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John Updike

London: Hamish Hamilton, 2004.
£17, 99. 321 pp., ISBN 0-241-14308-x.


Reviewed by Gerardo Del Guercio.



John Updike’s Villages traces the moral and sexual development of protagonist Owen Mackenzie from childhood to retirement. Owen Mackenzie is an interesting protagonist because the years spanning his childhood in the 1950s to his adult years in the twenty-first century encompass major shifts in American ideology and society. Technological developments like the computer industry and increasingly degenerating sexual morals ultimately transform Owen into a selfish individual who will sacrifice close relationships in order to satisfy his own personal desires. Segments from the first four chapters of Updike’s novel initially appeared in the New Yorker under the titles “Sins Early Impressions,” “Elsie by Starlight,” and “Villages Sex-III.” John Updike’s goal is to demonstrate the radical changes in American culture during the postmodern era by comparing the variants between Owen’s contemporary marriage and the traditional one of his parents. Degenerating sexual morals, technology, and human alienation are what John Updike argues are the main differences between the traditional and postmodern marriage. The resolution that John Updike advances in Villages is that wealth does not always garner respect and that money should not be the sole gauge of success.

Owen Mackenzie’s story commences in Haskells Crossing during his retirement with second wife Julia. Although Owen is very satisfied with the life that Julia has provided him, he feels tremendous guilt for having trapped Julia into a mundane familial life. Owen considers Julia’s decision to marry him “a suicide [made] in reality a murder” [6] since he believes that Julia could have led a much more fulfilling life had she remained unwed. The perspective Owen has on marriage is largely contingent on limiting the wife into a constricting life that denies freedom from the home. Furthermore, Owen sees marriage as a reflection of his parent’s relationship—most notably his mother with whom “his sympathies lay” [10] for having spent her entire life caring for the family instead of perusing goals that would have made her life much more gratifying. Mrs. Mackenzie’s child-rearing years were spent in 1930s when American women were automatically delegated to the domestic sphere. Dialectics of this sort compel Owen Mackenzie to view women as both complacent wives and mothers or as mistresses that men must use to release their inhibitions on.

Mr. Mackenzie plays an important role in Owen’s conception of self-definition. In Owen’s estimation, the ideal husband must properly provide for his family. In the past, men who found themselves “at mean economic levels” [56] would typically “generate dependency and fear by rages and beatings.” Men who still feel tempted to exercise such control are now “tamed by the impossible costs [of divorce], in an old age rich in jointly owned savings and equities and real estate of divorce.” The secrecy that Owen insisted on maintaining about the various extra-marital affairs he had on his fist wife Phyllis were based on his fear of not only ruining his family, but of losing a costly divorce trail. Men’s economic power over women therefore no longer completely disempowered women once they entered the marriage market. Owen avoids becoming what he terms the “pathetic and unnecessary” [56] man that his father was. Although Owen attains the financial achievement that his father could never reach, Owen’s infidelity towards Phyllis actually makes him morally inferior to his father who always remained faithful to his wife.

John Updike continues the theme of parental upbringing and child development through Owen and Phyllis’ marriage. Owen’s first marriage can be considered rather traditional in that he met Phyllis in an academic environment. The purpose Owen initially had was to impress Phyllis with his “mocking parodies” [85] intending “to abase himself before her [as] the clown, the pretender, daring to present himself before the princess.” Moreover, Owen’s first marriage was a traditional one that reinforced the idea that an intelligent woman naturally becomes relegated into living a domestic life once she falls pregnant. Traditional marital roles logically obliged Phyllis into housework so that the children would receive proper guidance. Phyllis consequently fell into the same situation that Mrs. Mackenzie was in, given that child-rearing impeded both women from forming their own individuality. The feminism Phyllis practiced during her coed years at MIT was ultimately effaced by a pregnancy that never allowed her to peruse a brilliant career in computer engineering. John Updike’s contention strongly suggests that the male dominated market economy of the 1970s inherently stifled women into a life that guaranteed that they would never reach their true potential.     

Shortly after graduating from M.I.T.’s computer engineering program, Owen Mackenzie formed E-O Data with former classmate Ed Mervine. E-O Data’s main project was the DigitEyes pencil that allowed computer users to draft electronic documents using a special note pad. Phyllis’ loyalty towards Owen is comparable to the faithfulness that Mrs. Mackenzie demonstrated to her chronically unemployed husband in the sense that Phyllis remained by Owen’s side despite how the “new version of DigitEyes [was] selling very slowly” [164] upon its release. Owen unfortunately did not reciprocate his wife’s dedication as he engaged in several extra-marital affairs. In fact, the more money Owen earned, the more he would frequent other women. Market economy and (im-)morality are strongly correlated in John Updike’s Villages for the reason that women are treated as commodities that successful men should be allowed to purchase easily. Phyllis eventually discovered Owen’s unfaithfulness, but forgave him nonetheless.   

Owen later divorced Phyllis for Julia Larson, the wife of Reverend Mister Arthur Larson. Mrs. Bumpy Wentworth initiated Julia into the Haskells Crossing community ensuring that Julia “met the right people and, in time joined the right clubs” [274]. Frequently appearing together at community functions, Owen and Julia always insisted on maintaining their relationship a secret in order to avoid a possible public scandal. Julia and Owen’s decision to announce that they had both asked their spouses for a divorce so that they could peruse a life together was one that the Haskells Crossing community was unwilling to accept. John Updike’s omniscient third person narrator terms divorce an entry point into a “delayed adulthood” [277] that “was the first adult action” Owen had ever performed. Divorce and adulthood, according to Updike, are the manifestations of humanity’s need for satisfying desire. The Mackenzie children unleashed the frustration they felt concerning their parent’s separation by purposely implicating themselves in several car accidents. Owen’s children rebelled against material objects that typically alienate humanity from retaining long-term bonds. Updike portrays the Mackenzie children’s revolt as “an automatic caricature of adult disorders” [283] that link technology and estrangement.  What differentiates Owen’s marriage from his parent’s relationship in this context is that divorce became a much more common phenomenon during Owen’s adult years than it was several decades earlier. The increasing decline in sexual ethics slowly started the rejection of monogamous union.

Owen’s second marriage is one founded on leisure and self-satisfaction. Art provides Owen with a medium of placid self-realization that computer science could not offer him since art does not carry the pressures of earning a large salary.  Now that Owen’s children are adults, he can live a more satisfying version of the selfish life he has always led. Updike’s narrator digresses on Owen’s new-found lifestyle by noting that

Progress is sad, natural selection is very sad. Small wonder that Owen, in his old age, now that the last of his and Julia’s combined six children are out of the house, has taken up painting—its silence, its long association with the sacred, its order of patiently purified essences and minerals [303]. 

Although financial security and no parental responsibility have totally liberated Owen, “progress” is deemed “sad” for its implication that life inevitably eliminates many individuals from leading a satisfying existence. Owen funds his retirement on the large settlement he received from selling his shares of E-O Data to Ed Mervine.

Readers of postmodern American literature will enjoy John Updike’s bildungsroman Villages for its examination of the crucial changes in marriage and social norms that American culture has experienced from the 1950s to the present day. Liberalized sexual norms and the alienating effects of technology redefined a spouse as a disposable product that could be ignored and easily replaced. John Updike’s twenty-first novel proves once again that he remains the longest-lasting and most important voice in contemporary American literature.




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