“Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth” (1955)
Reading John Updike’s Complete Stories
This series is a re-reading of John Updike’s short stories in the wake of the publication of “The Collected Early Stories” and “The Collected Later Stories,” the twin-volume set by the Library of America (2013). A comprehensive table of the complete stories with links to each story summary appears below. The commentaries include the Maple and Bech stories, most of which are excluded from the Library of America edition. Contact the editor for questions, debates or corrections. A hyperlinked list of the compete stories appears below.
[“Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth” was written in Oxford in 1955 and published in the April 30, 1955 issue of The New Yorker. It was collected in The Same Door, The Early Stories, and the Library of America’s Collected Early Stories. Read the full story here.]
Mark Prosser is an English teacher of three years who disdains his students (he calls them “animals”) and needs their approval. He’s not brilliant. He’s emotionally closer to the students than to the adult he’s not yet convinced himself to be, as his acts throughout the story, down to the last self-deception, will show. The story is as much about a weak-willed, shallow, a tad creepy teacher as it is about the hothouse atmosphere of a high school classroom where tendrils of emotions, rivalries, deceptions, ridicule and so forth tangle and strain until, at bell time, it all suddenly ends, vanishes, as the line in the Macbeth soliloquy at the heart of the story goes: “Out, out, brief candle!” This is the passage the class is studying:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow!
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death
Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow,
A poor player that struts and frets his hour
Upon the stage, and then is heard no more.
It is a tale, told by an idiot,
Full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing.
Writing in The English Journal in 1972, Ruben Friedman, himself an English teacher, interpreted the story as a study in universal deception, a dog-deceives-dog sort of world where nothing is real, no one is honest, nothing lasts, and none of it is worth a whit anyway. Friedman must not have been a very happy camper. It would take too much effort to be so relentlessly devoted to fraud. The interpretation leaves no room for adolescent idiocy–and the walking shadow of adolescence–though looking at Updike’s work in general, he had little patience for adolescents unless they were tanned, bikini-lined girls with curves enough for a few lines or a tryst, real or imagined.
The teen who has his interest in “Tomorrow,” by way of Mark Prosser, is Gloria. Updike couldn’t decide what last name to give her. In The original, new Yorker version, she is Gloria du Vielle. When the story was collected in The Same Door, she became Gloria Angstrom, taking the name of Harry Angstrom of soon-to-be Rabbit fame. Not wanting to create the sort of concordance Balzac was famous for in the Human Comedy, Updike dropped Angstrom, saving it for his worthier hero, and finally christened her Andrews in later incarnations. Other names are similarly changed: Darryl Young becomes Brute Young. Peter Forrester becomes Peter Forry. In those cases, Updike is taking on the Balzacian habit of mirroring characters’ names with their intended character, as shortcuts for the reader.
The editorial evolution of the key erotic description, setting Gloria as an object of Prosser’s desire, is itself suggestive of Updike’s growing self-assurance beyond the constraints of his editors at the magazine. Or it’s an indication of the 1960s’ rapid shedding of inhibitions, of the zeal to replace the suggestive with the explicit, a movement Updike had so much to do with in American literature. In the New Yorker version, that passage reads:
Perhaps, Mr. Prosser thought, today Gloria du Vieille is wearing the ember-pink angora sweater, which has no sleeves. He was right. A pink patch momentarily showed through the jiggle of arms and shoulders as the final knot of youngsters entered the room.
In the final version, where even the “Mr. Possner” is shed:
Mark wondered if today Gloria Andrews would wear that sweater, an ember-pink angora, with very short sleeves. The virtual sleevlessness was the disturbing factor: the exposure of those two serene arms to the air, white as thighs against the delicate wool.
His guess was correct. A vivid patch flashed through the jiggle of arms and shoulders as the final knot of youngsters entered the room.
Class begins. Prosser picks off students to interpret Shakespeare. He loves his own sarcasm–“he couldn’t help himself”–needling students after each answer, then bouncing off other students’ reactions, like Gloria glaring at him. He also can’t help taint his questions with “his own adolescent premonitions of the terrible truth.” But when he sums up Macbeth’s atmosphere as “poisonous, oppressive,” he’s taking a measure of his classroom’s climate as well. He goes on, taking his cues from Gloria’s reactions. He looks for some redemption in Shakespeare by leaving Macbeth and looking to his latter plays. It’s cheating, but no one in class notices. There’s disruption, sleep, flirting, manipulative admissions of ignorance. “No, sir. I honestly don’t understand the speech. Please, sir, what does it mean?”
Gloria asks a couple of clever questions, including the one no playwright, least of all Racine and Shakespeare, could answer: “[I]sn’t it silly for Macbeth to be talking to himself right in the middle of this war, with his wife just dead, and all?” But then class devolves into a free for all of juvenile questions that Prosser can’t control, and he catches Gloria passing a note, the note, ironic counterpoint to Macbeth’s soliloquy: “Pete–I think you’re wrong about Mr. Prosser. I think he’s wonderful and I get a lot out of his class. He’s heavenly with poetry. I think I love him. I really do love him. So there.” It’s a manipulative, insincere love note to Prosser that Gloria intended to have intercepted. She’s done it in other classes, as the gym teacher will tell Prosser. Prosser is too vain to believe it. He believes her, though he must still discipline her. He lectures her about love, a Stendhal soliloquy, while warning her against putting incriminating words on paper, as if to consecrate her words with an incrimination she does not intend. She tries to tell him that the note, like the ones she had intercepted in other classes, were a set up. He doesn’t listen. “The girl had been almost crying; he was sure of that.”
Oh, the self-delusions. “It is a tale, told by an idiot.” The idiot is Prosser, his self-delusion so willful that it puts in question the story’s point of view. How much of what Prosser has seen and heard is as he saw and heard it?
John Updike: The Complete Stories (Click on Links for Summaries and Analyses)
|Ace In the Hole|
|Friends From Philadelphia|
|A Game of Botticelli|
|Tomorrow and Tomorrow and So Forth|
|Dentistry and Doubt|
|Snowing in Greenwich Village (The Maples)|
|The Kid's Whistling|
|Who Made Yellow Roses Yellow|
|Wife-wooing (The Maples)|
|Giving Blood (The Maples)|
|Twin Beds in Rome (The Maples)|
|The Bulgarian Poetess (Bech)|
|Bech in Rumania|
|Bech Takes Pot Luck|
|Rich in Russia (Bech)|
|Bech Enters Heaven|
|The Gun Shop|
|How to Love America and Leave It at the Same Time|
|Daughter, Last Glimpse Of|