Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

The Satanic Personality in Updike's Roger's Version

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

The Satanic Personality in Updike's Roger's Version

Article excerpt

The Mysterious Professor

Roger Lambert, the narrator of John Updike's Roger's Version, is a perplexing character. He possesses the accouterments of comfort and success, which include a professorship at an Ivy League divinity school, a late Victorian house in an upscale Boston neighborhood, a new Audi, and an attractive wife fourteen years his junior. He is an impressively learned scholar and a perceptive observer of contemporary culture. Despite these advantages, he is gloomy, bitter, and cruel. He detests his students and is cynically critical of his wife and son. He is condescending and spiteful toward those whom he considers physically unattractive, intellectually inferior, or religiously misguided. He avidly reads theology and pornography, deriving equal and similar pleasure from both. He is guilty of hatred, lust, and incest. Witty and perverse, eloquent and crude, learned and contemptuous, Roger elicits laughter on one page and disgust on the next. Roger claims to have his "own style of faith" (87); however, the discerning reader has reason to suspect that this professed "faith," in practice, may be an empty intellectual pose, a deceptive facade that merely serves to add a spicy fillip to his acts of wickedness. Although he claims fifteen years of pastoral experience and demonstrates considerable theological erudition, Roger's attitudes and conduct appear to be willfully, flagrantly immoral.

Who is this contradictory, malicious narrator, and what role does he play in Updike's unsettling novel? To comprehend this character, one must recognize the significant connections between Roger Lambert and his literary progenitor, Roger Chillingworth, the sinister villain of The Scarlet Letter. Roger's Version is the second installment in Updike's Scarlet Letter trilogy, his rewriting of Hawthorne's classic in contemporary settings. In A Month of Sundays (1975), the first novel of the trilogy, the Reverend Thomas Marshfield--a golf-playing lecher--represents the updated Arthur Dimmesdale. In the third of the series, S. (1988), Sarah Worth--a philandering physician's wife who becomes involved with a phony Hindu guru at an Arizona ashram--is the contemporary Hester Prynne. In the second, much darker volume of the trilogy, Updike recasts Roger Chillingworth as a professor of theology residing in Boston during the mid-1980s. The novel, Updike explains, "is Roger's version--that is, Roger Chillingworth's side of the triangle described in The Scarlet Letter.... Here ... we have the villain of the piece, and also the character who encloses the others and modulates, with his arcane potions and malign remedies, their story" ("Special Message" 858). Roger's Version is thus part of a larger project wherein Updike, reworking and expanding Hawthorne's classic novel, explores the various ways humans sin and fall short and considers the themes of transgression and guilt, truth and concealment, love and hatred.

Like Hawthorne's Roger Chillingworth, Updike's Roger Lambert is a fictional version ofthe satanic principle, a portrait of evil. (1) Lambert exhibits the same sort of intellectual pride and coldness of heart that characterize Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter. Following Hawthorne, Updike also depicts a situation in which one who has "snatched a fiend's office from his hands" (XIV) maliciously schemes to destroy a decent person of ardent faith. (2) Both Chillingworth and Lambert are secretive, manipulative, egotistical, and perverse; both are psychologically and morally deformed. Cloaked in the garb of respectability, both characters demonstrate how the "chilling" reality of evil lurks beneath the veneer of "worth" Like Roger Chillingworth, Updike's contemporary "villain" harbors a monster within: beneath his humor, erudition, and culture lies the ruthless heart of a vampiric "leech" Updike creates such a narrator in order to explore and to expose the nature of human evil concealed beneath ambiguous and deceitful guises; in addition, through depicting the emptiness and wretchedness of Lambert's soul, Updike conveys a powerful moral and religious message. …

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