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A `Scarlet Letter' with neither victim, heroine - nor martyr

S., by John Updike. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 279 pp. $17.95. Prefacing this, his 13th, novel with a pair of quotations from ``The Scarlet Letter,'' John Updike draws attention to the distance the Puritan conscience has traveled since ... when? Hawthorne's day? Or perhaps the 17th century in which Hawthorne set his story of a woman's spiritual triumph over a society that condemns and ostracizes her?

The first quotation is a description of Hester Prynne's radiant darkness and ladylike demeanor, concluding with her virtual apotheosis on her release from prison: ``Those who had ... expected to behold her dimmed ... by a disastrous cloud, were astonished ... to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped.''

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The second quotation shows a woman who has moved beyond passion to the cooler realms of thought, ``standing alone in the world,'' determined to guide and protect her illegitimate daughter: ``The world's law was no law for her mind.''

In some sense, we are asked to consider ``S.'' a modern version (or revision) of ``The Scarlet Letter,'' and Updike's heroine, Sarah Price Worth, as a descendant of Hester Prynne. Both women are handsome, dark, and resourceful, both have daughters named Pearl, both have cold husbands, both fall in love with religious leaders.

But the differences outnumber the similarities. Imprisoned for adultery and made to wear the scarlet letter ``A'' on her clothing, Hester is stigmatized in a manner for which there is no equivalent in American culture today: The only humiliation even roughly comparable these days is poverty, and Sarah, as she ``falls'' from suburban respectability, manages to grab as many of the joint assets as her nimble mind can find ways of grasping. She is definitely not a victim, not a martyr - but also not a heroine.

It is hard to imagine any writer these days endowing a character with Hester's heroic aura. Without the counterweight of rigidly conventional sexual mores, it would seem, the romance of antinomianism grows tawdry. Sarah's pursuit of freedom and fulfillment is but one more ``life style'' amid many: her doctor husband's affairs with nurses, her mother's romance with a retired admiral, her lawyer's decision to come out of the closet. Indeed, beyond making a very obvious point about the cultural differences between the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts and their 20th-century heirs, there seems little reason for invoking the ghosts of Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, Hester, and Hawthorne to preside over a novel that may be better classified as a bravura exercise in impersonation. ``S.,'' telling her own story in a series of letters and taped messages to her husband, mother, daughter, friend, lawyer, hairdresser, dentist, is as much of a parody as another of Updike's charming impersonations, that quintessential New York Jewish novelist Henry Bech. ``S.,'' like ``Bech,'' is a type, mocked by her own words, but mocked with a certain fondness.

Updike's portrait of Sarah is less affectionate and less inventive than his portrait of Bech. Her adventures at the Arhat's Arizona ashram are a compendium of clich'es at least 15 years out of date. (Sarah as a born-again Christian would have been more of a challenge to write - and to read about.) Yet, although Updike's inventiveness is weak, his style - brisk and bright as ever - helps carry the day. The style, in fact, is the chief ``invention'' of this novel, and we hear it throughout in Sarah's voice. Superior, playful, trendy, and almost as cunning at self-deception as at charming, cajoling, and gently bullying everyone else, Sarah's voice is Updike's parody of the modern, intelligent, liberated, upper-middle-class American woman. In mocking this voice, he also borrows it. It has a certain quality he can't help wanting to appropriate: the glint of self-reliance amid dreams of self-transcendence, a core of Yankee pragmatism amid Romantic expansiveness that Hawthorne's contemporary, Emerson, discerned as the ``modern'' legacy of Puritanism.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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