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Reviewed by:
  • Adultery in the American Novel: Updike, James, and Hawthorne
  • William T. Stafford
Donald J. Greiner. Adultery in the American Novel: Updike, James, and Hawthorne. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1985. 136 pp. $17.95.

I was first attracted to Greiner's book, aside from an abiding interest in the fiction of Updike, James, and, to a lesser extent, Hawthorne, because way back, some fifteen years ago, when I first read Rabbit Redux soon after it was published in 1971, I was reminded of the ending of The Scarlet Letter by the following exchange between Harry and his wife Janice at the end of Updike's novel: Harry: "All this fucking . . . makes me too sad. It's what makes everything so hard to run." Janice: "You don't think it's what makes things run? Human things?" Harry retorts: "There must be something else." In the review in which I first published this impression (Journal of Modern Literature 2 [1972]: 575), I also observed that Jill, from that same Updike novel, struck me as almost a mixture of Maisie Farange and Lolita.

Greiner nowhere notes these particular ties among Updike, James, and Hawthorne. He accomplishes, however, infinitely more. His overall thesis, I suppose it is fair if somewhat too simplistic to say, is mat in Updike's novels of adultery, he "unites both James and Hawthorne in applying a religious sensibility to a social dilemma," that "Updike is the contemporary inheritor of the Hawthorne-James literary continuum." His major texts are The Scarlet Letter, The Marble Faun, The Golden Bowl, Couples, A Month of Sundays, and Marry Me. His method, in the first part of this little book, is a meticulous display, in three brief chapters, of Updike's knowledge of Hawthorne and James, a display which includes an extended discussion of the complex James/Hawthorne relationship, especially as it relates to The Scarlet Letter but to some extent also to The Marble Faun. This is followed by a longish chapter on adultery and The Golden Bowl and a shorter one on adultery and Updike's marriage novels. The Conclusion is devoted to a brief history of the novel of adultery, especially in nineteenth-century American fiction and the preeminent places in that history occupied by Hawthorne, James, and Updike. The Golden Bowl, Greiner contends more than once, is "the premier novel of adultery in American literature."

I have no quarrel with that contention, although some of my genre-conscious colleagues might stew a bit about the problem of genre classification. In fact, I have no major quarrels with the book as a whole. Greiner is intimately familiar with his texts, with the appropriate scholarship and criticism, and he has a fine sense of American literary history. He is adept at relating issues such as those [End Page 286] of passion and freedom, passion and art, passion and religion as they variously apply, and he is equally adept at making significant distinctions.

He strikes me as exactly right, for example, when he observes that Updike "adapts Hawthorne's probing of the relationship among sex, guilt, and beliefs" with the "primary difference . . . that his adulterer accepts the lesson that Hawthorne rejects: that guilt can boost life as well as drag it down." I might wish that his otherwise fine discussion of The Golden Bowl had at least considered the possibility of viewing Charlotte as having regained the devotion of the Prince—and all terribly knows she has thus regained it—by the simple expedient of having out-Charlotted Charlotte. But this is obviously a quibble on my part and more an example of my quirkiness than of Greiner's.

Adultery in the American Novel is an important study in locating this niche in the canon for the fiction of John Updike. When Updike is also fitted into the canon via his relation to Melville and Faulkner, perhaps he will have secured the place this critic is convinced Updike so richly deserves.



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