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General literature studies, Arts
Published in 1968, John Updike’s Couples appeared in print only one year before the Woodstock Music and Art Fair of 1969, a quintessential moment in the lifespan of ‘the me generation.’ Though the novel’s action is set in the years 1962 and 1963, it met readers at a point in American social history when hippie culture and its various manifestos, such as ‘if it feels good, do it’ and ‘love the one you’re with,’ were affecting the national mind-set. The idea of ‘finding oneself’ gained traction even in bourgeois society, as it too began to countenance personal and sexual permissiveness. These changes were, of course, hastened by ‘women’s liberation’ and the attendant introduction of widely available oral contraceptives. The most frequently quoted line from Couples, set in affluent New England exurbia, is ‘welcome to the post-pill paradise.’
A decade later, though, counter arguments to ‘counter-culture’ were in wide circulation, perhaps most famously advanced in M. Scott Peck’s best-selling book The Road Less Travelled which advocated delayed gratification in the service of love. Love, Peck maintained, is not a feeling, but an action. It requires discipline and the acceptance of responsibility.
Set early enough in the 1960s to preclude its characters sufficient moral precedent for their ‘adulterous’ behaviours, the novel’s ten couples comprise a kind of sexual avant-garde. They enable Updike, writing later in the 1960s, to explore whether self-indulgence in affairs of hearth and home can yield a worthy life. The Tarbox couples’ dabbling with sexual latitude puts them slightly ahead of their time and allows readers to wonder if they will be sustained or unravelled by so much self-granted freedom. Updike’s depiction of their chronic infidelities, especially those of his central character Piet Hanema, provides a view of American social mores that has been disputed by critics as far-fetched. However, strict fidelity to narrative realism would likely have kept Updike from his determined and -- in 1968 -- highly topical consideration of the unrestrained life. For it is the value of restraint as a moral principle that Updike asks us to judge in this distinctly American tale of self-indulgence and the possible wages of sin.
From a European vantage point half a century later, Couples continues to beg the question of whether life in the new world is more desirable before the fall or after it.
Norton, S. (2018) Back to the Garden: American Longing in John Updike’s Couples. in European Perspectives on John Updike, eds. Laurence W. Mazzeno and Sue Norton, Camden House, 2018.