Skip to content
Exploring John Updike’s ‘Bech: A Book (1970)’: A Comprehensive Summary

Exploring John Updike’s ‘Bech: A Book (1970)’: A Comprehensive Summary

John Updike is one of the most celebrated American writers of the 20th century. His novel ‘Bech: A Book’, published in 1970, is a satirical exploration of the literary world and the life of a writer. In this article, we will provide a comprehensive summary of ‘Bech: A Book’, delving into the themes, characters, and plot of this classic work of fiction.

Background Information

John Updike’s ‘Bech: A Book (1970)’ is a satirical novel that explores the life of Henry Bech, a Jewish-American writer who is struggling to find his place in the literary world. The novel is divided into six chapters, each of which focuses on a different period in Bech’s life. Throughout the novel, Updike uses Bech’s experiences to comment on the state of American literature and the role of the writer in society. The novel was well-received upon its publication and is considered one of Updike’s most important works.

Plot Overview

In “Bech: A Book (1970),” John Updike tells the story of Henry Bech, a Jewish-American writer who struggles to find his place in the literary world. The novel is divided into three parts, each of which follows Bech’s adventures in different parts of the world. In the first part, Bech travels to Israel to receive a literary award and finds himself caught up in the politics of the region. In the second part, he goes to Italy to research a book on Casanova and becomes embroiled in a love triangle. In the final part, Bech returns to America and tries to write a novel while dealing with the pressures of fame and the expectations of his readers. Throughout the novel, Updike explores themes of identity, creativity, and the relationship between art and politics.

Main Characters

The main character of John Updike’s ‘Bech: A Book (1970)’ is Henry Bech, a Jewish-American writer who is struggling to find success in his career. Bech is a complex character, with a mixture of arrogance and self-doubt that makes him both relatable and frustrating to readers. Throughout the novel, Bech travels to various countries, attends literary conferences, and interacts with other writers, all while trying to navigate his own personal and professional struggles. Despite his flaws, Bech is a compelling protagonist who keeps readers engaged throughout the novel.


One of the major themes in John Updike’s ‘Bech: A Book (1970)’ is the struggle of the artist to balance his creative pursuits with the demands of everyday life. Bech, the protagonist, is a successful writer who is constantly torn between his desire to create and his obligations to his family, friends, and publishers. This tension is reflected in the novel’s structure, which alternates between Bech’s personal life and his writing career.

Another important theme in the novel is the relationship between the artist and society. Bech is often at odds with the literary establishment, which he sees as elitist and out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people. He is also critical of the commercialization of literature, which he believes has led to a decline in the quality of writing.

Finally, ‘Bech: A Book (1970)’ explores the nature of creativity itself. Bech is a writer who is constantly searching for inspiration and struggling to find his voice. He is haunted by the fear that he will never be able to write anything truly great, and this anxiety drives much of his behavior throughout the novel.

Overall, ‘Bech: A Book (1970)’ is a complex and thought-provoking exploration of the creative process and the challenges faced by artists in modern society.

Symbolism and Imagery

Symbolism and Imagery play a significant role in John Updike’s ‘Bech: A Book (1970)’. The novel is filled with various symbols and images that help to convey the themes and ideas explored in the book. One of the most prominent symbols in the novel is the character of Henry Bech himself. Bech is a symbol of the American writer, and his struggles and successes represent the struggles and successes of American literature. The novel also makes use of various images, such as the image of the beach, which represents the passage of time and the inevitability of change. The use of symbolism and imagery in ‘Bech: A Book (1970)’ adds depth and complexity to the novel, making it a rich and rewarding read for those who are interested in exploring the themes and ideas that Updike explores in his work.

Writing Style

John Updike’s writing style in “Bech: A Book (1970)” is characterized by his use of vivid imagery and descriptive language. Updike’s prose is often poetic, with a focus on sensory details that bring the world of his characters to life. He also employs a wry sense of humor throughout the novel, using irony and satire to comment on the literary world and the human condition. Updike’s writing is both elegant and accessible, making “Bech: A Book” a pleasure to read for both casual readers and literary scholars alike.

