Witchcraft in Literature 101: Social Commentary in The Witches of Eastwick

Foreword


Witchcraft takes on many forms and perspectives in various works of literature. It finds its origins in folklore and myths, it carries the traits of gothic and horror, but it is also used in satire and comedy, and undoubtedly plays a major role in fantasy. The mystical and supernatural have always been associated with all things dark, scary, and evil. However, the representation of witches and magic has developed through time, leaving outdated stereotypes behind. The aesthetics of horror, the weird, grotesque, and everything else different from normal reality have switched from being repulsive and feared to being attractive. Eventually, witches transform into the protagonists of the story and make witchcraft seem appealing.

Witchcraft in Literature 101 will be divided into seven different chapters:


  1. Witchcraft in Literature 101: Folklore Roots in The Viy

  2. Witchcraft in Literature 101: Satire in The Master and Margarita

  3. Witchcraft in Literature 101: Social Commentary in The Witches of Eastwick

  4. Witchcraft in Literature 101: Gothic Tendencies in Lives of the Mayfair Witches

  5. Witchcraft in Literature 101: Feminism in Witches Series and Good Omens

  6. Witchcraft in Literature 101: Wonders of Magic in Harry Potter

  7. Witchcraft in Literature 101: Retelling Mythology in Circe

Social Commentary in The Witches of Eastwick


The Witches of Eastwick (1984) by John Updike is set in a typical small town of New England, with a Puritan heritage, at the end of the 1960s. The novel deeply reflects on the radical changes which society and media underwent in this decade: the political situation, the counterculture, the sexual revolution, and a new wave of the feminist movement. Besides these significant developments, the popular culture saw the rise of the interest in the occult, and alongside its demonic aspect, occultism became widely associated with nature and spirituality, which influenced the spread of the new-age religion of Wicca. These trends resulted in the overlap of feminism with occultism, turning witches into a symbol of liberation. Updike also connects feminism with witches and creates an ambiguous story reflecting the problems that arose in relation to the many choices individual Americans, and especially women, were given about their identities, social positions, gender roles and spiritual beliefs during the counter-cultural era. The Witches of Eastwick presents a dark and disturbing perspective on the influence of witchcraft on the American society.


Figure 1. Three Witches from Macbeth. Gardner, D. 1775

John Updike (1932-2009) is an American writer and novelist, mainly known for the literary realism of his work. One of Updike’s most well-known novels, Rabbit, Run (1960), represents “the main currents of American history and culture” and criticises what living the American dream looked like at the end of the 1950s (Svoboda, 2018, p. 14). In many of his works, Updike tends to reflect on social issues and to express a dark satirical voice over its flaws. Frequently his novels portray “puritan” American society and reveal the darkness behind the façade of mundane affluent American life. The stories are often focused on middle-class people living in apparently idyllic small American towns, which reflects the writer’s own background. The key motives of Updike’s works are usually religion, sex, and death, all of which are laid at the core of The Witches of Eastwick.


The Witches of Eastwick was mainly inspired by American society’s interest in witchcraft during the counterculture era. The interest in the occult, infamously associated with Satanism, dangerous cults, and ritualistic killings, resulted in great social unrest in the American society in the 1960s and through the decades developed into the phenomena known as “satanic panic” in the 1980s, which still persists today. The media “played an outsized role in stoking the public’s fear and fueling misconceptions surrounding occult practices,” while many people were alarmed over the “stranger danger” in their own neighbourhood, and “the fear that evil could always be lurking right around the corner” was always present. (Romano, 2021, para. 17). At the same time, a fascination with witchcraft in American society had brought to light modern Pagan religion Wicca. “The 1970s saw the American version of Wicca transform from the magic-based pagan discipline claiming British heritage to a nature-based spiritual movement, with heavy tones of environmentalism and feminism” (Hictory.com Editors, 2018, para. 25). It is hardly surprising that feminism and the occult overlapped at this time, as during the first wave of feminism the famous woman-suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage released a treatise Woman, Church, and State (1893), where she embraced “the iconography of witches as manifestation of patriarchal fear of intelligent women” (Rapson, 2020, p. 23). Updike published The Witches of Eastwick in 1984, and it is safe to assume that the previous decades had given him much inspiration for the novel. The story involves both aspects of the society’s reflection on the topic of witchcraft: the prejudice and fear of anything connected to the occult, and the effect of the interest in magic on gender roles within mainstream middle-class New England.


