The Poorhouse Fair Summary
by John Updike

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The Poorhouse Fair Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

At the Diamond County Home for the Aged it is the day of the annual fair, when the elderly men and women set up stands and sell such homemade products as quilts, candy, and peach-stone carvings to visitors from nearby communities. This year, the great day gets off to a bad start. Two of the home’s residents, or inmates—John Hook, a ninety-four-year-old former schoolteacher, and Billy Gregg, a seventy-year-old retired electrician—discover that the home’s porch chairs have had name tags attached, and hereafter each inmate is to occupy only the chair assigned to him or her. This latest action by Mr. Conner, the prefect of the institution, provides an opportunity for protest.

Misunderstandings and misadventures add to Conner’s burden of do-gooding humanitarianism. When Gregg introduces a diseased stray cat onto the grounds, Conner orders Buddy, the prefect’s adoring assistant, to shoot the animal. Ted, a teenage truck driver, knocks down part of a stone wall while delivering cases of Pepsi-Cola for the fair. A pet parakeet belonging to Martha Lucas, the wife of George Lucas, a former real estate salesman, gets loose in the infirmary. When rain threatens to ruin the fair, the inmates take refuge in the community sitting room, where Hook and Conner argue the ideals of an older America of faith and idealism against the theories of scientific determinism and social perfectibility.

Hook, a gentle, meditative man, looks back to the days of William Howard Taft, a period when Americans had greater political freedom (despite economic uncertainty), pride of craftsmanship, and, in times of private or public calamity, trust in God. Filled with that sense of satisfaction that is time’s final gift to the old, he has faith in the possible virtue of humanity. Hook believes that this quality of virtue redeems the human animal’s capacity for folly and evil because such virtue brings humanity close to the idea of God.

In contrast, in Conner’s brave new world there is no more place for God than there is for error. Fanatical in his belief in progress,...

(The entire section is 537 words.)