A Month of Sundays: A Novel by John Updike

By John Updike

During this antic riff on Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, the Reverend Tom Marshfield, a latter-day Arthur Dimmesdale, is shipped west from his Midwestern parish in sexual shame. At a barren region retreat devoted to relaxation, activity, and non secular renewal, this fortyish serial fornicator is needed to maintain a magazine whose thirty-one weekly entries represent the publication you currently carry on your hand. In his splendidly overwrought sort he lays naked his soul and his past--his marriage to the daughter of his ethics professor, his affair together with his organist, his antipathetic conversations together with his senile father and his bisexual curate, his golfing ratings, his poker fingers, his Biblical exegeses, and his smoldering hope for the directress of the retreat, the impregnable Ms. Prynne. A testomony for our times.

From the alternate Paperback edition.

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Can you cipher? YOUNG IRELAND (very quickly). Wha’at’s that? INIMITABLE. Can you make figures? YOUNG IRELAND. I can make a nought, which is not asy, being roond. INIMITABLE. I say, old boy, wasn’t it you I saw on Sunday morning in the hall, in a soldier’s cap? You know—in a soldier’s cap? YOUNG IRELAND (cogitating deeply). Was it a very good cap? INIMITABLE. Yes. YOUNG IRELAND. Did it fit uncommon? INIMITABLE. Yes. YOUNG IRELAND. Dat was me! Commentary from Dickens is much slighter here than in the President Tyler account: just a few stage directions.

The transformation of Mr Pickwick himself, from an arrogant and naive pedant into a more reflective and humble old gentleman, was seen by some as having been poorly managed and unconvincing, so much so that Dickens took occasion, in his Preface for the Cheap Edition of the novel (1847), to defend his handling of these changes in one of his most famous characters. Wit or Humour? Dickens also achieved another major success. For numbers of readers he had managed to reconcile different styles of comic writing: ‘he was both witty and humorous, a combination rarely met with’.

H. Horne, in his essay on Dickens in A New Spirit of the Age (1844), claimed Dickens’s works ‘furnish a constant commentary on the distinction between wit and humour; for of 20 Dickensian Laughter sheer wit, either in remark or repartee, there is scarcely an instance in any of his volumes, while of humour there is a fullness and gusto in every page, which would be searched for in vain to such an extent, among other authors’. However, Horne’s famous Spirit of the Age precursor, William Hazlitt, had in 1819 defined wit in terms that could well include Dickens’s distinctive comic gifts: ‘the favourite employment of wit is to add littleness to littleness, and heap contempt on insignificance [.

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