Figure 2. Wiccan magic circle. (n.d.)

The Witches of Eastwick is primarily a story about women, which adopts the perspective of three witches on the events in Eastwick. The three protagonists Alexandra, Sukie, and Jane meet as a coven and their group is formed as a sort of sisterhood. Updike describes his witches as women who try to be independent; however, while feminists were fighting for equal rights and liberation in America during the ‘60s and ‘70s, Updike’s heroines dream about another husband. Meanwhile, offstage, the Vietnam war goes on, and the anti-war protests and activists are reported on the television, but the witches feel merely bored watching it. All three of them use magic for their selfish needs and they are mainly interested in love charms and nasty hexes. Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie are presented in an unattractive way, each of them living in a messy house, neglecting their children, and caring much more about the men’s attention. The three women apparently gained their magical powers by becoming husbandless. In the novel Updike criticises both: the marital institution and the free love, promoted by the counterculture, but his witches notably embody everything that a small-town society tends to think about divorcees.


The reception of the novel was diverse, though it was stated that it “cannot be taken seriously” on the subject of gender politics, and the writer was criticised for the “antifeminist treatment of women” (Loudermilk, 2013, pp. 94-95). As the witches in the novel approach magic as a trivial hobby, Updike does not seem to take witchcraft seriously. “These are not 1980's Woman-power witches. They aren't at all interested in healing the earth, communing with the Great Goddess, or gaining Power- within (as opposed to Power-over). These are bad Witches, and Power-within, as far as they are concerned, is no good at all unless you can zap somebody with it” (Antwood, 1984, para. 3). Presenting the protagonists in a cruel and repulsive way and having them fail in their roles of mothers and housewives, the writer appears to disapprove of the idea of magic as a way towards liberation for women.


Figure 3. Jane, Alexandra, and Sukie set pins in a wax doll. Warner Bros. 1987

All three witches possess some powers at the outset of the novel, but their abilities develop and turn darker with the arrival of Darryl Van Horne. It is never stated directly in the novel that the stranger who has arrived in Eastwick is the Devil. However, his nature is obvious, according to many remarks in the novel. Updike purposefully plays around the “stranger danger” trope, inviting the Devil to the small conservative town of New England. He ridicules the reception of the occult in the traditional Puritan society, though “God’s absence, presumably, opens the way for evil” in the novel (Verduin, 1985, p. 306). Van Horne is purposefully drawn to the witches and corrupts their powers. The women cannot escape the stereotypical pattern, as “in order to satisfy their extraordinary sexual appetite, the witches turn to a devil figure, Darryl Van Horne” (Loudermilk, 2013, p. 101). Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie join Darryl for the Sabbats at his mansion, raising gossip in the town, and put a hex on the neighbour’s wife, causing her death. Later on, they cast a curse on Van Horne’s fiancée Jenny, creating a wax doll, which turned into the disease and made her die in suffering in a course of a few months. Their magical abilities become equal to the “male power of killing people” (Verduin, 1985, p. 308); however, they greatly enjoy it and feel wonderful administering it (Updike, 1996, p. 296).


Updike makes a reference to the Wiccan perception of magic, connecting it with nature, though his vision of witchcraft is “closely tied to both, carnality and mortality” (Antwood, 1984, para. 10). Updike sees nature not from a spiritual or ecological, but from a rational perspective: incapable of empathy towards humankind, and as inseparable from death and decay as it is from life and growth. In the novel Alexandra thinks that one of the major nature’s rules is “that there must always be a sacrifice” (Updike, 1996, p. 18). Jenny becomes this victim, sacrificed to the Devil. Updike makes a point that the male’s power is still greater, as later on the witches learn that they did not cast the curse out of their own free will and were controlled by Van Horne. The Devil in the novel acts as a trickster who manipulates the witches while they abandon their family duties in order to follow the path of the occult and magic, which leaves them with nothing but regret in the end.


