Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 844
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 satisfactory vocation. Even after the Great Depression cripples the nation in 1929, Teddy continues to deliver the mail faithfully, and a year later, he and Emily have a child, whom they name Esther.
Although, as a young girl, she goes to church with her mother and grandmother, Esther stops attending a year or two after her confirmation. Like her grandfather Clarence, she develops a love for movies, but unlike the older generations, she employs her sexuality for self-promotion. As second runner-up in the Miss Delaware Peach competition of 1947, she catches the attention of an amateur photographer and, with his help, eventually moves to New York to pursue a modeling career. Soon discovering her abilities as an actress, Esther changers her name to “Alma DeMott” and travels to Los Angeles to work for a major motion-picture studio. For the next forty years, she appears in a variety of films and musicals, and at the height of her career, she becomes the sexual icon of her generation. Nevertheless, stardom has its disadvantages. Involved in numerous love affairs and several failed marriages, she largely ignores her family and neglects her only son, Clark. As the years pass, she has trouble finding employment in the film industry but refuses to retire. Subsequently, her popularity wanes as a younger generation of actors takes her place.
Clark, meanwhile, begins life amiss. With an absent father and an uninvolved mother, he lacks any sort of parental guidance. Born in Los Angeles in 1959 and growing up during the 1960’s and 1970’s, he spends his teenage years drinking and doing drugs before moving to Colorado in the early 1980’s to work for his great-uncle Jared, owner of the Bighorn ski resort. The new job, however, does not solve any of his problems, and in 1987, he meets Hannah, a sexually aggressive woman who invites him home for the night. Her “home,” though, is the Temple of the True and Actual Faith, a ranch nestled in the Colorado mountains where a charismatic man named Jesse Smith convinces his followers that he is Jesus Christ. Although initially skeptical, Clark finds contentment with these people, and he, too, becomes an avid disciple of Jesse.
As the cultists grow more and more radical, they attract the attention of the local police department. Cooperation soon gives way to violence, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) intervenes, followed by hordes of reporters from all over the nation. From the fall of 1989 to the spring of 1990, a standoff ensues; however, with the police using more and more aggressive tactics, the increasingly paranoid Jesse sets fire to the compound and orders his followers to commit suicide. While Clark obeys most of Jesse’s commands, he will not allow the women and children to be harmed. Killing the cult leader, he enables the others to leave safely; however, he does not survive a violent altercation with a fellow cultist. John Updike’s novel ends when, upon hearing the news of Clark’s death, Alma and an aged Teddy respond apprehensively, disturbed by the events in Colorado and the violence of the new decade.