Thesis Blog: St. Augustine, Shame, and Ambivalence

Such tragedy in this couple, and somehow, they survive. I am left, far more, with the question of why they return and permit return of the other. While there is clearly a redemptive movement in it, which you have named very well, there seems to be also some shame-lessness in it as well…?

That’s from an assistant instructor last year, after reading my paper on the Angstroms for my counseling Marriage and Family class. As I’m finishing Updike’s A Month of Sundays now, I’m aware of how that theme of shamelessness comes up in all of Updike’s unfaithful characters.

I read once that Rabbit is who Updike would have been had he stayed in Pennsylvania his whole life. I would like to think not, because most of the time Rabbit, and Roger, and the Reverend Thomas Marshfield are all jerks, shamelessly using and betraying women.

I found so much redeemable in Rabbit (“You haven’t given up”) and in Roger (maybe because he had the sexy professor thing going), but I have yet to find anything redeemable in the arrogant, god-less minister, Tom. I swear I’m trying, too.

All this is to say I’m finding another theme in the Updike books I’ve read: shame, or a lack thereof. When these characters sleep with their secretaries or nieces or friends or daughters-in-law, their concern is hardly for the wives they’re betraying. Their concern is not for how they’re hurting the women they’re with either. (There are no marriage vows.)


The answer, I think, can be found at least in part in Updike’s magnificent short story, “Augustine’s Concubine.” In this story, Updike fills in the gaps of the fourth century saint’s rendezvous with an unnamed concubine. Updike pulls sections from Confessions, interweaving bits of a modern retelling. In the end, he gives credit to this concubine, calling her a saint, for without her, Augustine would have never introduced the world to the hatred of the flesh.

Though illiterate, she drew to herself, from these her sisters–the maimed and fanatic and shy–authority. … It was her dynamic and egocentric lover [Augustine], whom she had never failed to satisfy, in his rejection of her had himself failed, and had been himself rejected, even as his verbal storms swept the Mediterranean and transformed the world.

She was a saint, whose name we do not know. For a thousand years, men would endeavor to hate the flesh, because of her. (p.140)

A few things emerge when I read that. One, I think it explains why Updike’s characters commit so many adulterous acts: it gives them permission to separate the mind from the body.* Reverend Thomas Marshfield can be a minister in his heart and intellect, despite what his body is doing (fucking all the women in his church). Roger’s sleeping with his half-niece didn’t affect how well he taught his theology classes or how eloquently he proved Dale wrong in their debates.

This story also puts all the real blame on women. I recently read an essay by Updike on the female body and how so many of his readers consider him a chauvinist like his characters. Women are there to screw. Women are named by their body parts, rather than their names.

All of this, I think, leads to his characters’ ambivalence toward each other. If acts of the body are separated from the rest of a person (their heart, soul, mind), then the character can believe he is still loving someone even though his body is suggesting something different. In an early chapter of A Month of Sundays, Tom preaches about how adultery “is our inherent condition” and “is not a choice to be avoided” but “a circumstance to be embraced” (p. 56). Adultery is a way to save the soul from the body, a “swamp” (p. 57). So therefore, adultery is helping a man’s relationship with his wife. His body is cared for by another woman, and his soul is renewed.

And if these male characters have “successfully” separated their minds and bodies, found a way to blame their women for their own behavior, and feel ambivalence, not love, toward their wives — then why should they feel any shame for their behavior?


So far, those are the connections I’ve made. I feel as though they all fit together–Updike’s fascination with Augustine’s views of the body, his characters’ shamelessness, his characters’ ambivalence toward women. Then there’s Updike’s insistence that Jesus came as a human, in flesh and blood. How does that fit into this all?


*Augustine, if you remember, was the one who suggested that all sin transferred parent to child through sex (i.e. semen). The body housed all sorts of gross, sinful things.

About Lauren Sawyer

I am an assistant instructor at a graduate school in Seattle, Washington, and I hold a master of the arts in theology and culture. I love coffee, rainy days, and John Updike. Learn more about me at