Study Guide

In the Beauty of the Lilies

by John Updike

In the Beauty of the Lilies Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In the Beauty of the Lilies is divided into four sections of roughly similar lengths, each named for one of the novel’s central characters. The third-person narrator of each section has a limited point of view: that is, the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of the character for whom the section is named.

The “Clarence” chapter begins in 1910 in Paterson, New Jersey. Mary Pickford, the famous actress, is starring in a film being made nearby. It is a warm day, and Pickford faints on the set. At the same moment, a few miles away, Reverend Clarence Wilmot, a socially secure Presbyterian minister, feels “the last particles of his faith leave him . . . a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward.” Clarence finds himself unable to serve a God in whom he no longer believes. Facing social humiliation and risking the loss of means to support his family, Clarence resigns his ministry. Three years later, the economy of Paterson stymied by labor unrest, Clarence ekes out a living peddling The Popular Encyclopedia door-to-door. In seriously reduced circumstances, Clarence finds comfort where he can: at the movies.

The “Teddy” chapter concerns Clarence’s youngest son, named for President Theodore Roosevelt. Teddy, however, lacks Roosevelt’s virility, his can-do spirit; he is quite happy staying out of harm’s way. After Clarence’s death, Teddy, his mother, and his sister are taken in by relatives in Basingstoke, an isolated northern Delaware town. Teddy, just graduated from high school, sees the move as a step down. The locals are “rubes.” Furthermore, there is the problem of what he should “do.” The son of an educated man, it would not do for Teddy to work in the local bottle-cap factory, and when he announces that he does not want to “sell anything, and I don’t want to teach anything . . . and I...

(The entire section is 774 words.)

In the Beauty of the Lilies Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Deriving its title from the “Battle-Hymn of the Republic,” In the Beauty of the Lilies is a novel that examines the dynamics of faith, family, and freedom in a nation undergoing radical social and cultural change—from women’s suffrage and the Great Depression to World War II and Vietnam. Concurrent with these events, however, is the growth of the entertainment industry—movies and television, in particular. Throughout the turbulent twentieth century, the Wilmot family struggles to survive and thrive amidst the nation’s ever-changing socioeconomic landscape.

Beginning in 1910, in the small town of Paterson, New Jersey, the Reverend Clarence Arthur Wilmot realizes that he no longer believes in God. Although he continues to pastor the Fourth Presbyterian Church for several more years, he cannot overlook the incessant hypocrisy of his sermons, and he eventually leaves the ministry and becomes a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. Troubled by the world around him, he visits the movie theater on a regular basis, comforted by the momentary solace that cinema offers. His family, however, experiences social and financial misfortune due to his disbelief.

It is Theodore, however, a quiet, self-conscious boy and the youngest of the Wilmot children, who suffers the most from his father’s atheism. Named after President Theodore Roosevelt, “Teddy,” as he is called by his family and friends, also experiences a loss of faith. After his father’s death from tuberculosis in 1920, he and his mother move to Basingstoke, Delaware, to live with an aunt. A restless young man, he eventually quits school to work in a local drugstore. While he seems fairly content to do nothing else with his life, Teddy eventually meets Emily Sifford, a shy young girl who cannot walk without a leg brace, and they soon begin a romantic relationship. After an unsuccessful business venture in New York, however, he returns to Basingstoke in 1927 and asks Emily to marry him. Soon afterward, he begins working for the U.S. postal service, and he finally discovers a...

(The entire section is 844 words.)