restricted access Roger's Version: Updike's Negative-Solid Model of The Scarlet Letter
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Roger's Version:
Updike's Negative-Solid Model of The Scarlet Letter

As Frederick Crews has noted, John Updike carefully parallels his characters and events in Roger's Version to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (7). Professor Roger Lambert shares a name and role with Roger Chillingworth as the cuckolded older husband; Esther Lambert resembles Hester Prynne enacting the younger adulterous wife; as for Pearl, Updike gives us Paula, an elfin illegitimate little girl who asks the same question of every man who enters her mother's life: "Da?" Like Pearl, she accuses her father figures: "Da bad !" (258). Dale Kohler's occupation of the Arthur-Dimmesdale post derives from more than their sharing the syllable "dale"; Dale also expresses the Hawthornean Puritan concept of the wilderness as the Devil's country. Speaking of a vacation in Idaho that plays no other role in the novel, Dale says: "with these woods all around, to the horizon on all sides, and the little noises they would make—it just seemed all so hideously God less, if that makes any sense. I mean, I could feel the Devil. He was out there" (203). Although the novel contains another major character, Verna, whose place will be examined later, the similarity of names, roles, and attitudes can key us, in reading Roger's Version, to note Updike's reversal strategy.

Words addressed by Dale Kohler to a panel deciding whether or not to fund his scientific search for God provide an apt metaphor for Hawthorne's concept as applied in Updike's novel: "In computerized industrial design, such as the making of a die or a mold, negative shapes have an importance equal to that of their positive counterparts" (216). We can have a metaphor for realistic fiction because Dale plans, like a fiction writer, to "simulate our actual world, not in its [total] content so much as in its complexity" (216). In a two-character story, the operative image would be the photograph and its negative. The protagonist's story, the glossy color print, seems much superior to the ugly negative of the antagonist's story—until we consider that the negative actually produced the print. The negative seems ugly only because it is a step closer to the world, one step less finished by artifice. A guide to the literary impact of the image is Roger's study of the Early Christian heretics whose writings, although effectively suppressed, continue to fascinate scholars through their negative images in stern attacks upon them by the Church Fathers.

However, a photographic negative is flat and is thus an inadequately complex model for a great novel; we need at least two more dimensions. Dale's computer-graphic die or mold adds the third dimension needed to accommodate the third [End Page 241] member of the classic love triangle of husband-wife-lover. Solid shapes, Dale says, "can be created by moving a planar figure along a specified path in space" (216). Updike has used a similar metaphor in a literary/philosophical context when he says that Hawthorne's "axis of Earth-flesh-blood versus Heaven-mind-spirit with a little rotation becomes that of the world versus the self" ("Hawthorne's Creed" 78). Perhaps Updike's A Month of Sundays, with its characters named Professor Chillingworth and Ms. Prynne, is Arthur's contemporary version of The Scarlet Letter, while S. is Hester's version, the two forming a single complex object with Roger's Version, an object that Updike rotates in space and projects forward in time, each twist showing the construction to the reader from a different perspective. When, for Roger's Version, Updike adds the fourth dimension—time—and projects the story from the seventeenth century into the 1980s, he encounters a problem delineated by Frederick Crews. Noting that the Hawthornean pattern would be "undetectable by most readers," Crews asks what Updike gains by "turning his novel into a cryptogram" (9).

Because a cryptogram is a writing made up of a code or codes, Crews's answer may, perhaps, be found in an essay in Hugging the Shore, which reveals Updike's interest in Roland Barthes's theory...


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