The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

The Reverend Thomas (Tom) Marshfield

The Reverend Thomas (Tom) Marshfield, a forty-one-year-old minister and the narrator. Tormented by questions about his religious belief, his marriage, and his place in life, Tom has been discovered in affairs with parishioners and has been sent for a month to a recovery center for troubled clergy, where he is required to spend each morning writing. Tom, in thirty-one chapters, examines the thoughts and actions that led to his disgrace and recounts his youth as the son of a clergyman; his years at seminary, where he met his wife, Jane; and his affairs with Alicia Crick and Frankie Harlow. True to his profession, he composes each Sunday’s entry as a sermon. Throughout, he is convinced that his writings are being read surreptitiously by the center’s matron, Ms. Prynne, with whom, by the novel’s end, he has a brief affair.

Jane Marshfield

Jane Marshfield, Tom’s wife and the daughter of one of his divinity school professors. Middle-aged and the mother of two sons, she struggles to behave decently and sensitively in an unsatisfying marriage. She and Tom are said to have come to look alike.

Alicia Crick

Alicia Crick, the organist in Tom’s church, in her late twenties, divorced, and the mother of two children. She has an affair with Tom and confesses it to Jane. When Tom fires her, she tells the story of Tom’s many affairs to Gerald Harlow, the...

(The entire section is 596 words.)