do the chapter titles say about the book? For The Coven, we would expect an introduction of the players. These are the members of this witch society that will frame our story. The second chapter, Maleficia: Obviously something wicked will happen that will build tension and approach a climax that we reach in Guilt, the final chapter that implies the aftershocks of some evil, leading implicitly to an unsatisfactory last line. What will that last line be and what will it mean?

On to the Tub Scene.

The tub scene takes up a fifth of the 120 page first chapter. It is slovenly and sensual. The witches have just finished a game of tennis doubles with Darryl Van Horne at his court, built on the former nesting grounds of some pathetic and now displaced snowy egrets. There is a share of banter about how the women should get back to care for their children. It’s Halloween after all and who knows what’s going on back home. This is one of the many pathetic references to these women’s children. More on them in another post. Eventually, the girls agree they’d rather be here with this hairy man instead of at home. So they make for Van Horne’s “eight-foot teak hot tub.”

Some more glimpses from the scene. Van Horne’s towels are monogrammed with an M (Yawn. Mephistopheles). The heat of the tub implies a boiling of the women, and also a shriveling of their skin, giving a nod both to their natural aging and the desire to “cook” them as witches and, inevitably, in the fires of hell. But even more than that, the water gives the women sensory deprivation. They float outside of space and time.

There is a great deal of anatomical observation:

Van Horne’s penis floating like a pale torpedo, uncircumcised and curiously smooth, like one of those vanilla plastic vibrators that have appeared in city drug store display windows now that the revolution in on…

The bathers discuss gender roles and Freudian things like what comes in and out of the body, how it is all different and the same. They discuss typically unsexy things like childbirth, and the mechanical utility of things like breasts and ears. Then, after drinking and smoking, there is massaging. Then there’s this:

The three women played with him together, usin ghte parts of his body as a vocabulary with wich to speak to one another…

Anyone have a reaction to that line? And what is the point of this whole passage, this sensuality and humanism? Are we supposed to approve or disapprove? What does Updike think?

This novel is written about the 1960s, about characters that are roughly Updike’s age at the same time. And yet it was written in the 1980s, at the zenith of the self-indulgence building over three decades. I’ll wrap up with a quote from a David Foster Wallace review of another Updike novel, where he makes a similar observation.

I’m guessing that for the young educated adults of the 60s and 70s, for whom the ultimate horror was the hypocritical conformity and repression of their own parents’ generation, Mr. Updike’s evocation of  the libidinous self appeared redemptive and even heroic. But the young  educated adults of the 90s — who were, of course, the children of the same impassioned infidelities and divorces Mr. Updike wrote about so
beautifully — got to watch all this brave new individualism and self-expression and sexual freedom deteriorate into the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation.

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