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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2023



Moral Dilemma in the Novels of John Updike

Dr. Sumbul, Assistant Professor, Department of  English, Delhi University

Updike was a writer both evident and abashed in his willingness to engage God as a narrative presence in the midst of contemporary despair. Updike’s faith is Christian but it is the one to which many assumptions about the Christian perspective do not apply, especially those which link Christian faith with an absolute and divinely ordered morality. Critics continue to interpret his work according to theories, religo-ethical system and ontology he categorically rejects, and his fiction does not embody. The novels of John Updike spawned a criticism rather remarkable in its contentiousness. His books have evoked critical outrage, bewilderment, condescension, commendation and an enthusiasm approaching the fulsome. In case of Updike there is truculent diversity in opinions of readers. Same novel might me hailed as an achievement and at the same time is dismissed as being self-indulgent.

Updike’s major themes have always been about American society, its people, their beliefs and their dilemmas. American dilemma is a crisis of moral ambivalence. It pervades all dimensions of America's social, economic, political, educational and religious institutions – moral ambiguity cannot be wholly erased but demands a cure if its society is to continue to exist.

Updike’s quicksilver intellect made him for decades one of the foremost literary figures in America. Few writers have shown such elegant lexical rouge and beauty on the page. 

Mostly Updike’s novels start with the discussion of faith, establishing the fact that faith is an important theme in Updike’s fiction. He stresses the fact that faith is quintessential for life because it acts as a support system for mankind. Much attention is given to the role of church and its ministers in Updike’s fiction. He has examined old way of faith versus modern way of science and this is achieved without establishing either a hero or an antihero. Moral concerns figure heavily in Updike’s treatment of family relationships, love relationships and business dealings in America. Updike has a real concern for religion and only in Updike you can get dose of both religion and literature.  

The pervasive religious atmosphere in Updike’s writing necessitates examination of influence of Karl Barth, Soren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich. Updike himself has admitted that he was influenced by Karl Barth.

Karl Barth is expanding Kierkegaard’s sounding of the theme that the churches must reform and turn back again to the biblical revelation. Their cry sounds more like Luther’s call for sola scriptura.

Updike through his novels and characters tries to talk about the Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy. In other words he talks about meaninglessness of life or nihilism. Life of Updike’s characters is based on this kind of Absurd philosophy. They feel trapped. They find themselves in a cage from where there is no way out. They suffer from guilt because of their mistakes and sins. Characters experience horrors of technology-mad apocalyptic world. They feel they are in an alien world.

After reading Updike’s novels with faith as a thematic underpinning, it is evident that to Updike, faith is the foundation upon which religion and domestic life rests. Updike realistically “describes a fallen world seldom aided by the Bible or clergy” (Bellis 275). He explores the vacuum left by dwindling faith that once acted as an integrative force for the society. At the same time, the difficulty of holding onto faith suffuses his books. Faith works at individual as well as social level. In form of social institutions faith demands from an individual a level of selflessness and a sense of responsibility.  

Faith sometimes causes moral dilemma between individual thinking and desires and social demands.  “. . . Updike is concerned with human needs vs. society’s demands” (Gingher 101). The fictive world of Updike is peopled with the characters struggling to climb up the social ladder, carry out the family obligation on one hand and living with throes of the search for meaning and God at the same time, on the other. Updike successfully illustrates the introspective struggles of his protagonists. He is concerned with the stuffiness, disillusionment and ambivalence pervasive in America. The characters are representative of Americans.  Boswell says that, “. . . the true American hero is the average citizen, in isolation, shut up in the solitude of his/her own heart. This, for Updike, is the essence of the democratic hero, as opposed to the traditional hero of aristocratic societies. . . . The individual in contemplation of himself: that is the heart of Updike’s American ideal” (Boswell 235). 

Faith as a force works at individual as well as social level. Socially, institutions play crucial role en route faith, marriage and church being two powerful institutions that makes an attempt to maintain order, however skewed it may be. An individual may turn his back on or fight against the institutions with a variety of intentions. A social or religious rebel may be guided or misguided by rational, independent thinking as it may happen when science is pitted against religion or s/he may be guided by one’s selfish hedonistic pursuits when s/he may shirk social responsibilities. Examples of the first case are Clarence of In the Beauty of the Lilies and Sarah P. Worth of S, while Tom Marshfield of A Month of Sundays and Rabbit Angstrom of Rabbit Tetralogy are examples of the second variety.  

