What John Updike’s Couples Tells Us about 1968 America

By Sylvia Nagy Roper

The year 1968 was pivotal to American history and literature was no exception. The publication of John Updike’s Couples that year made a splash. Its controversial story and its reception reflect the time’s changing views of sexuality in America. Further, its reception over time reflects the processual nature of memory.

At its most basic state, John Updike’s Couples is a novel about “a circle of young married people in a small… town called Tarbox” in the Northeast set in 1963, according to a 1968 review in Commentary; this community is altered by the arrival of a new couple, which is ultimately sucked into the community’s common practice of adultery. Although the book was the second most-sold book that year (Greensboro News and Record, 1993, p. D1), it was not without controversy. The controversy was primarily owed to its descriptions about sex since it was “for its time remarkably frank about sex” (The Charlotte Observer, 2009, p. 1A).

And what about that time? The year of upheaval affected everyday Americans. Sex outside of marriage was no longer a huge taboo. In fact, its occurrence prior to marriage increased between 1958 and 1968 (Christensen & Gregg, 1970, p. 617). By 1968, both genders were “more permissive” (Christensen & Gregg, 1970, p. 620). According to Thornton and Young-DeMarco (2001), “there are reasons to believe that the decade of the 1960’s and the early 1970’s were years of remarkable change in the freedom of unmarried individuals to be sexually active” (p. 1021). A potential cause of this phenomena could be the introduction of birth control. The pill was introduced in 1960, revolutionizing the conceptions of marriage and career for women (Goldin & Katz, 2002, p. 731-732). Its use among married women “peaked around 1967,” just before the year of Couples’ publication (Goldin & Katz, 2002, p. 732). For more information about the pill and its impact on American society, please my classmate’s post. As another classmate notes, this time was the beginning of the feminist movement–to read more, click here.

How does Updike’s novel fit into this picture? Of course, it deals with married couples who commit adultery. At the time, a marriage boom contributed to the baby boom (Schellekens, 2017, p. 65). As aforementioned, the country was experiencing a growing acceptance of sex in American society. Updike’s novel sold over 4 million hardcover copies, according to The New Yorker (2014)–an “astonishing” number. Even in 2012, Time listed the novel as one of the raciest ever written. Criticism of the novel has existed since the novel’s publication–as pointed out by Leonard Lopate in 2001, perhaps reflecting how parts of American society were and still are not as open about sex as we may expect. When Time listed it as one of the top 10 raciest novels in 2012, Christopher Matthews wrote that the novel featured “an incisive examination of late-sixties, upper-middle class American society. An increasingly oversexed society demanded this kind of frankness.” Therefore, Couples is certainly not remembered for its portrayal of sex alone.

The novel’s deeper meaning has been contested over time however. In 1968, The Harvard Crimson suggested that the plot took place in “a modern purgatory,” in which Christianity has faded and a new sacrament emerges: Adultery. Near the turn of the century, Sukhbir Singh (1994) asserted the reverse—Couples as “a novel of spiritual awakening” (p. 125). Singh’s argument is as follows: Although the group of characters “suffer from an overwhelming sense of unbelief, sterility, and boredom” and choose adultery, the protagonist has a religious reawakening (1994, p. 125, 127). The religious element of Singh’s argument (1994) is not without literary basis. The symbolism of the decorative rooster atop the local church has been acknowledged over time. In 1968, The Harvard Crimson suggested that it represented “God’s watchful but now indifferent eye.” According to Commentary (1968), God was watching, as evidenced by the community’s church burning down after being struck by lightning. Piet, the protagonist, witnesses this event at a time of crisis in his life; while the church burns, the rooster remains; according to Singh (1994), the unscathed rooster allows Piet to recognize the dual nature of God—kind yet just (p. 127). Although he recognizes this burning as punishment, Singh (1994) asserts that Piet realizes that “sex alone is not an adequate remedy” but “sex with belief in God” brings about a greater reward (127). In addition, the author himself is a Christian (McTavish, 2000, p. 66). Thus, the novel’s religious commentary ought not to be ignored.

Hearing from Updike himself is crucial. In a 2001 interview  with Leonard Lopate, Updike emphasized that the novel was about bonding more so than adultery. He desired “to try to describe sex honestly as a human transaction, as a human event” (Lopate, 2001, p. 35). Updike used adultery and saw it as “a mode of bonding in the absence of pressing claims from state or church or job” (p. 35).  According to The New Yorker (2014), adultery was not just a sexual act for Updike; rather, it was “the perfect example of the moral condition of the suburban middle class.” Updike had experienced adultery prior to writing the novel, having had several affairs when married to his first wife, Mary, while those around them engaged in affairs, too (The New Yorker, 2014).

