John Updike's 'Witches of Eastwick': an overbrewed allegory that doesn't gel; The Witches of Eastwick, by John Updike. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 307 pp. $ 15.95.
What happens when a stranger from New York City moves into a mysterious old mansion in the small, slightly dilapidated Rhode Island village of Eastwick, where a coven of modern-day witches have been practicing their newly discovered powers?
Considering that the man is named Darryl Van Horne, that he bears a strong, not to say labored, resemblance to the 16th- and 17th-century descriptions of the devil quoted by the author at the beginning of the novel, and that his experiments in chemistry give his new habitation a sulfurous smell, it is hard to see how anything but trouble can be brewing.
The devil, as some theologians have speculated, is powerless himself, operating only through the actions of human beings who consent to traffic with him. Van Horne's role, too, is not to be the agent of evil, but simply a catalyst whose presence triggers malfeasance in the three witches (Alexandra, Jane, and Sukey). Jealous of Van Horne's attentions to a fourth woman, Alexandra , Jane, and Sukey pass beyond minor mischief into full-fledged evil. But, they wonder, can they really be guilty if all they are doing is casting magic spells whose efficacy they aren't even sure of?
On a literal level, read as pure story, this account of three women who run about sensing ''auras,'' casting spells, indulging in faintly unappetizing group sex, dabbling in black magic, and taking on unhappily married men as lovers is too predictable to hold the reader's interest. Whether or not we may believe in witches, most of us have heard and read enough about them to know what to expect. The actions and motives of the characters and the plot of the novel are, to put it lightly, overdetermined.
In a novel stuffed with references to creation, nature, evil, the devil, and other weighty matters, however, we are moved to look for moral significance - to read anagogically as well as literally. And, far from making a secret of his allegorical intentions, Updike practically perches on the reader's shoulder pointing them out. Yet the portentous themes he has carefully implanted in this novel, rather like clues embedded in a mystery tale, do not develop into a coherent moral or religious Weltanschauung.
At one climactic point, we are told that the witches represent ''a brand of evil'' that must not be tolerated, explained, or excused. Pure evil like this is beyond the rationalizations of ''sociology, psychology, anthropology.'' Van Horne himself, in a devilishly persuasive oration, sees this evil throughout the workings of nature. Yet, this evil is also the product of deliberate human choices. Alexandra justifies the coven's murderous plans with the thought that ''nature kills constantly, and we call her beautiful.'' The argument that what is natural must also be good is, as Updike knows, as old as the hills and as flawed as the San Andreas fault. ''The Witches of Eastwick'' might, in this respect, be read as a not very closely reasoned or original but nonetheless worthy fable reminding us that the average person has an enormous potential for evil.
Yet ''The Witches of Eastwick'' manages to be depressing without being profound. Something about its mixture doesn't gel. In theory, Updike's self-conscious, playful use of allegory and the witches' general air of irreverent levity might have been effectively contrasted with the dark and stormy atmosphere generated by so many brooding questions of good and evil, innocence and guilt. But the characters seem cheap rather than light - fabrications rather than living creatures. It is hard to care about any of them. And the ponderous moral issues, unpondered and undigested, sink lumpishly to the bottom of the brew.
This unpleasant olio also has a lingering aftertaste of misogyny thinly disguised as admiration for the mystery of woman. Much emphasis is placed upon the gender of the witches: ''This air of Eastwick empowered women.'' Alexandra, Jane, and Sukey, we are told, acquired their powers when they lost their husbands and began to neglect their children (not that their husbands dominated them, merely that having husbands diverted the flow of their mysterious female energies). Their ability to work magic is rather crudely associated with their ability, as women, to produce menses and milk.
Witchcraft, in this view, is female instinct gone awry. When these three women begin living to suit themselves, astonishing powers, like vast forces of nature, are unleashed. Indeed, the women do not stop being witches until they have conjured up new husbands to absorb their wild energies.
It is not very far from this kind of thinking to wholehearted subscription to the ''Myth of Feminine Evil,'' examined and debunked some years ago by Betty Friedan. Apparently still suffering after all these years from his own personal version of this myth, Updike attempts to re-mythologize ''The Feminine Mystique'' with considerably less success than it was demythologized by Ms. Friedan.