A Month of Sundays Summary
by John Updike

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A Month of Sundays 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 between his wife, Jane, and Ned Bork, his young assistant minister: “I did not, even in my lovelorn madness, imagine that she and Ned would marry; but perhaps they would clasp long enough to permit me to slip out the door with only one bulky armload of guilt.” Nothing happens between Ned and Jane, however, and Tom sinks to the humiliating behavior of a Peeping Tom who spies on Ned and Alicia. Tom is distracted from his jealousy by an affair with Frankie Harlow, but her faith and his anger combine to unman him, and when the scorned Alicia betrays Tom to Frankie Harlow’s husband, he then receives his orders from the bishop to report to Ms. Prynne’s rest home for delinquent clerics.

Besides this account of his sexual careering, Tom also writes of his sad relationship with his seventy-seven-year-old father, who broods his life away in a senile rage at ghosts from his past and does not recognize his son. Tom’s friendships with his fellow sinners under Ms. Prynne’s care center on their golf and poker games, minor strands in the total narrative.

Tom lards his thirty-one-day assignment heavily with theological speculations. His father and Ned are both doctrinal liberals, whereas Tom is a conservative who takes it hard that “the androgynous homogenizing liberals of the world are in charge.” He tells Ned, “All I know is that when I read Tillich and Bultmann I’m drowning. Reading Karl Barth gives me air I can breathe.” These preferences translate into a choice of faith over good works and a suspicion of all versions of Utilitarianism. Tom’s intransigence in the face of liberal social policies appears in his conviction that “most of what we have is given, not acquired; a gracious acceptance is our task, and a half-conscious following-out of the veins of the circumambient lode.”

As Tom writes on, morning after morning, he begins to be conscious of Ms. Prynne, hoping to get her attention. He leaves each day’s ad libidum offering on the dresser top where she can read it, and he importunes her to grant him a sign. By the twenty-ninth day he is pleading with her, on the...

(The entire section is 999 words.)