From `A' to `S': What's in a Letter?

IN S., John Updike reaches back 200 years to put himself in direct dialogue with another great realist. New England Puritan writer, Nathaniel Hawthrone. Though the pastoral New England village of The Scarlet Letter belongs to history, Updike explores the same questions which perplexed that less permissive landscape. The notions of tradition, morality, religion and womanhood that dominate Hawthrone's 18th century world are also Updike's concerns.


By John Updike

279 pages

New York: Alfred A. Knopf


S. depicts the rebellion of a middle-aged New England WASP. Forty-two-year-old Sarah Worth abandons her tidy life as a doctor's wife in Boston to embark on a journey to Arizona to live in a Buddhist commune. Her house wife's adventure into a yoga class, initially for exercise and recreation, has introduced her to the teachings of Ahrat, a spiritual leader modeled after the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.

On one level, the novel contains a series of knowing winks to Hawthorne's novel. Updike holds back from calling the novel A after the famous red letter which symbolized adultery and was emblazoned on Hester Prynne's dress. But he does send the adulterous Mrs. Worth to live in an A-frame house on an ashram in Arizona with a man named Ahrat. Updike, though, is not merely referring to that earlier novel, he is modernizing it.

Updike's letter of choice is "S", for sex. The switch reflects the irrelevance of sin in the modern world. Extramarital sex violates no norms, it's simply an act. The novel takes Sarah Worth out of a suburban sterility as arid as any Arizona desert and into a empty series of heterosexual and homosexual love affairs. We are even provided with an actual transcription of her first sexual encounter with the Ahrat, courtesy of a miniaturized tape recorder fastened to her breast. The endless repetition of these erotic adventures strips them of any moral aspect.

UNFORTUNATELY, like Sarah, Updike gets caught in the lure of the promiscuity he depicts. The book denigrates our fascination with titillation by titillating, and in the process becomes its own perverse reflection. Which may be the point of course, for S. is about the inevitability of cynicism in a world where moral transgression is impossible.

In S., the bonds of marriage are utterly devalued. Sarah's husband never writes her. Instead his lawyer sends her threatening letters, demanding that she return her half of the estate. To Sarah's mind, it's the Wife he misses and not the Woman. In a world inured to open sexual behavior, Adultery is no longer relevant, so long as the divorce agreement leaves everyone with a fair share.

Sarah's real rebellion is her rejection of two centuries of American, and specifically of WASP, tradition, heritage and religion. Her predecessor, Hester Prynne, violates propriety by having a child out of wedlock with a priest. But sex out of marriage is not a taboo in Sarah's world. Her betrayal of society comes from aligning herself with the Other, defecting to Eastern thought and to the Occidental religions that a xenophobic society is apt to consider loony and dangerous.

If Updike plays with the narrative ofThe Scarlet Letter, he also experiments with its voice. Hawthorne spoke about Hester Prynne by narrating her story. Updike allows Sarah to speak for herself by assuming her voice in as direct a way as possible. As an epistolary novel, S. enables Updike to be privy to Sarah's psyche, whether she is addressing her accountant, her dentist, her hairdresser or her family.

Updike is always aware of the extent of his presumption. As a male who has lived through the Sexual Revolution, he has experienced the ostensible emancipation of women--from the outside. And he posits himself in a precarious narrative position precisely to explore how men perceive women in a postfeminist world.

In his last novel, Witches of Eastwick, Updike eschewed the first person, using the next best thing: restricted third person narration. Feminists objected to the complete mystification Updike demonstrated towards women in that novel, as he ascribed to them all manner of extraordinary, supernatural abilities. Updike's direct assumption of the female voice in S. is at the very least a gutsy move, a bridging of what Marilynne Robinson called his "perplexed and fascinated distance," from the lives of women.

WITH the distance closed, Updike attempts to define the options women have and to predict their fate. Hester, despite knowing that her lover is weak and hypocritical, stands by him. She has nowhere else to go. For Sarah, her escape routes from a hypocritical marriage are seemingly limitless. But the Ahrat is no more emtionally or spiritually honest than Hester's Dimmesdale. As a modern woman, Sarah can always flee from deceit. The problem is that she can never find the truth, in part, because there is no truth to find.