Through the lives of Updike’s characters it is evidenced that life seems absurd when we face moral dilemmas. Faith alleviates absurdity. Sometimes the reason for the loss of faith, as mentioned earlier, is scientific reading and sometimes the reason is to get rid of insipid life or a conscious refusal to lead a disappointed life. Characters go on a quest. Updike places his protagonists within a predicament that instigate them to respond in a variety of ways.

Updike’s fiction provides a detailed study of our bodies and the world in which we live, his prose illustrating and celebrating the intricacies of our existence. “What matters . . . is a recognition of what Updike’s work, taken as a whole, comes to – namely “the unfolding of a self, over, a career of books. Moreover . . . the unfolding of that self has been also the unfolding of a society and a nation . . .” (Pinsker 333). Updike’s characters are solipsistic. They are found locked up in their solitude.

Religious or irreligious ambience permeates throughout his novels. For Updike, fiction and theology are not separate. Updike says, “I think that theology is very much a part of our fictional fabric. It’s very hard to write fiction without having some sort of religious sense. . . . We all have some religious need . . .” (Bailey 65). In Updike’s novels, religion is often exposed as insufficient to meet the demands of an individual in the present sterile society. In the absence of social and religious inhibitions, sexual promiscuity becomes a part of self-revelation, a substitute for God. The modern world as Updike sees it is superfluous, but not a world of fulfillment.

In his novels, God is not present in the day today life. God is not on the same plane as humans but He is on an entirely different plane.

“Updike's focus on the complex implications of his characters' moral decisions is constant and sharp, so that the issues are always clear and the consequences of each decision fully developed. But while Updike's characters are quick to judge each other, their creator refuses either to bless or to condemn; and each novel clearly demonstrates that the specific moral problem it treats is irresolvable. The world Updike creates in his fiction is morally ambiguous.” (Schopen 526)

The characters may have judgmental attitude towards each other and even the consequences of their actions affect them, but as an author Updike neither rewards nor punishes his characters. “Updike, however, believes that there are no solutions. And he specifically rejects the notion that literature should inculcate moral principles or precepts” (Schopen 526). His emphasis is on the unresolved tension which is the mark of American fiction.  

“Updike does send his protagonists . . . on quests, presumably for identity, for a means to square themselves with the enigmatic universe. He confronts them with all the temptations both of flesh and spirit which the questing hero must face, with all the problems and the myriad solutions to them. But he is only nominally concerned with bringing his protagonists through successfully – or even unsuccessfully. His real concern is a critical examination of the temptations, the problems, the questions, and the answers as they conflict both inside and outside the protagonist, alternately promising and denying solutions to the quest.” (Waldmeir 16)


The tinge of existential gloom pervades the novels and despite the characters’ acceptance of the inherent ambiguity of human existence, they are willing to seek sexual adventure in order to overcome feeling of ennui and tedium of the predictable. Updike is acclaimed as an unfashionably Christian novelist, but Updike is a pagan celebrant too. His impulse is mystically broad rather than theologically exact.   

The view of life which is fostered by the new ideas proves catastrophic for the society in general and the institution of religion and marriage in particular.  In his fiction “. . . the “upright life” of a faithful marriage and righteousness per se are threatened by instinctual desires” (Gingher 101). There is a moral and spiritual vacuum in contemporary American life and therefore the characters grope for religious experience. “Updike offers an unconventional description of how the movies have replaced the churches as respites for spiritual renewal by describing how films appeal the characters in his fiction and the people worldwide. Movies have been seen as substitute for religiosity by the protagonists in the novel In the Beauty of the Lilies. “The novel [In the Beauty of the Lilies] is important for its direct treatment of the problem of spiritual disillusionment, something Updike’s other ministers had suffered and for its demonstrated connection between the religious impulse and the attraction of the movies” (Bellis 219).   

