John Updike’s “Scarlet Letter” trilogy

For a long time I held off on naming my favorite novel. But after returning to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), which I have not read since high school, I am now prepared to declare it as my favorite, both for its elevated style and gravitational substance. I was fascinated to learn that Hawthorne inspired acclaimed American writer John Updike to rewrite The Scarlet Letter by examining life in mid-to-late 20th century America through the lead characters of Hawthorne’s novel. Below are publisher descriptions of Updike’s trilogy.

From Arthur Dimmesdale’s point of view: A Month of Sundays (1975)

9780449912201.jpegIn this antic riff on Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, the Reverend Tom Marshfield, a latter-day Arthur Dimmesdale, is sent west from his Midwestern parish in sexual disgrace. At a desert retreat dedicated to rest, recreation, and spiritual renewal, this fortyish serial fornicator is required to keep a journal whose thirty-one weekly entries constitute the book you now hold in your hand. In his wonderfully overwrought style he lays bare his soul and his past—his marriage to the daughter of his ethics professor, his affair with his organist, his antipathetic conversations with his senile father and his bisexual curate, his golf scores, his poker hands, his Biblical exegeses, and his smoldering desire for the directress of the retreat, the impregnable Ms. Prynne. A testament for our times.

From Roger Chillingworth’s point of view: Roger’s Version (1986)  

9780449912188.jpegAs Roger Lambert tells it, he, a middle-aged professor of divinity, is buttonholed in his office by Dale Kohler, an earnest young computer scientist who believes that quantifiable evidence of God’s existence is irresistibly accumulating. The theological-scientific debate that ensues, and the wicked strategies that Roger employs to disembarrass Dale of his faith, form the substance of this novel—these and the current of erotic attraction that pulls Esther, Roger’s much younger wife, away from him and into Dale’s bed. The novel, a majestic allegory of faith and reason, ends also as a black comedy of revenge, for this is Roger’s version—Roger Chillingworth’s side of the triangle described by Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter—made new for a disbelieving age.

From Hester Prynne’s point of view: S. (1988)

9780449912126.jpegS. is the story of Sarah P. Worth, a thoroughly modern spiritual seeker who has become enamored of a Hindu mystic called the Arhat. A native New Englander, she goes west to join his ashram in Arizona, and there struggles alongside fellow sannyasins (pilgrims) in the difficult attempt to subdue ego and achieve moksha (salvation, release from illusion). “S.” details her adventures in letters and tapes dispatched to her husband, her daughter, her brother, her dentist, her hairdresser, and her psychiatrist—messages cleverly designed to keep her old world in order while she is creating for herself a new one. This is Hester Prynne’s side of the triangle described by Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter; it is also a burlesque of the quest for enlightenment, and an affectionate meditation on American womanhood.

Literary Criticism: James A. Schiff, Updike’s Version: Rewriting the Scarlet Letter (1992)

ProductImageHandler.ashx.pngAlthough many readers are aware of John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy, fewer have paid close attention to his other multivolume work, “The Scarlet Letter trilogy.”  In Updike’s Version, James Schiff provides the first full-length critical analysis of Updike’s trilogy since the publication of its final volume in 1988.  He demonstrates how Hawthorne’s classic novel of adulterous love and divided selves has become an American myth, and how Updike, in his trilogy, has sought to expand, update, and satirize that myth.  The three volumes that make up the trilogy, A Month of Sundays (1975), Roger’s Version (1986), and S. (1988), engage in a dialogue with Hawthorne’s novel, commenting upon and altering the original story.  To understand the nature of this dialogue, Schiff employs a methodolgy specifically suited to Updike’s mythical method, in which special attention is given to reader expectation, parody, point of view, and principles of fragmentation and condensation.

Updike’s Version covers new ground in Updike’s studies, revealing how the intertextual dialogue between Updike and Hawthorne is far more complex and extensive than has yet been acknowledged.  Providing close and detailed readings of the novels, Updike’s Version will be of major importance to students and scholars of John Updike, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s canonical American text, and American literature in general.

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