reception by the critics. The couples in this novel fear death, and in an attempt to reduce and cover up their fears, they sleep with their married friends, forming a sort of "infidelity cult." "Couples" does not celebrate marriage; it bemoans it. It does not celebrate adultery and infidelity; it shows how it can ruin marriages and lives. This book is more about a changing society, and how religion has given way to sex and a sense of loss. Piet Hanema is a modern man, selfish, self-gratifying, and afraid of death. His actions tear down two marriages, and build up another, indicating that even in infidelity, life, and love, goes on. Some argue that Piet and the other couples are immoral, however, in an ever changing world, their actions are less immoral and more sad, for they cannot be content with what they have, and are always searching for something more, something better, and something that can shield them from the realities of life, such as death.
Updike's classic novel, first published in 1968, is the story of ten couples that live in the tiny town of Tarbox, outside Boston. The small town and the close couples harbor a dark secret. The couples mingle socially with each other, but they also carry on with each other behind their spouses' backs. Central to the story is Piet Hanema, a carpenter and dissatisfied husband who looks for love anywhere he can find it because his wife, Angela, no longer loves him. Piet falls in love with Foxy Whitman when he remodels the Whitman's house. The couples are a bit snobby, a bit *****y, and the product of an upscale small town. The men are professionals, and the wives are bored. Some of them drink too much to drown their sorrows, and some of them, like Piet, have affairs. In another twist, both Foxy and Piet come from "broken" homes. Foxy's parents divorced as soon as Foxy married, and Piet's parents were killed in a car accident, hence his ever-present fear of death. They are both alone, even though they are part of a "couple," and so they reach out to each other. This is another theme of the novel, that even though all of these people are part of a "couple," they are truly alone. They might think they understand each other, but they do not. This is Updike's look at society, and how society is degenerating from a moral and religious society to an amoral and non-religious society.
Updike's style is deceptively simple. At first, the book simply seems to be a narrative of the lives of these diverse couples, but Updike weaves themes and symbols throughout the book, such as the Tarbox Congregational Church, the Kennedy White House, and even Piet's daughter and her hamster. They all represent the precariousness of life. Even JFK is not safe, and his assassination is a major turning point in the book. (Updike actually commented that the Kennedy assassination was the stimulus for writing the book) (DeBellis 122). The death of Kennedy is a turning point in Piet and Foxy's relationship, and not only indicates how important this theme of death and rebirth is to the novel, it reiterates how death can shake a nation, or a person to their core.
Freddy Thorne, the dentist in town is also the "thorn" in the side of many characters. He is abrasive and annoying, but he is also deceptively sharp and to the point. He says at one point, "The funny fact is, you don't get better, and nobody gives a cruddy crap in hell. You're born to get laid and die, and the sooner the better" (Updike 255). Freddy is the "devil" in the story - the anti-hero who makes the other characters think and react, and can read them quite well. He is annoying because he is so critical, but because he is so astute, too. He understands more of what is going on around him more than just about any character, and so, he is the conscience of the book, something that many of the other characters totally lack.
The author states his position quite early in the novel, when he writes, "He thinks we've made a church of each other.' 'That's because he doesn't go to a real church'" (Updike 7). Updike also weaves the Congregational Church throughout the novel, and its burning symbolizes death. It is the very real death of religion in the town, and the death of two marriages. Thus, his two major themes in the book are religion and death, rather than simply sex, as many might think. Updike uses graphic sex because it is shocking, and relates this to two of the most important happenings in life, religion and death. Sex is life giving, even as it leads to break-ups and chaos. Sex is also the complete opposite of most organized religions, which only look at sex as a means to procreate. Thus, Updike uses sex as another symbol of society and its fall. These shallow people, educated but not really "smart," are more interested in sex and the sex of their neighbors than they are in saving their souls. Updike's reliance on religion as an underlying theme here seems to make the sex all the more offensive, and yet titillating at the same time.
Death is probably the most prevalent theme in the book, and the motivation for Piet for many of his actions. He is so afraid of death that it clouds his judgment and takes over his life. Religion does not work for him, even though he is one of the more religious characters in the novel. Sex becomes the religion that he prays too, and it changes his life. He gives up his marriage and his family to be with Foxy, and this too has its roots in death - the death of the child they created together. All of Piet's relationships somehow center on death, or are the result of death. This theme is important to the novel and keeps it from degenerating simply into a novel about sex. It is a novel about much more, which is why so many critics have written about it and tried to unravel Updike's thoughts and complicated themes.
Frankly, while the writing style and tone of this novel were excellent, I did not enjoy the book, and I do not think most college students would either. The issues seemed old-fashioned and irrelevant, and it seemed like the main motive behind the book was simply to write pornography in the name of literature. In fact, one critic notes, "Years later, however, the novel's sex seems quite unshocking and even a bit dated" (Neary 144). It seemed dated, but it also seemed as if much of the sex was included in the novel was there for "shock" value. The novel was a bestseller, and many critics feel this was largely because of its sexual content, more than anything else. Reading about so much sex between these couples seemed to trivialize everything else in the novel. Updike may have had many themes in mind, but the book, centered on sex as it is, simply makes the characters shallow and uninteresting. They seem to have little else but open discussion and then sex on their minds. Surely, "real" people have more on their minds than sex and swapping partners. One critic wrote of Updike and "Couples," "He was thus intrigued by a new 'camaraderie' that often led to adultery and divorce but that promised a refreshing new start in the wake of the collapse of traditional religion" (DeBellis 121). This may be true, but instead, the book seems like a porn novel with modern issues and happenings thrown in to make it "literary." In fact, one critic called the book "the thinking man's Peyton Place" ("Other" xiii). Sadly, this seems to be the case. More shocking than revealing, the novel relies on sex too much, leaving the underlying themes wallowing under the character's frolics.
For me, the real issues of the novel were not the underlying themes, but the way the characters are all drawn. They discuss important topics, but for some reason, they do not seem real. They are almost caricatures of small town residents, from the cars they drive (MG's to station wagons), and the clothes they wear and toss off so frequently. One critic wrote of Updike's style of characterization, "Critics have noticed Updike's consistent avoidance of the heroic in his work. The richness of the fictional experience arises not from the stature of his characters but from the milieu in which they act" (Fleischauer 285). This book is no exception. The characters simply exist to have sex, and that seems like a shallow and senseless way to live. Updike might have been intrigued by a "new camaraderie" among people, but he illustrated it in a book that seemed less intriguing and more pornography.
Finally, death is a compelling theme in the novel, but…