The Reverend Tom Marshfield’s bold confession of his sexual history reveals an extraordinary sensibility. He details his infidelities candidly, explicating his intimacies in vivid pictures and holding back no secrets about his voyeurism and compulsive masturbation. The story is so complete, the concern so obsessive, that it is natural to look in Tom’s sexual behavior for some deeper significance. Tom gives the answer himself on the first day of his enforced self-scrutinies: “In my diagnosis I suffer from nothing less virulent than the human condition, and so would preach it.” Many readers will resist this view of things, accusing Tom of rationalizing away his lapses into sin and reading Updike’s intention as the deliberate creation of a hypocrite. Yet taking Tom’s declaration at face value contributes to a consistent interpretation, for he becomes a searcher after God whose carnal questing is emblematic of his larger spiritual yearning.
Tom explains that being born a minister’s son made his life “one long glad feast of inconvenience and unreason.” In his father’s house, he says, he learned to read and dream on the parlor sofa, itself “stuffed with the substance of the spirit.” The furniture gave evidence of a “teleologic bias in things,” and it was the furniture, Tom confides, that led him to the ministry. In seminary he read Karl Barth and became a Barthian out of “positive love of Barth’s voice.” Tom is contemptuous of the “fine-fingered finicking” of “doddering Anglican empiricists,” being drawn instead to the excitement of Søren Kierkegaard and Fyodor Dostoevski’s Grand Inquisitor. He exclaims, “Where is the leap! the abyss! the black credibility of the deus absconditus!” For Tom the existentialist, God is...
(The entire section is 724 words.)