Through his novels, Updike maintains that; 

“But all church services have this wonderful element: People with other things to do get up on a Sunday morning, put on good clothes and assemble out of nothing but faith. . . . Simply as a human gathering I find it moving, reassuring and even inspiring. A church is a little like a novel in that both are saying there’s something very important about being human.” (Samuels 182)  

Updike’s novels do not only talk about churches but says enough for love and faith. We find that “. . . Updike's heroes often discover that intimacy involves disappointment, that love is itself transitory, and that the search for permanence may hinder life” (Samuels 9). He scrutinizes moral dilemmas. Updike has “. . . filled his fiction with characters who struggle in one way or another with belief and has offered their stories to the postmodern world as both representatives of that world and as signs of hope for it. His fictional characters are also figures searching for the validation that love, exercised in freedom, offers” (Coates 239). For Updike, both these qualities are essential for living life with goodness but unfortunately both these qualities of faith and love are not sufficiently found in the lives of Americans. “Lacking the support of faith, Updike's modern heroes can neither accept man's contingency nor find permanence through the world” (Samuels 27). Updike’s fiction is rooted in the ethos of contemporary America. “In tracing Updike’s moral and theological debates, four interconnected principles have emerged as constants throughout his work. For Updike: accurate presentation of Reality is essential; Faith, though problematic, is essential; Love, as both ideal and experience, is essential; Goodness is possible” (Coates 240).

Updike’s novels “deal with the problem of faith and the difficulty of moral decisions; dramatize a moral dilemma of the characters.” (Schopen531). Through his fiction John Updike depicts that the increasing domination of the physical world in our lives, have shifted our attention from those spiritual ideals with which religion is concerned. And it has dashed all moral values and created a world bereft of absolutes, a world of religious uncertainty spiritual restlessness and historical discontinuity. There was discontent with traditional theism and theological context was shaping both the period and its fiction. Be it literary, theological, personal, social, Lutheran, Christian and American. These religiosities will be disguised or made explicit in the multitude of his literary works, fictional and non-fictional, realistic and mythic, satirical and laudatory. The works, in their varieties, interests and expositions have become spoken witnesses of Updike’s visualizing of American literature with his theological and literary artistry because of the theological concerns they express. The larger theme uniting these readings is the quest for a salvific vision in the secular world. Faith is the only solitary thing that can combat fear of nothingness.

Tracing Updike moral theological debates it can be observed that Updike employs various definitions of goodness through his continuing attempts at raising moral questions. The issues that he examines are complex enough that he does not settle for a monolithic approach. Rather he analyses the subject of goodness from numerous angles though always with a background of theological belief. Updike focused on spiritual no less than carnal. In investigating major aspects of American life community involvement, political and moral beliefs, personal relationships, and work time and again systematic analysis led to the one factor that consistently and dramatically affects the values and behavior of Americans. This factor is level of religious commitment. Americans are now cultivating highly personal forms of worship which observers call pastiche spirituality or religion a la carte, it involves combing various beliefs and practices from various sources or even becoming a member of two or more distinct religions at the same time.

Updike underwent the angst of spiritual crisis and therefore he has been able to aptly present it. He asserts that he constructs his novels to frame a moral dilemma. In a 1993 interview he said he had never been an unbeliever.

“Somehow it struck me quite early that the church whatever its faults, was speaking to the real issues and that without the church I didn’t feel that anybody would speak to the real issues that is the issue of being human being alive. I have remained loyal to the church. Spires you see in a small town or a city do bring hope and hope brings energy. It’s certainly bought me energy.” (Nunley 259)

And there is no question that for Updike the problems of human morality are subordinate to that of faith. The problem of faith, though difficult, is simple and absolute; those of morality are relative, ambiguous, and "basically insoluble." Thus, insofar as it treats moral problems, Updike's fiction must be ambiguous and essentially static.

Updike has said that the central theme of each of his novels is meant to be a moral dilemma. But to develop a moral theme in such a way that there is no resolution is to do something quite different from what the novel has traditionally attempted.