Critical Reception

John Updike’s “Bech: A Book” received mixed reviews upon its release in 1970. Some critics praised Updike’s witty and satirical portrayal of the literary world, while others found the novel to be self-indulgent and lacking in substance.

In a review for The New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote that “Bech: A Book” was “a brilliant and hilarious satire of the literary world.” He praised Updike’s ability to capture the absurdity of the publishing industry and the egos of writers. However, Lehmann-Haupt also noted that the novel lacked a clear plot and that the character of Henry Bech was not particularly likable.

Other critics were less enthusiastic about the novel. In a review for The Atlantic, John W. Aldridge criticized Updike for being too self-referential and for relying too heavily on his own experiences as a writer. Aldridge wrote that “Bech: A Book” was “a book about Updike, by Updike, for Updike.” He also criticized the novel’s lack of a coherent narrative and its reliance on “cleverness” rather than substance.

Despite these criticisms, “Bech: A Book” has endured as a classic of American literature. Its portrayal of the literary world and its exploration of the creative process continue to resonate with readers and writers alike.

Historical Context

John Updike’s ‘Bech: A Book (1970)’ was published during a time of great social and political change in the United States. The 1960s were marked by the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, and the rise of the counterculture. These events had a profound impact on American society and culture, and they are reflected in Updike’s novel.

The protagonist of the novel, Henry Bech, is a Jewish-American writer who struggles with his identity and his place in the literary world. This theme of identity is one that was particularly relevant during the 1960s, as many marginalized groups were fighting for recognition and equality.

Additionally, the novel’s exploration of sexuality and relationships reflects the changing attitudes towards these topics during the 1960s. The sexual revolution was in full swing, and traditional gender roles and expectations were being challenged.

Overall, ‘Bech: A Book’ can be seen as a product of its time, reflecting the social and cultural changes that were taking place in the United States during the 1960s.

Updike’s Influences

John Updike’s writing style and themes were heavily influenced by his upbringing in small-town Pennsylvania and his education at Harvard University. However, he also drew inspiration from other writers and artists. One of his biggest influences was the American novelist and short story writer, Ernest Hemingway. Updike admired Hemingway’s concise and direct writing style, which he emulated in his own work. Another major influence was the poet Wallace Stevens, whose use of language and imagery inspired Updike’s own poetic prose. Additionally, Updike was influenced by the visual arts, particularly the work of the American painter Edward Hopper. Hopper’s depictions of everyday life and urban landscapes resonated with Updike’s own interest in exploring the complexities of modern American society. Overall, Updike’s diverse range of influences helped shape his unique voice and perspective as a writer.

Comparisons to Other Works

In comparison to other works by John Updike, “Bech: A Book” stands out as a unique exploration of the writer’s own experiences and struggles. While Updike’s other works often focus on the lives of suburban families and their relationships, “Bech” delves into the world of a struggling writer and his attempts to find success and love. The novel’s satirical tone and witty humor also set it apart from Updike’s more serious works, such as “Rabbit, Run” and “The Centaur.” Despite these differences, “Bech” still showcases Updike’s masterful prose and ability to capture the complexities of human relationships.

Analysis of Bech’s Character

Bech, the protagonist of John Updike’s “Bech: A Book (1970),” is a complex character that requires careful analysis. At first glance, Bech appears to be a self-absorbed and cynical writer who is more concerned with his own success than with the quality of his work. However, as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that there is more to Bech than meets the eye.

One of the most striking aspects of Bech’s character is his ambivalence towards his Jewish identity. On the one hand, Bech is proud of his heritage and often draws on Jewish themes and motifs in his writing. On the other hand, he is also deeply conflicted about what it means to be Jewish in a predominantly non-Jewish world. This tension is exemplified in Bech’s relationship with his ex-wife, who accuses him of being a “self-hating Jew.”

