Places: The Poorhouse Fair

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1959

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social satire

Time of work: Mid-twentieth century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedDiamond County Home for the Aged

Diamond Poorhouse Fair, TheCounty Home for the Aged. Home for elderly people in which the novel is primarily set. A converted mansion that once belonged to a prominent member of the jurisdiction (the local term for county), it has resident rooms, a passageway, and four acres of land that constitute the literal world (or “constricted community”) of its residents. John Updike placed it in New Jersey to avoid a too-specific autobiographical equivalence to the Pennsylvania community on which the community is based, and also because his father’s family was from Trenton, New Jersey, and he wanted to include that aspect of his background in the book. The land surrounding the home is described as “shallowy concave farms,” and the distant horizon dotted with “small hills typical of New Jersey.”

Diamond County

Diamond County. Once-rural region of New Jersey that is being transformed by the forces of the mid-twentieth century that Updike recognizes as inevitable but which he regrets to an extent. John Hook, the central narrative consciousness, remembers how as a boy he could go to the top of a hill and not see a house in any direction, whereas now there does not seem to be any space east of the Alleghenies where a person can stand and not be in hailing distance of a house. This motif is emphasized by Hook’s references to his boyhood, his life work as a teacher in a village school near the river, and the relative isolation of the families there. Especially significant is his view of the state of Pennsylvania across the river, which he once thought of as “westerly wilderness.”

*Delaware River

*Delaware River. River forming part of the New York-New Jersey and New Jersey-Pennsylvania borders. At a later stage of his life, after his retirement but before he moves into the Home, Hook lives with his daughter in a house outside the town beside the Delaware. The river functions in the novel as an emblem of passage and as a barrier that separates and isolates individual communities. Hook recalls that a road passed near the house, and that on a bend in the road, a modest store, little more than a shack, served passing motorists. When the “combine” (a petroleum corporation) closes the store, the older winding road is replaced by an interstate highway; the transition from river to country road to limited-access turnpike signifies the change in the countryside.


Andrews. New Jersey town whose residents visit the Diamond County Home during its the annual fair. There, Updike draws on his detailed sense of Shillington, although his presentation is fragmented so that aspects of the town appear in brief vignettes in accordance with his intention to use some techniques of the “new novel” in The Poorhouse Fair. The perspective shifts, as a boy walking with his grandfather first sees the wall surrounding the home. Hook calls the town a “backwater,” most of whose inhabitants are only a few generations removed from farm owners. People at the fair talk about the past, about roads and schools and old houses that give an impression of the town’s substance and heritage.


Sky. The weather is a noteworthy element of the novel and plays an important part in the ways its characters respond to events of the day. Updike uses reactions to the skyscape as a method to reveal and illuminate character, as in Hook’s observation that the sky is “savage red” in the morning, a portent of the coming storm, his exultation when rain lifts, and the way residents of the home join together in “raucous, cruel exhilaration” when the west wing of their building receives the benefit of the setting sun.

BibliographyDetweiler, Robert. John Updike. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. A study of Updike’s fiction with respect to his narrative art. The chapter on The Poorhouse Fair competently, if briefly, covers the setting, uses of language, character, themes, and philosophy.Greiner, Donald J. John Updike’s Novels. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1984. Greiner has written extensively about Updike. The chapter discussing the origins of The Poorhouse Fair effectively utilizes Updike’s introduction to the revised edition of 1977.Hamilton, Alice, and Kenneth Hamilton. The Elements of John Updike. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970. A detailed discussion of the theological dimensions of The Poorhouse Fair, noting and explaining religious allusions and symbols.Newman, Judie. John Updike. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Compares Couples and The Poorhouse Fair in a chapter that considers both books in the context of the social situation of America. Good on uses of metaphor, concluding with the idea that the novel is “diagnostic” rather than “prescriptive.”Updike, John. Self-Consciousness: Memoirs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989. In the essay “On Being a Self Forever,” Updike discusses his religious position at length, covering many of the issues he examined in The Poorhouse Fair.Vargo, Edward P. Rainstorms and Fire: Ritual in the Novels of John Updike. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1973. The chapter on The Poorhouse Fair emphasizes the use of ritual and celebration as means of expressing a religious vision.
Categories: Places