Many of Updike's readers find the moral ambiguity of his fictional world morally offensive. His refusal to establish a rigid and clearly discernible moral perspective from which his characters should be viewed often leads these readers to assert that Updike is unwilling or unable to deal with serious moral issues, that he has "nothing to say." The objective presentation of life's pervasive ambiguity also leads many of his sympathetic critics to misread him; they simply assume that Updike shares their own moral attitudes or those associated with Christianity in general, and interpret his fiction accordingly.

Updike has described the vision of human existence which informs them:

“My books feed, I suppose, on some kind of perverse relish in the fact that there are insolvable problems. There is no reconcilia- tion between the inner, intimate appetites and the external con- solations of life .... There is no way to reconcile these indi- vidual wants to the very real need of any society to set strict limits and to confine its members. Rabbit, Run ... I wrote just to say there is no solution. It is a novel about the bouncing, the oscillating back and forth between these two kinds of urgencies until, eventually, one just gets tired and wears out and dies, and that's the end of the problem.” (Nunley 19)

Actually, the severing of the ethical from the religious had taken place in Updike's fiction before the publication of The Centaur. Updike's more recent novels continue the patterns established in Rabbit Run. The world of John Updike's Rabbit Run is a collection of polarities that dramatizes the in-between-ness and the constant state of tension that characterizes humanity. A cursory perusal of John Updike's Rabbit Run reveals a world of hopeless futility in which Harry Angstrom runs in ever-tightening circles. In Rabbit Run, Rabbit is always running, from one woman to another, between Brewer and Mt. Judge, between solitude and society. Rabbit is torn because he has faith in something meaningful in the world, somewhere, but he fails to find it during any of his frequent but brief stops. More important than the futile vacuity of Rabbit's world, however, is the fact that he never gives up his quest. He searches that life is not meaningless. Like it, they deal with the problem of faith and the difficulty of moral decisions; and they too dramatize a moral dilemma.

The actual as opposed to the metaphoric or symbolic existence of God and eternal life is basic to his theology. Updike is a man of faith is unquestionable and the specifically Christian character of his belief is inherent in his fiction. The purpose of his works is to engage readers in a dialectical debate. Nothing is forced upon the readers because Updike is set out to write and not to preach. Updike’s fiction has never aimed for moral instruction, but instead has attempted to depict human existence as it is, refusing to simplify the contradictions apparent in human behavior to ignore the sordid impulses that often preoccupy our thoughts. The characters find themselves troubled externally and especially internally till they undergo resurgence of faith.



Bellis, Jack De. The John Updike Encyclopedia. USA: Greenwood, 2000. Print

Gingher, Robert S. “Has John Updike Anything To Say?” Modern Fiction Studies Journal. 20.1 Spec. Issue. John Updike. Ed. William T. Stafford and Margaret Church. Purdue University. (1974): 97-105. Print

Boswell, Marshall. John Updike’s Rabbit Tetralogy: Mastered Irony in Motion. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2001. Web.


Pinsker, Sanford. “Why Updike’s Fiction Continues to Matter.” Sewanee Review. 110.2 (2002): 332-337. JSTOR. Web. 6 Jan 2011

Bailey, Peter J. Rabbit(Un)Redeemed: The Drama of Belief in John Updike's Fiction. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson U P, 2006. Print.


Schopen, Bernard A. “Faith, Morality, and the Novels of John Updike.” Twentieth Century Literature. 24.4 (1978): 523-535. JSTOR. Web. 6 Jan 2011.


Waldmeir. “It’s The Going That’s Important, Not The Getting There: Rabbit’s Questing Non-Quest” Modern Fiction Studies Journal. 20.1 Spec. Issue. John Updike. Ed. William T. Stafford and Margaret Church. Purdue University. (1974): 13-27. Print.


Samuels, Charles Thomas. John Updike: University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers. Minneapolis: Jones, 1969. Web.


Coates, William L, Jr. No Goodness Without Belief: Tracing Updike’s Moral And Theological Vision. Thesis. USA: U of South Carolina, UMI. 1996. Print.

Nunley, Jan “Thoughts of Faith Infuse Updike’s Novels,” from Episcopal Life, May 1993 in James Plath, ed., Conversations with John Updike (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994), 259. Print.