Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430
The unnamed narrator lives with his uncle, the proprietor of a small furniture-manufacturing business, in an English county market town. The uncle is a prominent lay member of the small Church of the Last Purification, of Toronto, Canada. The Purifiers believe that God created everything; that God, being good, could not have made evil; and that what appears to be evil is an illusion. “Don’t let Error in” is a favorite slogan of the Purifiers: Do not believe in the reality of disease, misfortune, or death, for they are no more than illusions. Membership in the Purifiers brings scorn and persecution from its adherents’ neighbors, but it also gives them the exhilaration of knowing that they alone know the Truth.
The narrator begins to doubt the Truth. If evil is an illusion, where did the illusion come from? He talks to his uncle, who simply repeats the Purifiers’ stock phrases. At this juncture, the Reverend Hubert Timberlake, a leading minister from the Purification Church’s headquarters in Toronto, comes to town. After giving an address on Sunday morning, he spends the afternoon with the narrator’s family. Timberlake, who has been told of the narrator’s wavering faith, proposes that the two of them go punting on the river after dinner. Timberlake insists on poling the punt, to show that he understands young people and that he is a regular guy.
All goes well until Timberlake, lecturing on how Error makes people dwell on sorrow, ignores the narrator’s advice about the river’s current and poles the punt through some willow trees. A tree branch catches him in the chest, lifts him off the punt, and leaves him clinging a yard above the water. Slowly, slowly he dips into the water; as he makes a futile reach for a higher branch, his shirt pulls out of his trousers, exposing flesh like a fatal flaw in a statue. At that instant, the narrator realizes that Timberlake does not have the answer to the question of the origin of evil, and that nobody has the final revelation about the meaning of life.
The narrator struggles to get Timberlake back into the boat. Concerned that the minister might catch cold, he suggests returning home, but Timberlake insists on proceeding, all the while pretending that nothing has happened. When they return to the uncle’s house, Timberlake refuses either to change clothes or to sit by the fire. Sixteen years later, the narrator learns that Reverend Timberlake, who had become fat and jowly, died of heart disease at the age of fifty-seven.