Another key aspect of Bech’s character is his relationship with women. Throughout the novel, Bech is portrayed as a womanizer who is constantly on the lookout for his next conquest. However, it is also clear that Bech is deeply insecure about his own masculinity and often feels emasculated by the women he pursues. This is particularly evident in his relationship with the French writer, Madame Seraskier, who dominates and humiliates him both sexually and intellectually.

Overall, Bech is a complex and multifaceted character who defies easy categorization. While he can be selfish and cynical at times, he is also capable of great sensitivity and insight. Ultimately, it is this complexity that makes Bech such a compelling and memorable character.

Exploration of Bech’s Relationships

Bech’s relationships are a significant aspect of John Updike’s novel, “Bech: A Book (1970).” The protagonist, Henry Bech, is a writer who struggles with his personal relationships throughout the book. Bech’s relationships with women are particularly complex, as he often finds himself torn between his desire for intimacy and his fear of commitment.

One of Bech’s most significant relationships is with his ex-wife, Paula. Despite their divorce, Bech still harbors feelings for Paula and often reflects on their past together. However, their relationship is strained, and they struggle to communicate effectively.

Bech’s relationships with other women are equally complicated. He has affairs with several women throughout the book, but these relationships are often short-lived and unsatisfying. Bech’s fear of commitment and his desire for independence make it difficult for him to form lasting connections with women.

Overall, Bech’s relationships are a central theme in Updike’s novel. Through Bech’s struggles with intimacy and commitment, Updike explores the complexities of human relationships and the challenges of maintaining meaningful connections with others.

Bech’s Struggle with Writer’s Block

Bech, the protagonist of John Updike’s “Bech: A Book (1970),” is a struggling writer who is constantly battling with writer’s block. Throughout the novel, Bech is shown to be a talented writer, but he is unable to produce any meaningful work due to his creative block. This struggle with writer’s block is a central theme of the novel and is explored in great detail.

One of the reasons for Bech’s writer’s block is his fear of failure. He is afraid that he will not be able to live up to the expectations of his readers and critics. This fear paralyzes him and prevents him from writing anything at all. Bech is also plagued by self-doubt, which further exacerbates his writer’s block. He constantly questions his abilities as a writer and wonders if he is truly talented or if he has just been lucky so far.

Another factor that contributes to Bech’s writer’s block is his personal life. He is going through a difficult time in his marriage and is struggling to come to terms with his own mortality. These personal issues weigh heavily on him and make it difficult for him to focus on his writing.

Despite his struggles, Bech is determined to overcome his writer’s block. He tries various techniques to get his creative juices flowing, such as taking long walks, reading other writers, and even seeking the help of a therapist. However, none of these methods seem to work, and Bech remains stuck in his creative rut.

Overall, Bech’s struggle with writer’s block is a poignant and relatable theme that many writers can identify with. Updike’s portrayal of Bech’s creative struggles is both honest and insightful, and it adds depth and complexity to the character.

Sexuality in Bech: A Book

Sexuality plays a significant role in John Updike’s “Bech: A Book.” The novel follows the life of Henry Bech, a Jewish-American writer, as he navigates his career and personal relationships. Throughout the book, Bech engages in various sexual encounters with women, often using them as inspiration for his writing. However, his relationships are often shallow and fleeting, leaving him feeling unfulfilled.

One of the most notable sexual encounters in the book is Bech’s affair with a married woman named Rosalie. Their relationship is passionate and intense, but ultimately ends in heartbreak when Rosalie chooses to stay with her husband. Bech’s experiences with women highlight the complexities of human desire and the ways in which sexuality can both inspire and hinder creativity.

Overall, Updike’s portrayal of sexuality in “Bech: A Book” is nuanced and thought-provoking. The novel challenges traditional notions of love and relationships, and offers a unique perspective on the role of sexuality in the creative process.

Exploration of Jewish Identity

In John Updike’s ‘Bech: A Book (1970)’, the exploration of Jewish identity is a prominent theme throughout the novel. The protagonist, Henry Bech, is a Jewish writer who struggles with his identity and the expectations placed upon him by both the Jewish community and the literary world. Throughout the novel, Bech grapples with questions of authenticity and representation, as he navigates his own Jewishness and the ways in which it is perceived by others. Updike’s portrayal of Bech’s journey towards self-discovery and acceptance offers a nuanced and complex exploration of Jewish identity, one that is both personal and universal in its themes and implications.

