An Ecocritical Reading of John Updike’s Novel, of the Farm Essay
Ecocriticism is the response of the literary community to restore the balance of the universe because extreme anthropocentrism has resulted in the depletion of the ozone layer and the contamination of the world’s natural resources. This paper gives an overview of representation of nature in John Updike’s novel, Of the Farm. John Updike was one of the most prolific writers of America who chronicled the drama of small town American life in his novels.
Though Updike’s oeuvre is large, he became most famous through his Rabbit series (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; Rabbit at Rest; and the novella Rabbit Remembered like Wordsworth he gives importance to nature and aesthetic sense. This sense of love towards nature is found in Of the Farm. Land plays a vital role in most of the American novels. The Eastern land which is the place of action in Of the Farm is not the open country of Nebraska or New Mexico. It is the Pennsylvania countryside, which is the setting for the Olinger stories as well.
Of the Farm, presents an action that occurs over a week end in the life of thirty five year old Joey Robinson in the year 1965. Joey Robinson, an advertising consultant visits his widowed mother over a weekend on her Eastern Pennsylvania farm in the company of his recently acquired second wife Peggy and her eleven year old son Richard. The main purpose of the visit is to give Joey’s ailing mother and his new wife a chance to know each other better. But the woven are alternatively hostile and friendly at times.
Joey himself has to tangle not only with the females but also with the ghost of his dead father and his first wife Joan and their three children. The old surroundings and photographs in the farm released Joey’s suppressed feelings of remorse and guilt. Joey mows the overgrown field since his mother has become too old to mow. One Sunday afternoon, the climax takes place when they went to attend the Lutheran Church Service. Mrs. Robinson has a mild heart seizure on the way home but she recovers immediately Joey, Peggy and Richard leave for Newyork as planned inspite of her illness.
Joey’s thoughts irresistibly turn to Newyork, against his mother’s innate passion for the farm. He considers the farm as a trap. Despite his dislike for the farm Joey responds to his participation in nature with the breathlessness of primitive man as seen in the following lines : “ I drank from the tin measuring cup that my mother had carelessly left on the bench one day and that under the consecreation of time had become a fixture there. It’s calibrated sides became at my lips the walls of a cave where my breathe rust led and cold well water swayed. (52).
Mrs. Robin’s great affinity and sacred love for the land helps her to resist the pressures of creeping suburbanism and protect her farm, Mrs. Robinson further explains that all she ever wanted in life were a horse when she was a child, and when she became an adult, her son and her farm/” I’ve really wanted only two – no,three things in my life. The first thing I wanted was a horse, and my father got it for me, and then I couldn’t keep it when we moved away. The next two things I really wanted were my son and my farm, and George let me have both. (27)
According to Mrs. Robinson, both her farm and her son are equals and hence she showers equal love on her son and her farm. In her opinion, living close to the soil and at a distance from other people being able to touch God in Nature is essential to man’s wholeness. She considers life at farm as superior to the life at country side. She says, “living in that air-conditioned city where the season are all the same. Here on my farm every week is different, everyday is a surprise. Birds say different things, and nothing repeats.
Nature never repeats; this August evening has never been before and it will never be again. ” (82). According to her man and soil are closely related and hence refuses to leave the farm because of her wish to become one with earth which never dies. Nature plays a significant role in influencing Mrs. Robinson’s life. The farm becomes an indispensable part of Mrs. Robinson’s life. She strongly condemns Peggy to Joey, who has keen interest in selling the land. Joey did not have any kinship with land like his mother.
The most significant and powerful reminder of his past life in the house is the type of conversation that occur in a weekend : “As primitive worshippers invest the indifferent universe with pointed intensions, so my mother superstitiously read into the animate world, including infants, and dogs, a richness of motive that could hardly be there though like believers everywhere, she had a way of making her environment supply corroboration” (22) Joey’s mother reminisces about the experience that he and his first wife shared on the farm, Mrs. Robinson would leave to her children her faith and devotion to Nature.
She knows that they will not accept that land is the tangible gift of God. Mrs. Robinson emphasizes her affinity towards farm and her ambition about Joey’s life in her own view. He discards his responsibilities to his mother wife and children. He wants to possess his wishes, thus discarding the shackles of the past with which his mother tries to bind him. Joey’s communion with nature is transformed into communion with his wife. He considers the farm as a trap and menace to his marriage.
He also appreciates the farm as a symbol of his mother’s freedom that she has given him. Joey reflects his passion towards his wife in terms of possession of earth. According to him, Peggy brings joy to his existence on the farm. ” Surveyed from above, gives an impression of terrain, of a wealth whose ownership imposes upon my own body a sweet strain of extension; she yields a variety of landscapers (39). Joey’s communion with nature which transforms into communion with Peggy is well said in the following lines : “Black – eyed Susans, daisy fleabane…. ach flower of which was like a tiny dancer leaping, legs together scudded past the tractor wheels stretched scatterings of flowers moved in a piece, like the heavens, constellated by my wheels revolution, and lay as drying fodder on my left… The Tractor body was flecked with foam and I, rocked back and forth on the iron seat shaped like a woman’s hips, alone in nature as hidden under the glaring sky as at midnight. ” (47) He identified Peggy with a field. He is unable to harmonize his newly found love for the farm with his love for Peggy.
Joey expresses his inability in the following words : “I think of myself as a Weakness” (49). When Mr. Robinson expresses his innate love and affection towards Richard, she disregards his advice to train him to help her in the farm. She dislikes Richard to become another Joey. He realizes that he will be unable to harmonize his new love for farm with his love for Peggy. “I knew it was by accident that she had come between me and my momentary vision of the farm as mine in the fall, the warmth of its leaves and the retreats of its fields and the kind infinity of its twigs…
But my failure to be able to see both her and the farm at once seemed somehow a failure of hers, a rigidity that I lived with resentfully in virtual silence. ” (p124). Updike has depicted the old generation of America through Mrs. Robinson recording to her, living close to soil means living close to God through which one can see the pastoral feeling. This idea gets vanished in the new generation like Joey who represents younger generation without any pastoral feeding. They were ready to sell the farm to real estate developers for the sake of material possession.
Updike reflects the prototype of American citizen who wishes to do whatever they please in the name of freedom, by discarding their responsibilities and by exploiting even intimate human relationships. Each character like the common run of relationships. Each character like the common run of American masses develops passion for personal fulfillment in the name of freedom. They do not have any binding with soil or nature. Joey represents self indulgent new generation of America. On the other hand, Mrs. Robinson represents old generation and her deep pastoral love for her farm.
The sexual chord of woman and land is echoed throughout the novel and appears in the analogy of women and land. The analogy runs along the closely related lines of sexuality, fertility and security. The woman is always Peggy and the land is always the old paternal farm property. Updike has lived in New England, where most of his fiction is set, and in Massachusetts – about twenty miles from Boston. Updike portrays different kinds of people, their reaction and interaction in society. While some are caught up in allurements of the world, there are a few who occasionally think of the moral code essential to life.
Thoreau’s Walden describes not about woods on rocks, instead it describes about the way he survived in the woods. Likewise, mother character in Of the Farm clings to the land, to the soil and not to the nature or to the beauty of the nature. Environment concerns through fictional experience may be found as well in John Updike’s last Rabbit Angstrom novel, Rabbit at Rest. In Rabbit at Rest, Updike’s lyrical sense of nature seems caught up in commodification of the physical world which has motivated so much contemporary environmental and nature writing.