Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Updike often develops his novels around an ethical dilemma without offering a solution, and as a result his world appears morally ambiguous. Tom Marshfield’s predicament catches him torn between the expectations of the culture that produced him and the inexplicable urges of the self. What must a man do in such a situation? No easy answer is at hand, but the hard answer is that nothing can be done but endure, for that is man’s ineluctable condition. Such a position accords exactly with Barth’s early conviction that moral questions are unanswerable. Tom does not whine about his condition; his flippancy and punning gloss over the pain that he must feel. The total inaccessibility of God is fundamental to Barth’s thought, as it is to Tom Marshfield’s and John Updike’s. Hence, perhaps, the special pathos of Updike/Marshfield’s closing paragraph when Tom wrestles with the meaning of “this human contact, this blank-browed thing we do for one another.”

The names Prynne and Chillingworth (Jane’s maiden name) point A Month of Sundays toward The Scarlet Letter—and Nathaniel Hawthorne himself took these names from seventeenth century divines—but probably no very explicit connection should be declared between the two novels. As a literary theme, adultery by definition must spell friction between civilization and nature (the self), and certain parallels between the two novels can be drawn along those lines. Although Hawthorne might not have recoiled from the identification of erotic with spiritual satisfaction, however, he would have cloaked it in a vast and forbidding allegory.