John Updike went on to write many more pieces of literature (Lopate, 2001, p. 36). At the time of his death in 2009, he was called a “kaleidoscopically gifted writer” (p. 1A, The Charlotte Observer). Interestingly enough, it seems that no film was made of Couples. In fact, little of his literature has been featured in adaptations, according to The Wrap

A novel may not be the most exciting or memorable site of memory. However, literature’s importance ought not to be underestimated. In 1968, Updike’s Couples pushed the envelope with its descriptions of sex and its provocative concentration on adultery, yet it was very successful. It was published at a time of broadening of public opinion on sexuality and increased use of birth control. Popular culture like this Updike’s Couples can serve as examples of their time.

 

 

Reference List

Cantor, J. (1968, May 8). Couples by John Updike; Alfred Knopf. The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved from http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1968/5/8/couples-pbjbohn-updikes-new-novel-icouplesi/

 

Christensen, H., & Gregg, C. (1970). Changing Sex Norms in America and Scandinavia. Journal of Marriage and Family, 32(4), 616-627. doi:10.2307/350255

 

Goldin, C., & Katz, L. F. (2002). The Power of the Pill: Oral Contraceptives and Women’s Career and Marriage Decisions. Journal of Political Economy, 110(4), 730-770. Retrieved from https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/340778

 

Greensboro News & Record. (1993, Jan 17). BEST OF ’68. p. D1. Retrieved from http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/0EAF84B9159BDD96?p=NewsBank

 

Krentz, J. (2006, Nov 12). AT 74, UPDIKE STILL FEELS THRILL OF PUTTING WORDS TO PAGE. Charlotte Observer, The (NC), p. 1E. Retrieved from http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/11560A3803288860?p=NewsBank

 

Lehmann-Haupt, C. (2009, Jan 28). UPDIKE, A PROLIFIC WRITER AT REST – PULITZER PRIZE-WINNER, CHRONICLER OF MIDDLE AMERICA, DIES OF LUNG CANCER AT AGE 76. Charlotte Observer, The (NC), p. 1A. Retrieved from http://infoweb.newsbank.com/resources/doc/nb/news/126026D620E733D8?p=NewsBank

 

Lopate, L. (2001). The writing life and times of John Updike. The Writer, 114(7), 30-37. Retrieved from http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/214100198?accountid=14244

 

Matthews, C. (2012, Mar 28). Top 10 Racy Novels: Couples, by John Updike. Time. Retrieved from http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2110281_2110282_2110294,00.html

 

McTavish, J. (2000). The theological dimension in john updike’s fiction. Theology Today, 57(1), 66-74. Retrieved from http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/208064881?accountid=14244

 

Menand, L. (2014, April 28). Imitation of Life. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/04/28/imitation-of-life

 

Schellekens, J. (2017). The marriage boom and marriage bust in the United States: An age–period–cohort analysis. Population Studies, 71(1), 65-82, DOI: 10.1080/00324728.2016.1271140

 

Singh, S. (1994). Updike’s COUPLES. Explicator, 52(2), 125-128. Retrieved from http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1290210599?accountid=14244

 

Thompson, J. (1968, May 1). Updike’s Couples. Commentary. Retrieved from https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/updikes-couples/

 

Thornton, A., & Young-DeMarco, L. (2001). Four Decades of Trends in Attitudes toward Family Issues in the United States: The 1960s through the 1990s. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63(4), 1009-1037. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3599811

 

Timberg, S. (2009, February 1). Why so few movies from Updike’s books? The Wrap. Retrieved from https://www.thewrap.com/why-so-few-movies-updikes-books-1205/

 

Updike, J. (1968). Couples. Available from https://books.google.com/books?id=FWi63qPnIN4C&printsec=frontcover&dq=Couples,+John+Updike&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiFnZrykMTaAhVkk-AKHfxvDg0Q6AEIKjAA#v=onepage&q=Couples%2C%20John%20Updike&f=false

 

 

 

Author: Sylvia Roper

European Studies Center

One thought on “What John Updike’s Couples Tells Us about 1968 America”

  1. Overall I thought this was really interesting, and I think your examination of the book’s different meanings was really potent. You did a good job of connecting it to other aspects of 1968, but I would have appreciated more pictures, especially near parts where you described images, such as when you described the rooster on the church. I would be interested to see if any of Updike’s writings from this period influenced modern authors, as well as whether or not this novel from 1968 was unique in its attempt to tackle such a risque topic, or if that was a constant in his writings. Great job!

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