Figure 4. Witches presenting wax doll to the Devil as part of a diabolical act. History of Witches and Wizards. 1720

The Witches of Eastwick expresses a displeasing social commentary on the changes in the 1960s-1980s and highlights the flaws of the contemporary American society. Updike is as sceptical about “modern versions of Christianity” as he is of the alternative spirituality offered by counter-cultural occultism and witchcraft (Svoboda, 2018, p. 102). The novel displays a conservative puritanical mentality of the small town and mocks the outdated religious fears of demons, secret Sabbaths, strangers in the neighbourhood, and ritualistic killings, which are vividly present in the village of Eastwick. At the same time, Updike’s work is regarded as a misogynist novel and a caustic critique of the very type of women that are its protagonists: those who believed that a turn towards the occult and magic would grant them freedom from male oppression and more power over their own lives. Updike’s witches possess many of the characteristics and powers attributed to witches in historical sources, such as the infamous Malleus Maleficarum (1487), and the protagonists “more closely resemble the witches of history and myth than the feminist witches of today” (Loudermilk, 2013, p.100). The author seems to be in a disagreement with the feminist movement, as he grants his witches destructive powers but clearly states that the men’s power is greater, and it is better for women to embrace their roles as housewives than to play with magic. The Witches of Eastwick takes on a dark and even terrifying perspective on the supernatural elements, describing them within a stereotypical Christian framework as overtly evil, whether associated with women or men. The narrative of witchcraft no longer portrays witches as the secondary characters or the antagonists in a story. However, it is not sympathetic towards its protagonists either: what seems to be a story of empowerment through witchcraft, reflecting the situation in American society, quickly turns into horror.



Bibliographical References

Antwood, M. (1984, May 13). 'The Witches of Eastwick'. The New York Times. Retrieved November 10, 2022 from https://www.nytimes.com/1984/05/13/books/the-witches-of-eastwick.html


History.com Editors. (2018, March 23). Wicca. HISTORY. Retrieved November 10, 2022 from https://www.history.com/topics/religion/wicca


Kramer, H., & Sprenger, J. (2007). The Malleus Maleficarum. Cosimo.


Loudermilk, K. A. (2013). Fictional feminism: how American bestsellers affect the movement for women’s equality. Routledge.


Rapson, S. B. (2020). Magical Feminism: The Manifestation and Evolution of the Witch Under the Male Gaze. [Dissertation, Southern New Hampshire University]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.


Romano, A. (2021, March 31). Satanic Panic’s long history — and why it never really ended — explained. Vox. Retrieved November 10, 2022, from https://www.vox.com/culture/22358153/satanic-panic-ritual-abuse-history-conspiracy-theories-explained


Svoboda, F., & Wagner-Martin, L. (2018). Understanding John Updike. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.


Updike, J. (1996). The Witches of Eastwick (Reissue). Random House Trade Paperbacks.


Verduin, K. (1985). Sex, Nature, and Dualism in The Witches of Eastwick. Modern Language Quarterly (Seattle), 46(3), 293–315. https://doi.org/10.1215/00182702-46-3-293


Visual Sources

Figure 1: Gardner, D. (1775). The Three Witches from Macbeth (Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, Anne Seymour Damer). [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/display/2011/the-three-witches-from-macbeth.php


Figure 2: Wiccan magic circle. (n.d.). [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.thenotsoinnocentsabroad.com/blog/how-to-cast-a-wicca-ritual-magic-circle


Figure 3: Warner Bros. "The Witches of Eastwick". (1987). Jane, Alexandra, and Sukie set pins in a wax doll. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.vulture.com/2017/10/the-witches-of-eastwick-30-years-later.html


Figure 4: History of Witches and Wizards. (1720). Witches presenting wax doll to the Devil as part of a diabolical act. [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://projects.history.qmul.ac.uk/thehistorian/2020/01/24/the-malleus-maleficarum-an-earthquake-in-the-early-witch-craze/


Cover image: Waterhouse, J. W. (1886). The Magic Circle. [Painting]. Retrieved from:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_William_Waterhouse_-_Magic_Circle.JPG





















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Anna Artyushenko

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