is a 1968 novel by American
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...
author John Updike
John Hoyer Updike was an American novelist, poet, short story writer, art critic, and literary critic....
The novel focuses on a promiscuous circle of ten couples in the small Massachusetts
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States of America. It is bordered by Rhode Island and Connecticut to the south, New York to the west, and Vermont and New Hampshire to the north; at its east lies the Atlantic Ocean. As of the 2010...
town of Tarbox. (The author was living in Ipswich, Massachusetts
Ipswich is a coastal town in Essex County, Massachusetts, United States. The population was 12,987 at the 2000 census. Home to Willowdale State Forest and Sandy Point State Reservation, Ipswich includes the southern part of Plum Island...
when he composed the book.)
Much of the plot of Couples
(which opens on the evening of March 24, 1962 and integrates historical events like the loss of the USS Thresher
The second USS Thresher was the lead ship of her class of nuclear-powered attack submarines in the United States Navy. Her loss at sea during deep-diving tests in 1963 is often considered a watershed event in the implementation of the rigorous submarine safety program SUBSAFE.The contract to build...
on April 10, 1963) concerns the efforts of its characters to balance the pressures of Protestant sexual mores against increasingly flexible American attitudes toward sex in the 1960s. The book suggests that this relaxation may have been driven by the development of birth control
Birth control is an umbrella term for several techniques and methods used to prevent fertilization or to interrupt pregnancy at various stages. Birth control techniques and methods include contraception , contragestion and abortion...
and the opportunity to enjoy what one character refers to as "the post-pill paradise."
The book is rich in period detail. (In 2009, USA Today
USA Today is a national American daily newspaper published by the Gannett Company. It was founded by Al Neuharth. The newspaper vies with The Wall Street Journal for the position of having the widest circulation of any newspaper in the United States, something it previously held since 2003...
called the novel a "time capsule of the era.) The lyrical and explicit descriptions of sex, unusual for the time, made the book somewhat notorious. TIME
Time is a part of the measuring system used to sequence events, to compare the durations of events and the intervals between them, and to quantify rates of change such as the motions of objects....
magazine had reserved a cover story for Updike and the novel before knowing what it was about; after actually reading it they got embarrassed and discovered that "the higher up it went in the Time
hierarchy, the less they liked it."
The novel was widely and enthusiastically reviewed, landing Updike on the cover of Time
, a rare location for an author. Time
, while detailing similarities between real Ipswich and fictional Tarbox ("it is worth noting that the Updikes are the ringleaders of a group of like-minded couples whom the older Ipswichers call the Junior Jet Set. Updike has organized endless basketball, volleyball and touch-football games, led the jet set on skiing trips, and presided over countless intramural parties. Says one member of the set: 'What we have evolved is a ritual. It sets up a rhythm where we are all available to each other. It's rather as if all of us belong to a family.' Adds another friend without elaboration: 'You can't sustain that very long without its being very destructive'"), called the book "sensational." Critic and novelist Wilfred Sheed, in the New York Times Book Review, found Couples
"ingenious" and "scorching...the games are described with loving horror." Addressing of the novel's famous frankness about sexual manners, Sheed wrote, "If this is a dirty book, I don't see how sex can be written about at all. Updike's treatment of sex is central to his method, which is that of a fictional biochemist approaching mankind with a tray of hypersensitive gadgets."
is often historically inscribed in the literary side of the sexual revolution
The sexual revolution was a social movement that challenged traditional codes of behavior related to sexuality and interpersonal relationships throughout the Western world from the 1960s into the 1980s...
of the sixties, and related in this to Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint
Portnoy's Complaint is the American novel that turned its author Philip Roth into a major celebrity, sparking a storm of controversy over its explicit and candid treatment of sexuality, including detailed depictions of masturbation using various props including a piece of liver...
(1969) and Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge
Myra Breckinridge is a 1968 satirical novel by Gore Vidal written in the form of a diary. It was made into a movie in 1970. Described by the critic Dennis Altman as "part of a major cultural assault on the assumed norms of gender and sexuality which swept the western world in the late 1960s and...
(1968). In 1993 Edward Sorel
Edward Sorel is an illustrator, caricaturist, cartoonist, and graphic designer.Sorel is noted for his wavy pen-and-ink style, which he describes as "spontaneous direct drawing," since he does not use pencil or tracing for guidance...
illustrated the authors as a trio of satyr
In Greek mythology, satyrs are a troop of male companions of Pan and Dionysus — "satyresses" were a late invention of poets — that roamed the woods and mountains. In myths they are often associated with pipe-playing....
Updike on Couples
Udpike had meant to call the novel, "in honor of its amplitude," Couples and Houses and Days
. To an interviewer's question about the difficulty of writing scenes about sex, Updike replied: "They were no harder than landscapes and a little more interesting. It's wonderful the way people in bed talk, the sense of voices and the sense of warmth, so that as a writer you become kind of warm also. The book is, of course, not about sex as such: It's about sex as the emergent religion, as the only thing left." And in the Paris Review
The Paris Review is a literary quarterly founded in 1953 by Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen and George Plimpton. Plimpton edited the Review from its founding until his death in 2003. In its first five years, The Paris Review published works by Jack Kerouac, Philip Larkin, V. S...
"Art of Fiction" interview series, he discussed the disappearance of his novel's hero into the story's happy ending:
"There’s also a way, though, I should say in which, with the destruction of the church, with the removal of Piet's guilt, he becomes insignificant. He becomes merely a name in the last paragraph: he becomes a satisfied person and in a sense dies. In other words, a person who has what he wants, a satisfied person, a content person, ceases to be a person. Unfallen Adam is an ape. Yes, I guess I do feel that. I feel that to be a person is to be in a situation of tension, is to be in a dialectical situation. A truly adjusted person is not a person at all—just an animal with clothes on or a statistic. So that it’s a happy ending, with this 'but' at the end."