Bech’s Views on Society and Culture

Bech’s views on society and culture are complex and multifaceted. On the one hand, he is deeply critical of the superficiality and materialism of American culture, which he sees as a symptom of a broader malaise in Western society. He is particularly scathing about the way in which the media and advertising industries manipulate people’s desires and aspirations, creating a culture of consumerism that is both shallow and destructive. At the same time, however, Bech is also deeply committed to the idea of individual freedom and creativity, and he sees art as a means of transcending the limitations of society and culture. He is a passionate advocate for the power of literature to challenge and subvert dominant ideologies, and he believes that writers have a responsibility to use their talents to expose the hypocrisies and injustices of the world around them. Ultimately, Bech’s views on society and culture are shaped by his belief in the transformative power of art, and his conviction that literature has the potential to change the world for the better.

Bech’s Journey of Self-Discovery

Bech’s journey of self-discovery is a central theme in John Updike’s novel, “Bech: A Book (1970).” The protagonist, Henry Bech, is a Jewish-American writer who struggles with his identity and place in the literary world. Throughout the novel, Bech travels to various countries, attends literary conferences, and interacts with other writers, all in an attempt to find himself and his voice as a writer.

One of the key moments in Bech’s journey of self-discovery is when he visits Israel. As a Jewish-American, Bech feels a connection to Israel and its people, but he also feels like an outsider. He struggles to reconcile his identity as a Jew with his identity as an American writer. This conflict is further complicated by the fact that Bech is not religious and does not speak Hebrew.

Another important moment in Bech’s journey is when he attends a literary conference in Russia. Here, Bech is confronted with the reality of life under Soviet communism and the limitations placed on writers. He also meets a fellow writer, a Russian dissident, who inspires him to be more politically engaged in his writing.

Overall, Bech’s journey of self-discovery is a complex and multifaceted one. Through his travels and interactions with other writers, Bech learns more about himself and his place in the world. He also comes to understand the power and responsibility of the writer to engage with the world around them.

Exploration of the Creative Process

The creative process is a mysterious and often elusive concept that has fascinated artists and scholars for centuries. It is the process by which an artist takes an idea and transforms it into a work of art, whether it be a painting, a novel, or a piece of music. In the case of John Updike’s ‘Bech: A Book (1970)’, the creative process is explored in depth, as the novel follows the life of a struggling writer named Henry Bech as he navigates the ups and downs of the literary world.

Throughout the novel, Updike delves into the various stages of the creative process, from the initial spark of inspiration to the final product. He explores the challenges that writers face in bringing their ideas to life, including writer’s block, self-doubt, and the pressure to produce something that will be well-received by critics and readers alike.

One of the most interesting aspects of Updike’s exploration of the creative process in ‘Bech: A Book (1970)’ is his portrayal of the relationship between the artist and his work. Bech is a character who is deeply invested in his writing, and he often sees his work as an extension of himself. This is a common theme in the creative process, as many artists feel a deep connection to their work and see it as a reflection of their innermost thoughts and feelings.

Overall, Updike’s exploration of the creative process in ‘Bech: A Book (1970)’ is a fascinating look at the challenges and rewards of the artistic journey. Whether you are a writer, painter, musician, or any other type of artist, this novel is sure to resonate with you and provide valuable insights into the creative process.

Analysis of Updike’s Use of Humor

Updike’s use of humor in “Bech: A Book” is a key element in the novel’s success. The humor is often subtle and understated, but it serves to lighten the mood and provide a sense of levity to the otherwise serious subject matter. One example of this is the character of Bech himself, who is often portrayed as bumbling and inept, but ultimately endearing. Another example is the use of wordplay and puns throughout the novel, which add a playful and whimsical tone to the narrative. Overall, Updike’s use of humor is an effective tool for engaging the reader and keeping the story from becoming too heavy or overwhelming.