restricted access "The Adulterous Society": John Updike's Marry Me
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"The Adulterous Society":
John Updike's Marry Me

[F]iction is also a mode of spying; we read it as we look in windows or listen to gossip, to learn what other people do.

—John Updike, Picked-Up Pieces (518)

The quintessentially private life that entered the novel . . . was, by its very nature and as opposed to public life, closed. In essence one could only spy and eavesdrop on it. The literature of private life is essentially a literature of snooping about, of overhearing "how others live."

—Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination (123)

The 26 April 1968 Cover of Time Magazine features a picture of John Updike. The illustration, in the manner of American realist painting, depicts Updike looking candidly out at the viewer from hooded squinting eyes. A black and white banner in the top right-hand corner announces "The Adulterous Society," and the cover implies that Updike has identified [End Page 61] a contemporary American phenomenon: not simply occasional or isolated adulteries but an entire adulterous society. One could be alarmed or thrilled, but the evidence is indubitable: adultery's secret and private existence, the closed activity of the bedroom, has been exposed; the bedroom door has been opened.

The article itself is illustrated by Titian's "Christ & the Condemned Fallen Woman" with the accompanying comment: "The Biblical woman accused of adultery would be safe in Tarbox [the town in Couples]; here no stones are thrown, only envious glances" (66). This article brings together many issues central to Updike's work: adultery, aesthetics, religion, and the dialogue between aesthetic movements which have promoted and deepened religious experience and the twentieth-century aesthetic movements which have emptied art of its sacred resonance. In what follows I want to turn to Marry Me, one of Updike's less frequently discussed novels, to make a contrast between the privacy implied by infidelity and the publicity implied by contemporary American attitudes committed to confessing the "truth about sex."1 In other words, after adultery has been publicly legitimated (in Couples and on the cover of Time) can it still maintain its transgressive, liberating, and, for Updike, quasi-religious status?

The issue of conjugal infidelity is much discussed by critics of Updike; but most critics read his treatment of this theme in the context of de Rougemont's elaboration of the Tristan and Iseult myth (discussed in detail by Updike) and the riddles of religion (exemplified by Kierkegaard, Barth, and Tillich, figures to whom Updike's essays and novels explicitly point). These analyses are convincing, and often illuminating, but by no means adequate to the tension between reticence and exposure, invisibility and [End Page 62] visibility, the private and the public, which Updike's novel is concerned to address.

The crux of Marry Me is simple enough: should Jerry separate from his wife Ruth and go to live with his "mistress" Sally? Jerry cannot decide. In the Kierkegaardian context this indecision may be read as the "dread" or "anxiety" produced in the face of uncertain "possibilities" (Concept of Dread 252-264). In the context of de Rougemont this indecision is precisely what animates desire: to choose is to have and to have is to put an end to desire. But one can also locate such indecision in a sociocultural context. As Franco Moretti notes, indecision is inseparable from the modern condition. Discussing Joyce, Moretti argues that the connection between possibility and anxiety, so central to Kierkegaard, has been eroded in contemporary society. "This connection," Moretti writes, "was still strong . . . in that great and pained exploration of the logic of a possible second life which was the nineteenth century novel of adultery. . . . In Ulysses, adultery has become a harmless pastime, and even the most extreme experiments of its Modernist imagination may well produce stupefaction but no longer evoke anything threatening" (246). Similarly, Tony Tanner views Updike's representation of adultery as emptied of its cognitive force. "A novel like John Updike's Couples is as little about passion as it is about marriage; the adulteries are merely formal and technical. Adultery, we may say, no longer signifies" (89). In Marry Me adultery is neither a harmless pastime, nor merely formal and...


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