Study Guide

A Month of Sundays

by John Updike

A Month of Sundays Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

A Month of Sundays takes its title from the thirty-one days the Reverend Tom Marshfield is ordered to spend in enforced rest and recreation in a motel retreat somewhere in the Southwestern United States. He is on a strict schedule, enforced by Ms. Prynne, the tight-lipped manager, requiring a full morning of writing to be followed by games in the afternoons and evenings. Thus, A Month of Sundays is divided into thirty-one sections, each one representing a morning’s prose, and together they make up an autobiographical sketch of Tom Marshfield in prose that swoops and veers.

All of Tom’s life has been lived in a context of church work and the ministry. He is the son of a pastor, and he grew up in a parsonage, went to a theological seminary, and married the daughter of his ethics professor. He is not, however, comfortable and at ease in his faith; as a parson, he is, in his own words, “not a hunting one, but a hunted.” Tom’s organist, Alicia Crick, tells him that he is the “angriest sane man” she has ever met—her prompt diagnosis is a bad marriage—and that although he is a married man he still burns. His answer is immediate: “She was right.” From that point on—the time is early in Lent—their affair is fated, and they go to bed together for the first time soon after Easter.

Tom and Alicia’s sexual rage for each other consumes them. Tom explains, “At last I confronted as in an ecstatic mirror my own sexual demon.” The inevitable result is Alicia’s wish to have Tom all to herself, his refusal to leave his family and the ministry, and the collapse of their affair with much bitterness on Alicia’s part. During his passion for Alicia, Tom had tried to encourage as subtly as he could a romantic relationship...

(The entire section is 726 words.)

A Month of Sundays Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

McTavish, J. “John Updike and the Funny Theologian.” Theology Today 48 (January, 1992): 413-425. McTavish examines the influences and connections that European theologian Karl Barth had on Updike’s work. He explores the religious crisis that Updike experienced in his early life, Updike’s love for Barth as reflected in the characters in A Month of Sundays, and Barth’s views concerning the responsibilities of men toward women.

Schiff, James A. John Updike Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1998. Schiff endeavors to understand Updike’s entire body of work, putting individual works in context for the reader. Schiff provides commentary on works that have largely been ignored by the public, as well as books that have received little critical attention.

Schiff, James A. “Updike’s Scarlet Letter Trilogy: Recasting an American Myth.” Studies in American Fiction 20 (Spring, 1992): 17-31. Schiff explores Updike’s portrayal of renewal as an American quest that can be achieved through the joining of body and soul, as well as Updike’s disputation of Hawthorne’s Puritan ethic.

Schiff, James A. Updike’s Version: Rewriting the Scarlet Letter. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992. Schiff provides an in-depth analysis of Updike’s Scarlet Letter trilogy, including A Month of Sundays. Schiff explores the themes of adultery and divided selves as reflected in Hawthorne’s classic and shows how Updike satirizes and expands the focus of Hawthorne’s novel.

Updike, John, and James Plath, ed. Conversations with John Updike. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1994. A collection of interviews given by Updike between 1959 and 1993. A revealing portrait of Updike’s background and personality; his views on life, sex, politics, and religion; and his evolution as a writer.