Study in Scarlet

"The Western custom of one wife and hardly any mistresses."
—H.H. Munro

Roger's Version, John Updike's latest novel, can be understood best if seen in intimate and serious connection with Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. First, the cast of characters: Hester (Esther), Arthur Dimmesdale (Dale Kohler), Roger Chillingworth (Roger Lambert), and Pearl (Paula/Poopsie). The setting is New England. In both narratives, adultery is the central incident, and in both Roger must play detective to discover it. In both stories, science and religion/theology are or appear to be locked in combat. Although the differences between Updike and Hawthorne are much more important than the likenesses, they would make no sense without the likenesses. In short, Updike has gone back to his finest novel, The Centaur, in providing a specific literary pattern from the past for interpreting the present (the method of continuous parallels was pointed out as the literary way of the future by T. S. Eliot in his review of Joyce's Ulysses). Like Eliot himself in The Waste Land, Updike emphasizes the past as being the backdrop which gives meaning to the otherwise fragmentary and incomprehensible present.

In Updike's version of The Scarlet Letter, the characters are greatly diminished (as well as significantly altered)....

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